Friday, December 6, 2013

Me and Mandela

It was 15 years ago on my first trip to South Africa that I met Nelson Mandela. I can't actually believe I am writing those words. Of all the amazing famous, non-famous, infamous and extraordinary people I have met and interviewed over the last two decades, meeting Nelson Mandela was the highlight.

I had just got back from a work trip to New York when, that same afternoon, the phone rang and it was my friend Sharon Ring, who then edited OK magazine. Would I like to go to Cape Town on a press trip to mark the opening of the Table Bay hotel at the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront? Hmmm, let me think for a minute...February in freezing London town or an all expenses paid trip visiting the wine region of Stellenbosch, the Cape of Good Hope, Table Mountain, rugby with the Springboks, Boulders Beach where the penguins live and many other iconic sights while staying in a brand new five star hotel? Reader, it was a tough one.

The evening we arrived, we went out on a catamaran to watch the sunset and we could see Robben Island quite clearly in the distance. I had just read Long Walk to Freedom, one of the most inspiring books ever, and seeing that place with my own eyes was quite surreal having just read all about Mandela's long incarceration there.

We visited the prison and were shown around by one of Mandela's fellow former inmates. Words can't do it justice, it was a lesson in how indomitable the human spirit can be.

So to find myself, a couple of days later, at a lunch at the hotel with the then President Mandela as the guest of honour was a buzz that has yet to be equalled. A towering giant of a man, he was taller than I expected but it was his aura that made him larger than life, he just filled the room. He gave a heartfelt speech about how pleased he was to welcome visitors to his homeland and how he hoped that tourism would continue to bring people from all over the world to South Africa. It was a short, humble speech and as the deafening applause rang out afterwards, he beamed that big, big smile.

He came over to meet the international press corps to say hello. I was so nervous I could barely breathe. The other journalists, all seasoned travel writers, felt exactly the same. We all felt we were in the presence of greatness, it is impossible to put it any differently.

Since that trip in 1998, I have been back to South Africa many times, to Johannesburg and Cape Town and the townships of Soweto and Khayelitsha. There is no doubt that while South Africa still has many problems, there is a feeling of hope among the people, a passionate pride in their country and a joie de vivre that I haven't encountered anywhere else. That is the true legacy of Nelson Mandela.