- Posted December 9, 2013 by
Pretoria, South Africa
This iReport is part of an assignment:
Nelson Mandela: Your memories
Madiba’s worst chauffeur
My wife doesn’t like to be my passenger when I am driving. She doesn’t feel safe. It has always been like that. But one day, a very special person was quite happy to be my passenger …
At about sunset on the afternoon of 9 September 1994, I was sitting in my office in the Union Buildings, Pretoria, when the phone rang. It was my boss, Prof. Jakes Gerwel, phoning from Cape Town. He was the Director-General of the Office of the President during Mr Nelson Mandela’s term as President of South Africa (1994 – 1999).
I was aware that about 500 disgruntled former Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation) (a.k.a. MK) guerrillas were gathered on the lower terrace of the Union Buildings, demanding equal rights and pay in the new South African army in the new South African National Defence Force. Since this was seen by all as an issue to be dealt with by the ANC, I was not involved in the matter – until this phone call from Prof. Gerwel.
“The MK veterans have agreed to disperse if the President will speak to them,” Prof. Gerwel said. “The President has agreed to do so, but he is engaged in a meeting at the presidential guest house until 7.30 p.m. Would you be able to meet him there and accompany him to the lower terrace?” (The presidential guest house temporarily served as the Official Residence of the President. He would later move to Mahlamba Ndlopfu.)
It so happened that my family and I were living in Acacia Park near Cape Town at that time while I was doing “Parliamentary sessional duty”. I was therefore only visiting my office in Pretoria. I had no family waiting for me for dinner – it was no sacrifice to spend more time at work. No sacrifice, indeed – to have an opportunity to get a bit closer to the most respected person in the world at the time!
The South African Police Service (SAPS) must have had a close eye on the situation on the lower terrace of the Union Buildings. The arrangement that I was to fetch the President must have been brought to their attention because, shortly after Prof. Gerwel’s call, a white, Afrikaans-speaking captain in the SAPS came to see me in my office to ensure that he and I were on the same page regarding the way in which the situation was going to be dealt with. Knowing that Madiba was a people’s person, I invited the police captain to accompany me to the President’s residence. It would be easier and quicker, I knew, to move through the security gates of the ministerial estate, Bryntirion, if there was a senior police officer in the car.
We arrived at the presidential residence at exactly 7.30 p.m., as requested. At that very moment we saw Madiba outside the residence with his departing guests. When they had left, we went closer and greeted the President.
“Let’s go inside,” he said. It was cold, and he was wearing a jacket, a scarf and a red hat that covered his ears.
We followed Madiba to one of the smaller lounges. There was no-one in sight and no sound to be heard.
We had not expected to be invited in, and even less to have a chat with President Mandela in his house – but this is exactly what happened. We sat down and Madiba treated us like valued guests. A lady appeared some time later and offered us something to drink.
The President asked the police captain where he had grown up. When he learned that the captain was from the town Bronkhorstspruit, he immediately showed an interest. “I studied the Battle of Bronkhorstspruit,” he said. “I had to study the military history of South Africa when I was considering founding a military wing for the ANC.” Mr Mandela was referring to a famous battle in 1880 during the First Anglo-Boer War, when a strong British contingent was defeated by a small, unconventional Boer fighting force.
The cordial discussion between Madiba and the police captain continued. Madiba also expressed his admiration for historical Boer figures like Generals Christiaan de Wet and Koos de la Rey, both exponents of guerrilla tactics during the Second Anglo-Boer War from 1899 to 1902.
Then, when our tea cups were empty and the theme of the discussion had been exhausted, Madiba gently announced that he was ready to leave.
“I will call Security, Mr President”, I said with a fair degree of distress while nervously moving towards the hallway, because I had no clue where to find the driver and security staff that should be transporting President Mandela.
“No, I’ll go with you,” Madiba replied.
“Mr President, I have only a small hired car here!” I tried to get out of the situation, my wife’s assessment of my driving abilities in the back of my mind. “No, I’ll go with you,” the best-known and most respected living person on Earth told me.
We walked to the Toyota Corolla and got in – the President in front, the police captain at the back, and I … behind the steering wheel.
The moment we left the security gate of the Bryntirion Estate, Madiba said, “Security is going to be angry about this.”
“So Madiba was being mischievous when he would not allow me to call Security!” I thought to myself. I enjoyed the idea for a second or two, and then turned my attention to my main task: to get Madiba safely to the lower terrace of the Union Buildings.
When we turned into Church Street, I heard the police captain behind me, speaking on his police radio: “Yes, it is us in the white Corolla.” I gathered that the SAPS Special Guard Unit responsible for the President had discovered that the President was no longer in his official residence and that they had somehow traced him to the modest little car in Church Street. To this day I do not know how they did that.
I was proud of myself for actually finding the narrow dirt road that allowed me to drive onto the northern end of the lower terrace, where a few hundred men were awaiting us, cheering loudly when they saw the President.
Madiba was clearly in control of the situation. They handed him two documents containing their complaints and, at the request of the President, I arranged for one of the police officials who were standing around for security purposes to make a photocopy of each of the documents.
At that point, the President’s official vehicle arrived. I managed to attract Madiba’s attention and asked him whether he still needed me. He thanked me for my service, saying nothing about my driving skills – and I left.