Mandela, Ireland and me

The former South African ambassador to Ireland, now living in her home country, reflects on the death of Nelson Mandela and recalls his 2003 visit here

“Nicer than the Terminator”: Nelson Mandela with Melanie Verwoerd (right) and Mary Davis in Dublin for the Special Olympics. Photograph courtesy of Robbie Fry

There is an incredible depth of sadness in South Africa. Over the past three months South Africans have been preparing themselves for the inevitable. The death on Thursday of Madiba, as he is known here, has allowed them to finally express their sadness.

It's very hard to explain the depth of love South Africans have for Nelson Mandela. I have heard no dissenting voices about this wonderful man. If there were any, they would not speak publicly. There can be no new Mandela, no hero of his stature. Nobody will ever come close to what he achieved, and nobody in South Africa would try to. But he has inspired all South Africans, of all races, to live better lives.

In some ways South Africa's approach to death is similar to that of Ireland. In both countries it is taken very seriously, although here in South Africa there is an even greater sensitivity to the spiritual component.

We take our time with death in Africa. We are now in a prolonged period of mourning, with a memorial service on Monday at the FNB Stadium, in Soweto, where Madiba made his last public appearance, at the soccer World Cup final in July 2010. Madiba will lie in state for three days in Pretoria before being taken to Qunu, the village where he spent his childhood, and where his funeral will take place.


We will mourn intensively in the next week, and perhaps beyond.

Democratic elections
Over the past 24 hours the memory that has stuck with me is the day of the first African National Congress caucus meeting in 1994. Madiba had already been elected during the first democratic elections in South Africa, and he would become president the following day. He was sitting in the House of Assembly in Cape Town, on the bench where Hendrik Verwoerd – the former South African prime minister known as "the architect of apartheid", who was also my ex-husband's grandfather – had been assassinated, in 1966.

I had also been elected, as a member of parliament for the ANC. Madiba looked over at me and delivered a silent message, an acknowledgment that he understood the personal significance for me of being in this place, though my politics could not have been more different from those of Hendrik Verwoerd. It was so typical of Madiba to think about and acknowledge me. Part of his greatness came from the fact that, in addition to his statesmanship, he had such compassion and care for individuals.

I also recall clearly his visit to Ireland in June 2003. It was not his first visit; he had been to Dublin with his former wife Winnie Mandela shortly after his release from prison, in 1990, and to receive an honorary doctorate from Trinity College Dublin in 2000.

This time he came as part of Ireland’s hosting of the Special Olympics. During his few days in Ireland he captured the hearts of so many people. To those of us who were privileged to work closely with Madiba, the greatness of this extraordinary man shone through everything he did.

As South Africa’s ambassador to Ireland I had liaised closely with Madiba’s office, as well as with the organisers of the Special Olympics, to make sure everything would run smoothly. Having worked before with Madiba in South Africa, I knew he wasn’t difficult or demanding personally, but the basics, such as security, transport and a comfortable hotel room, had to be in place. I double- and triple-checked everything, but of course, despite my best efforts, things did not always go to plan.

At Heathrow Airport Madiba was transferred to the Aer Lingus plane via the VIP lounge. As is the practice, he was seated in the first row, but, unusually, he was boarded first, which meant that all the passengers had to walk past him as they entered the plane.

As one of the most recognised people in the world, he was not surprised to be greeted by everyone. Graciously, he said “Good morning” or “How are you?” repeatedly.

After about 20 minutes of uninterrupted greetings his assistant, Zelda la Grange, suggested that he read a newspaper, as it would partly cover his face and give him a break. Madiba responded, puzzled, “Why? I like meeting the people.”

At the end a late passenger boarded and rushed past the first row. With everyone else now seated, the latecomer halted abruptly a few rows down and reversed slowly. He gave Madiba, who was clearly amused, a good look and then said, in a strong Dublin accent, “Oi, you’re Nelson Mandela, right?” To which Madiba replied, “No, no. Many people mistake me for that chap.”

In Dublin we were allowed to leave the plane first. As he was ready to leave, Madiba turned around and waved at his fellow passengers, who applauded him loudly. We then made our way slowly down the ramp, from where we would take a lift down to the waiting car.

Opposite the lift was a glass panel that separated us from departing passengers waiting at their gate. A little girl spotted us, and Madiba waved at her. She waved back, and, even though we could not hear her, we could see clearly that she shouted, "It's Mandela."
All the waiting passengers turned as one to look, and again spontaneous applause broke out. As we left the airport building there was more applause, and, as always, Madiba smiled his beaming smile and waved happily to everyone who had come to see him.

Our journey to the Four Seasons Hotel, where he was to stay, took about 45 minutes. It was before the port tunnel had been built, and the motorbike escort had, inexplicably, been cancelled that morning. The chauffeur would not use the bus lanes, as he did not have a taxi plate and did not want the embarrassment of being stopped with Nelson Mandela in the car.

'How's it going?'
But Madiba took it all in his stride. As we pulled up at traffic lights, people in cars next to us recognised him. Time and again they would roll down their windows to say, "How's it going, Mandela? Welcome to Ireland."

Although we were having an intensely political conversation, Madiba would politely reciprocate and, to the annoyance of his security people, roll down the window to say hello. “The Irish are very friendly,” he would remark, before continuing our conversation.

He also charmed everyone in Galway, where he received an honorary doctorate from the National University of Ireland. The ceremony was followed by a dinner at the Radisson Hotel, at which Marian Finucane was the master of ceremonies. The theatre group Macnas performed, as did The Corrs. Madiba loved The Corrs, and when they started singing he got up slowly and went to the dance floor to do his stiff but popular "Madiba jive".

For a few moments he was alone on the dance floor, before smiling at the audience and inviting them to join him – which, of course, they did.

Back in Dublin we dealt with a string of visitors, among them Muhammad Ali, the Shrivers and Kennedys, Bono, the Edge, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Anthony O'Reilly and Gerry Adams. These meetings were mostly courtesy visits, but every now and then Madiba's phenomenal intellect and strong sense of justice became apparent. I listened for about 30 minutes as he and Bono discussed the Aids crisis and what strategy should be followed.

One of the funniest meetings was with the actor Pierce Brosnan. He was staying at the Four Seasons, and after bumping into him in the lobby I offered to introduce him to Madiba. I knew Madiba was on his way down to the lobby, so I asked Brosnan to wait a few minutes while I went over to the lift, to warn la Grange.

As the door opened I quickly told la Grange in Afrikaans that Brosnan was around the corner. She turned to Madiba and said, “Madiba, Pierce Brosnan is out there to say a quick hello.”

Madiba frowned and looked puzzled. “Who?” he asked.

“Pierce Brosnan, the actor. He played James Bond in the movies,” said la Grange.

Madiba shook his head, clearly not having a clue who she was talking about. It suddenly struck me that of course he was in jail during the time that so many of the Bond movies were made.

La Grange looked exasperated and said, “Madiba, we don’t have time to explain. Can you just greet him?”

Madiba nodded as he walked out of the lift. In the lobby I introduced Madiba to Brosnan. Madiba looked at him, shook his hand and said warmly, “Ah, Mr Brosnan. It is a real honour to meet you at last!” Of course, Brosnan was overwhelmed by meeting Madiba, and he was none the wiser.

At the opening ceremony that night at Croke Park, while waiting in the green room for Madiba’s cue to go on stage, we were all watching the ceremony on television. When Brosnan came on stage to the accompanying Bond music the crowds went mad. Madiba turned to Cyril Ramaphosa, a politician who had also arrived from South Africa a few days earlier, and said, “Hey, I met that fellow today. He must be famous with that amount of applause.”

Ramaphosa looked at Madiba in astonishment for a few seconds before bursting into uncontrollable laughter. When Brosnan’s fame was explained to Madiba, he chuckled happily at himself.

Special place
During those few days in Ireland, Madiba won the hearts of those he met, but he reserved a special place for the children. On the day of his departure he greeted some children outside the hotel. He ignored his security, walked over to the crowd, picked up a little girl with Down syndrome and hugged her tightly. She gave him a big kiss and then said loudly, "You are much nicer than Arnie," referring to Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Madiba enjoyed this tremendously, and as we said goodbye at the airport he chuckled, saying, “And to think I had to come to Ireland to realise that I’m nicer than Arnie, the Terminator.”

As Madiba left Irish soil I stood in awe of this wonderful man. Through his humour and ability to laugh at himself, through his deep love for people, children and life, through his deep sense of justice and his deep humanity, he had shown everybody in Ireland what true greatness is.

Sadly, the world is now a much poorer place without Nelson Mandela in it. I and my fellow South Africans will miss and mourn him as we would miss and mourn our own fathers. And so will millions of people around the world who came to love and admire a man whose face we could not see for 27 years and who yet became the most recognised person in the world because he showed us through his example what the best of humanity looks like.

Hamba kahle, Madiba. Go well, Madiba.

Melanie Verwoerd was South African ambassador to Ireland from 2001 to 2005