As South Africa wrestles with its economic and social problems, Peter Hain reminisces about his encounters with the great Nelson Mandela and his sense of humour.
‘Ah, Peter, return of the prodigal son!’ Nelson Mandela beamed, welcoming me to Johannesburg in February 2000. I was returning to the country of my childhood as Britain’s Minister of State for Africa – the only ever African-born holder of that office.
With a twinkle in his eye, Mandela – or Madiba, his clan name, used affectionately – courteously poked fun at the elegant British High Commissioner, Dame Maeve Fort, who had arranged the meeting with him; he was especially taken with English ladies – the Queen included.
It was always special to be in his presence. A humble icon without an ounce of self-importance or arrogance, he had a unique aura: a sense of deep tranquillity and gentleness with everyone, yet also a worldly shrewdness that made you feel simultaneously at ease and in awe.
“I wanted to welcome my friend Peter Hain,” he said, generous to a fault. “He was a noted supporter of our freedom struggle and we thank him for that. Except for people like Peter, who was a leader of the anti-apartheid movement, I might not be standing here, a free man today, and our people would not be free.”
Two years before, in June 1998, Mandela, then still South Africa’s President, visited Cardiff to address a European Council Summit hosted by PM Tony Blair. He was granted the Freedom of the City and I was deputed to escort him from his hotel.
The ceremony at Cardiff Castle was majestic in the sunshine, the packed crowd expectant, and a queue of VIPs were sweltering in the unusually hot weather. But Mandela ignored my guiding arm to introduce them all, and stopped when a group of primary school children caught his attention.
The VIPs sweltered on while he began conducting them to sing the nursery rhyme ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’. (He once told me that the Robben Islanders had missed the bubbling sound and sight of children – including their own – more than almost anything.)
Cardiff that day experienced a vintage Mandela performance – singing and dancing with the children, and electrifying his adoring audience.
Seeing my dad for the first time since they had been together in South Africa in the anti-apartheid struggle 40 years before, Mandela quipped: “Are you still causing trouble?”
And spotting the former Labour Party leader and Welsh anti-apartheid stalwart, Neil Kinnock, he boomed: “Hullo, Neil. Why are you hiding from me there at the back?”
Kept Blair waiting
In September 2000, I escorted him down in the lift from his hotel room for a meeting with Prime Minister Tony Blair, before Mandela’s address to the annual conference of the Labour Party, in Brighton.
As we entered the lift, he asked me his usual question: “How’s the family?” On hearing Mom was in hospital with a fractured femur, he stopped immediately – “I must speak to her.”
Out came my mobile, and the minutes ticked by as I tried to track her down. Meanwhile, the Prime Minister was kept waiting as Mandela chatted happily to a long line of hotel cleaners, porters, bar and catering staff waiting for him outside the lift.
Eventually, Mom answered from her hospital bed in Swansea. “A special person to speak to you,” I told her and passed the phone over. “Hullo. Nelson Mandela here, do you remember me?’
Of all the public figures, kings and queens, international politicians, sporting and entertainment celebrities I have met – and there have been many – none had Mandela’s capacity for engaging self-deprecation, wit and the common touch.
In retirement, while he was on a visit to London, we talked in his hotel and he said that his wife, Graça Machel, would be along later, winking: “She is much more important than me.”
When Mandela announced in August 1997 that he would not serve a second term as President, he downplayed his role: “Many of my colleagues are head and shoulders above me in almost every respect. Rather than an asset, I’m more of a decoration.”
Another saying of his was to claim: “I am just a country boy.”
After he stepped down as President in 1999, there followed busy years of retirement, supporting various causes around the world, and in 2003 he announced that he was “retiring from retirement”.
Mandela’s capacity for mischief was also very evident when, a few weeks after my marriage in 2003, I introduced Elizabeth. “Is this your girlfriend?” he asked.
“No, she’s my wife,” I replied. “So she caught you then?” he chuckled. And when Elizabeth exclaimed indignantly that she’d taken a lot of persuading, he laughed: “That’s what they all say, Peter, but they trap you in the end!”
By then she realised he was teasing her, and we all ended up laughing. He apologised for not coming to our wedding, having instead sent a message: “But perhaps I will be able to come the next time!”
On his 90th birthday, in 2008, Mandela took a phone call from Buckingham Palace to speak to the Queen.
“Hullo Elizabeth, how’s the Duke?” he asked. Perhaps only he could have got away with such flagrant disregard for royal protocol. When Graça later reprimanded him, he retorted: “Well, she calls me Nelson!”
Proved correct by history
But early in 2003, I had a very different encounter with Nelson Mandela. My ministerial office excitedly informed me that he wanted to phone me, and a time was fixed.
This was shortly before Tony Blair backed President George W. Bush in invading Iraq to topple its dictator, Saddam Hussein, an impending intervention Mandela had outspokenly condemned.
He was more agitated than I had ever known him, almost breathing fire down the line, asking me to get a message to Tony, who, unusually, was not taking his call:
“A big mistake, Peter, a very big mistake. It is wrong. Why is Tony doing this, after all his support for Africa? This will cause huge damage internationally.”
I had never heard him speak so angrily. But, as history showed, he was proved correct: the Iraq invasion and its aftermath were indeed a disaster.
Mandela’s reputation continued to soar long after he had stepped down as President in 1999. He never claimed to be a saint and nor was he, any more than even the best of us could be: we all have our frailties.
His greatness derived not just from his courage and leadership, but from the humanity that he radiated. He had a common touch, humility, self-deprecation, a sense of fun and dignity.
Prison could have embittered him, adulation could have gone to his head, and egotism could have triumphed.
The clutching of the crowd and the intrusive pressures of the modern political age could have seen him retreat behind the barriers that most celebrities today erect around themselves – partly to retain some individual space, but which all too often lead to either cold aloofness or patent insincerity and its companion, cynicism.
But none of this happened.
Throughout everything, Nelson Mandela remained his own man, neither seduced by the trappings of office, nor deluded by the adulation of admirers, always steadfastly principled, friendly and approachable until he faded away in his last year or so, dying in December 2013.
President Jacob Zuma reaped a just reward for his shameless decade of looting, corruption and money laundering when he was booed at the FNB Stadium in Soweto whilst speaking at Mandela’s memorial service.
Peter Hain’s memoir A Pretoria Boy: South Africa’s ‘Public Enemy Number One’ is published by Jonathan Ball.