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  • Writer's pictureDanielle Sheedy

Meeting Nelson Mandela

I have always loved to write, even as a little girl, and I was lucky enough on one occasion to have my writing read by the Great Madiba himself.

When I was in Grade 6, at Uplands Prep, we were given an English assignment to write a poem about Nelson Mandela. Of course, I was terribly excited about this as not only was this man my hero, but also, I loved creative writing assignments.

And so, that weekend while I was visiting Grammy and Gramps, I wrote my poem, which went like this:

Nelson Mandela is a fascinating man, with an amazing amount of fans.

He has touched many lives,

And has been through many strives.

Nelson was awarded the noble peace prize,

And has heard the peoples cries.

He was the first black president,

And spent 27 years in prison as a resident.

Now he is free and very wise,

And gives his people good advice.

God bless you father of our nation,

And thanks forever for our salvation.

On this particular weekend, we had a very dear friend, Barbara, visiting who has an orphanage in Mozambique, and she took a copy of the poem with her. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but she had other plans for my little poem.

It wasn’t long after, that my poem fell in to the hands of Graca Machel, and she showed it to her husband, Nelson Mandela.

A few weeks on, I had handed in my poem at school, and I was back at Grammy and Gramps house for the weekend. It was a Friday afternoon, and my favourite friend and cousin, Tarryn, was visiting for the weekend. We had big plans of all the movies we’d watch, treats we’d bake, and journals we’d make, when the telephone rang.

I answered, and the lady on the other end introduced herself, as Nelson Mandela’s personal assistant. She went on to say that he had received my poem and was so touched by my words, that he wanted to meet me. And it just so happened that he would be in Maputo the next evening for a function, would I be able to attend?

I responded with, “Oh thank you so much, but my cousin is visiting me this weekend, so I won’t be able to attend” – I know, I know what was I thinking right? But to a 12-year-old playing with my cousin just seemed like the more fun option.

Grammy quickly took the phone from me, apologising and said that I would definitely attend, and thanked her for the kind invitation.

My mom couldn’t take me to Maputo, because her passport had expired (ridiculously ironic considering all the traveling she does), and I refused to go unless Tarryn came with me.

So Barbara offered to pick us up at the Mozambique border (Grammy and Gramps only live 20 minutes from the border) and take me to the function as she was attending too.

Tarryn wasn’t able to attend the function so she stayed with Barbara’s children at the house, and off we went to the function.

(To this day Tarryn and I still laugh about this story, and what a good cousin she was to come all the way to Maputo with me and stay with strangers while I went off to meet Mandela).

Mom sent me with the most feminine, smart outfit to wear, which of course I was not all that pleased about considering that at that time in my life, I was a bit of a tom boy.

We arrived, and I was told to wait in the lounge area while everyone was seated at the dinner. The event was to honour Abilio Soeiros who was receiving an award from the French President at the time, Jacques Chirac, for his business achievements.

I peeped through the door, and could see Mandela and his lovely wife, Graca sitting at a table. He was dressed in his usual traditional shirt, which had beautiful patterns on it in light browns, dark oranges and cream. He reminded me of a big male lion sitting there, he had the kindest eyes, his hair was a silvery grey, and I could see the lines on his face; this iconic man of South Africa who had seen so much of life, had done so much for our beautiful country, wanted to meet little old me...

Butterflies jumped around in my tummy, and then they called me in, and Abilio took me over to Mandela. The camera flashes went off, as the press were capturing the moment, but I wasn’t even phased at this point, because Mandela was shaking my hand and thanking me for the poem that I wrote about him.

He was curious about who I was and wanted to know more about me. I remember telling him my favourite subject was history at school, and that when I grew up I wanted to be a journalist (A dream that I did follow, I studied journalism, and got to work for both Media 24 and Caxton). We chatted for a while, and then he gave me a big hug and kiss and thanked me again.

It was an incredible moment in my life, a memory that has brought me much joy. He was an incredible man, filled with such humility. It didn’t matter that he was possibly one of the most respected, famous men in the world. To him, the fact that this little 12-year-old had written a really nice poem about him, was what was important, and he just wanted to thank me and tell me that in person.

My story of meeting Mandela was published in various publications after that, The Lowvelder, my school newsletter, The Saturday Star and even the Travel Retail Markets “Local Poet Melts Madiba’s Heart”, they said. One publication even called me a young journalist. I was delighted.

Abilio and Mandela were greatest of friends, and it is worth a mention that many years later when Mandela fell ill, Abilio put together a “Thank you Madiba” book of stories about people in South Africa that were touched by the amazing person he was. He wanted me to feature in the book, and while I was studying journalism in Durban, he flew me up to Grammy and Gramps' house to meet with him and talk about the memorable evening in my life when I got to meet Nelson Mandela.

Years later when I was writing for Get It Lowveld, and sometimes The Lowvelder, one of the sub-editors was actually looking for an article in the archives and found me on the front page. It was a really great moment for me, as I thought back about when this article had been published, and how I couldn’t wait for the day that maybe I would be writing for Lowvelder… 13 years on and there I was, stood in the Lowvelder office looking at myself on the front page.

Nelson Mandela inspired me, and he made me want to reach for more, I think not only with my dreams, but as a person as well. He was incredibly kind, something I wish we could all be a little more of.

I was living in Miami the day he passed away and I remember being absolutely devastated, so much so that I spent the day in bed crying. I mourned for my country that day, and I just wanted to be home for it.

I know that many say that South Africa is in dire straits, but have you seen the rest of the world? I’m not sure that they are any better off.

I am a South African filled with hope, a very proud South African. I still see the South Africa that Nelson Mandela knew and loved. I love my country, and although I have traveled the world extensively and there are some really pretty places, that perhaps one could live in and learn to love, I could never live anywhere else.

There is just no place like home, there is no place like South Africa.

Especially when you get to live on the doorstep of the Kruger National Park ;)


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