- Posted December 7, 2013 by
Pretoria, South Africa
This iReport is part of an assignment:
Nelson Mandela: Your memories
Presidency staff reassured on Madiba’s first day in office
During May 1994, the number of (mainly white) staff in the office of the South African President was reduced to probably 70% of what it had been.
At the time, I was Chief Director of Corporate Services in the Office of the President. On 11 May 1994, together with another official, I stood at the back door of the Union Buildings in Pretoria, awaiting the arrival of President Nelson Mandela (also known by his traditional honorary name “Madiba”).
On the previous day, Madiba had been inaugurated as President of South Africa. The otherwise busy West Wing of the Union Buildings was unusually quiet. The majority of the key staff had moved to the new Office of Deputy President FW de Klerk in the East Wing of the Union Buildings. Those of us who remained behind did not know what to expect.
During the preceding days I had travelled to Cape Town in the hope of talking to Mr Mandela’s personal assistant in the ANC about what the remaining officials in the Office of the President could expect from him. The meeting never took place.
The movie Invictus gives a relatively accurate portrayal of how that first morning of Mr Mandela’s term of office as President went – but there were a few slight differences.
At about 10 a.m. on 11 May 1994, a police officer informed my colleague William Smith and me that the president was on his way to the Union Buildings. William (to this day still the head of the Cabinet Secretariat) and I awaited the new President at the “back door” of the West Wing because it was – and still is – the entrance traditionally used exclusively by the President.
Mr Mandela, surrounded by about eight security guards of the ANC, recognised William and me as a result of his previous visits to Mr De Klerk. He greeted us briefly and then continued walking, saying: “Well, let’s go to the office.”
We were under the impression that those words were directed at the security staff, and went quietly and disappointedly to our offices. It did not seem as if the remaining staff members' uncertainty would be dealt with any time soon.
Within half an hour, I was summoned to Mr Mandela's office on the first floor. He was not sitting behind his desk, but in one of the easy chairs close to the window overlooking the city of Pretoria. On his desk were only a few items, as can be expected when someone has just started a new job. One of the items caught my attention: it was a copy of the Afrikaans language newspaper, “Beeld”.
Madiba was friendly and polite, but also pressed for time. I congratulated him on his inauguration and sat down on the couch next to his chair. His words to me were more or less as follows:
“We know that the staff here expect that we would want to get rid of them, but that would not be consistent with the policy of the ANC. We need to build bridges in this country, and that process should start here, in the President’s Office.
“We also need the experience and expertise of the current staff, although there will have to be changes in the composition of the staff.
“I want you to tell the staff that they should feel comfortable that, if they do their work, their positions will be safe here.”
I briefly pointed out that it would be relatively easy to change the composition of the staff, since there were numerous vacancies – also in many key positions. Then I thanked him for his positive message and added that it would obviously be ideal if he could convey this message to the staff himself. He hesitated for a moment and asked me how long it would take to get the staff together. When I assured him that it could be done within 30 minutes, he agreed.
(As far as I remember, there was only one case of a staff member resigning from the Office of the President during the transition from the De Klerk era to the Mandela era – and that resignation was the result, not of unwillingness to work for a black president, but of finding the prospect of working mainly in English too daunting to contemplate!)
The meeting between the new president and the staff of his office took place close to his personal office, in a room that would later be used mainly for meetings of Cabinet. On the way to the meeting, I overheard Madiba speaking to his ANC assistant and justifying his decision to spend time meeting the staff. It later became evident that he had been scheduled to fly by helicopter to attend another important meeting. “Yes, but this is important,” I heard him say to her.
When he entered the room where the approximately 80 staff members sat waiting for him, there was absolute silence. After a few seconds, Madiba said: “Well, I am a bit pressed for time, but I would like to shake hands with all of you”, and he then moved from left to right in the large circle, shaking the hand of every staff member. About halfway through, he reached one of the ladies of the finance department, who shook his hand with a rather solemn expression on her face. Maybe she just reflected, better than the rest of us, the tension that everybody experienced at that moment. The next moment, though, everybody burst out laughing and the ice was broken when Madiba asked her in Afrikaans, “Is jy kwaad vir my?” (Are you angry with me?)
In the days and months that followed, it was clear that the staff that Madiba had inherited from his predecessor were exceptionally loyal to him. The “old” staff were at times amazed at what they viewed as a lack of loyalty on the part of some of the “new” staff members towards the legendary and charismatic Mandela. One example is that the section that dealt with Madiba’s telephones and guests apparently did not see it as their responsibility to also render this service at his official residence, after hours.
It can be said that, in general, a healthy work relationship developed between the staff of the old era and those that were appointed in the Mandela era. This took place under the guidance of the late Prof. Jakes Gerwel, who was the newly appointed head of the Office of the President. Unfortunately, the situation deteriorated in 1999, when Thabo Mbeki took over as President. The reasons for this are complex and should not necessarily be attributed only to the person of Mr Mbeki himself.
Photograph: President Nelson Mandela and Mr Fanie Pretorius