I NEVER met Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, but I was at one of the special moments of his remarkable life, and he gave me a treasured moment in mine.
I was lucky enough to have an almost front-row seat at his inauguration in 1994 – next to South African singing star Miriam Makeba, whose career I was managing at the time.
Oh, happy, spine-tingling day.
What happened at that historic event is burnt into my memory.
Upstretched hands waved.
Tears flowed – mine included.
Air force jets flew overhead, their vapour trails streaming red, green, gold, black and blue.
“Never, never again will this beautiful land experience the oppression of one by another,” said the tall, stately man we’d come to see.
It was something everyone gathered there believed.
An “impossible” dream had finally come true.
But even the excitement of that day was topped for me by what happened some time later when our globally revered leader – while he was President of South Africa – diverted his attention from important matters of State to do something just for me.
A decade or so earlier I had struck up an unusual friendship with an elderly Sowetan man, Ntate Tsehla Phahlane. It was unusual not least because of the differences in our age, gender, and geography, but also because, according to the cruel apart-heid laws of the time, we weren’t supposed to be friends.
But friends we were.
One day a bulkier-than-usual envelope from Ntate arrived at my Hendrik Verwoerd Drive, Johannesburg, home (the irony of that address wasn’t lost on either of us).
He’d sent me a gift – a battered, slightly torn and well-thumbed booklet, The Historic Speech of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela at the Rivonia Trial.
It was something I’d never had access to before – Mandela’s exact words during one of the most evil miscarriages of justice the world had ever known.
I read it with a mixture of horror, fascination and awe.
It was a precious gift indeed, both for its content and for the generosity of my friend Ntate, who had obviously treasured it himself.
Fast forward to 1998 and, unbeknown to me, a plot was afoot in my household.
A little while before my birthday my daughter Danielle, wanting to make it memorable, had hunted through my “treasures”, extracted the precious booklet and smuggled it out of the house.
With the help of her then-father-in law, Eastern Cape-born constitutional law expert Professor John Dugard, who had known and worked with Madiba in the bad old days, my battered booklet was soon winging its way to the President in Cape Town.
“My heart was in my mouth,” she later told me. “I dreaded how you’d react if it went missing.”
And goodness only knows what Madiba thought when he saw the grubby, dog-eared booklet.
Would he sign it, John Dugard had asked. And, of course, he did.
But what really moved me to tears when I opened it on the morning of my birthday was that Nelson Mandela had not just hastily scribbled his name – he had taken the time and the trouble to make the inscription completely personal.
“To Stevie,” he wrote, “Happy Birthday, Nelson Mandela, 4.6.98”.
That seemingly little thing was, for me, a mark of uTata’s own greatness.
A demonstration that no one was too “small” to warrant his personal attention.
And that, truly, was the measure of the man. – Stevie Godson
(A version of this tribute has also appeared in the Daily Dispatch newspaper.)