Mandela Free on a Watermelon Day

This piece first appeared in Stockholm’s Expressen newspaper. It has since been included in The Keeper of the Kumm published by  Tafelberg in 2016. As we commemorate Madiba’s release from prison in 1990, it’s as relevant now as it was then.

My thrill at being there when Walter Sisulu and other ANC leaders are released and the giddy days and nights in Lusaka are just precursors of the main event, the release of Nelson Mandela. A couple of months later, back home in Cape Town, I get the phone call I have been expecting for  months.

“De Klerk will have a press conference this afternoon. It is a Saturday and it can only mean one thing,” a colleague in Stockholm tells me.

The government seems to think that the weekend is the best time to control the crowds who will take to the streets to see for themselves that Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela is finally a free man.

How do I put into perspective just how Madiba has changed the framework of my life? I am at primary school when he is jailed in the ’60s, we whisper his name in the underground movement when I awaken to politics in the ’70s and he is the pinnacle of our hopes in the violent ’80s.

The rough framework for our relationship, Madiba and I, is simple but there’s more, much more. And to tell a grand story, it is good to begin with the small details.

I am standing in front of an open car. Huge red chunks of watermelon with an incredibly green skin fill a cooler bag in the boot. Close by a TV crew is poised on a tall crane hired for the day. The cool, sweet melon juice drips down my arms, a relief in the mid afternoon summer heat. There is a commotion on top of the crane. People surge towards the gates of the Victor Verster Prison, just outside Cape Town.

Yesterday I attended a press conference convened by President FW de Klerk in a building next to the South African Parliament. A plaque in the foyer is in memory of the architect of apartheid, HF Verwoerd. De Klerk is surrounded by middle-aged white Afrikaner men. I find it hard to imagine a space in this context for Nelson Mandela.

The world’s most famous convict is about to walk through the gates of Victor Verster, the prison not far from the small town of Franschhoek, a retirement haven for rich white folk. I grab my notebook and run to join my colleagues. I worry that the watermelon juice has smudged some of the pages. I feel that I should have chosen a new notebook for this occasion. That it is disrespectful to place the story of this day alongside my recent escapades in Lusaka and elsewhere.

The prison staff, mostly white wardens in brown uniforms, is gathered in the grounds. A traffic police escort is waiting. The marshals of the liberation movement and the police are trying to keep order. The commotion heralds the arrival of Winnie Mandela, her daughter Zindzi, and African National Congress officials. Helicopters drown the songs of the crowds on the ground. But the electronic cacophony does nothing to dampen the spirits of the people, some of who are still singing liberation songs about killing the boers.

South African National Congress (ANC) President Ne

And then I see him for the first time.
 A tall man in a grey suit with his fist in the air.
 I am carried along with the surging crowd. ANC marshals and officials are only just managing to contain the joy, the exhilaration from spilling over into chaos. Cyril Ramaphosa walks just ahead of Madiba and Winnie Mandela, making sure his first steps into the new South Africa are unimpeded.

There is now so much noise and delirium I feel free to weep. The couple gets into a car. The marshals and a few people who manage to break through the ranks of the jubilant khaki-clad youth distracted from their duties, lay their hands on the car. It is a collective, instinctive gesture that gives the moment a messianic touch.

A throng of media people cause havoc on the highway from Franschhoek to the city, breaking speed limits to try to keep up with the entourage.

In Cape Town the streets are lined with people waving flags and shouting. Everywhere, hands touch the car as it glides past.

At the Grand Parade, the Cape Town square dominated by a statue of Britain’s King Edward VII, we can hardly hear Walter Sisulu as he attempts to introduce Nelson Mandela to the crowds.

Then I hear him speak for the first time. Cyril Ramaphosa stands respectfully to one side holding the mike:

“Amandla! ” he says, fist in the air.

The responding “Ngawethu” shakes the Mother City and makes me shiver. “Is this really happening?” I hear a soft voice inside me ask.

“iAfrika! ”
“Mayibuye! ”
“Mayibuye! ”
“iAfrika! ”
The call and response about returning our continent to her people settles the wave of adoration. He looks down at the speech that has been prepared and holds up his hand, motioning for silence. I write down every word. Can’t trust anything to memory on a day like this.

“I greet you all in the name of peace, democracy and freedom for all. I stand here before you, not as a prophet, but as a humble servant of you, the people.”

The City Hall balcony where he is speaking is so crowded that Cyril is jostled constantly. On the balcony alongside, a young woman is being hoisted up by her friends.

I write furiously in my watermelon notebook as the sun sets behind Table Mountain. The practical activity is not enough to keep me grounded. I feel as if I am floating somewhere above the mountain, looking down at this unfolding magic.

When Madiba’s motorcade departs, the crowds go dancing down city streets. A crestfallen Jesse Jackson sees his hired car has been crushed. Too many people wanting to get a better look at the man on the balcony, addressing the crowds on a Grand Parade that has always been a place where we gather to celebrate or protest.

I take my notebook to my office at the press centre in Shortmarket Street and write a piece for Expressen on the little cream and black Tandy portable computer that I carry everywhere these days. When I’m done, I attach the state-of-the-art black suction cups to my phone handset and file my story to Expressen. The technology of the time seems almost vulgar in comparison with the content.

The Expressen foreign editor, Ernst Klein, questions my description of Mandela’s voice as ‘deep’.

It makes me angry. It’s as if this foreigner is questioning the sanctity of the moment.

A while later I recall this when talking to Madiba. When the thrill of the moment of liberation has subsided, I quietly concede that Ernst was right. An unusual voice quality indeed, but not deep.

It’s just that it thunders through my soul on an unforgettable summer afternoon.

For days after his release, we follow him around like a Messiah. I refrain from touching the car but I write down every word and ask questions with far too much respect to meet journalistic standards. Then, along with a group of media people, ANC officials, family and friends, I am invited to his home in Soweto. We barely manage to squeeze into the small house in Vilakazi Street.

I stand in the backyard next to a huge pot plant, waiting my turn with a journalist friend, Zelda.

“Be careful, pot plants are where the security police hide the microphones,” says Zelda, reminding us of who is still running South Africa in February 1990.

Then a moment in a small backyard in Soweto’s Orlando West turns my life in a new direction.

“I followed your stories when I was in jail.”

Nelson Mandela is standing in the doorway, looking directly at Zelda and me. The handlers and officials give way and rival journalists fall back. At first I assume he is talking to someone else. But then he walks towards me. I know this moment will not last, so I grab my notebook and hold it out towards him.

“Please sign it,” I say, to looks of disapproval from some and envy from others.

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As Nelson Mandela writes in my notebook – a new one has by now replaced the watermelon-stained potential museum piece – he talks about stories I have written for the South African media. Stories about our struggle and the rise of the United Democratic Front.

“I am now working as a correspondent for a Swedish newspaper, Expressen,” I say, hoping to prolong the moment, having jumped the queue of journalists.

“I admire the Swedish people greatly,” he says, giving me back my notebook.

“Please write a message for the people of Sweden,” I say, flipping to a clean page and returning the ‘Lion Brand shorthand notebook with middle line’ to him.

Without a moment’s hesitation, he writes on one of the last remaining blank pages:

“Greetings to the Swedish people who have strongly supported our struggle.”

On another page he writes a note to me: “To Sylvia, with my compliments and best wishes.” He says as he hands it back:

“The Scandinavian countries have been very staunch in their support of our struggle.”

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My shorthand below Mandela’s owing script clashes with it, but I have to write everything down or I could forget it in all this excitement. When the notebook is filled, I write on the back of used pages, feeling angry with myself for the sacrilegious austerity measure at a time like this.

The exchange on the steps of the back door to the tiny house – now a museum – marks the beginning of a phase in my career that is dominated by Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela.

He has put a face to the name he has read in newspapers and I have received a personal touch from the icon I’ve worshipped since my teenage years. Each time he sees me in public he stops the entourage, the bodyguards fall back and he always asks how I’m doing.

My stories receive unprecedented prominence in Stockholm and elsewhere and my journalistic stakes rise. Never again will I have to struggle to have stories used by reluctant editors or fight with white bosses about my right to cover momentous occasions in history.

A month after his release, Madiba travels to the frontline states, the neighbouring countries that provided bases and support for anti apartheid activists and exiles. The itinerary of his first trip outside South Africa is kept under wraps initially. But then it becomes clear that once he has paid his respects in Africa, Nelson Mandela will honour that message in my notebook. His first stop after Tanzania will be Stockholm, to thank the people of Sweden personally.

The message from Expressen’s foreign editor Ernst Klein is clear: Travel with Mandela to Sweden and be ready to write the story as you land. Ernst gives me the KLM flight number. I discover that it starts in the Malawian capital, Lilongwe. From there it touches down in Dar es Salaam where it will collect the Madiba entourage. I am in Zimbabwe at the time and I have to make my way to Malawi in a matter of hours.

At the small KLM office in Harare, a young woman called Ayesha is the only person on duty. I give her the flight number.

“I have to get on this flight and sit as close to Nelson and Winnie Mandela as possible,” I say.

She looks up at me and I expect the routine speech about travellers’ information being confidential. But she takes me by surprise.

“Oh, I can see you’re a relative,” she says conspiratorially as she checks the seating plan.

I look around the offices, grateful that there isn’t a senior person in sight. It is a quiet afternoon. I give Ayesha my best smile and I don’t contradict her assumption.

“They are seated in row 2A and B so I can give you seat 2C right next to Mandela,” says Ayesha, determined to be as helpful as possible to the ‘relative’ of one of Africa’s greatest sons.

In my hometown, children joke about Madiba’s Khoisan features. The silly humour is our way of claiming him. Today those features have secured me a world scoop.

In Lilongwe, the KLM flight is almost empty. In first class I am one of only two passengers. I wonder if the elderly man seated in row one knows who his fellow passengers will be, once we touch down in Dar es Salaam. When the plane door opens I stand at the top of the steps to watch the crowds of Tanzanians who have come to sing, shout and wave farewell to Mandela. A cluster of bodyguards and media people make their way up the stairs. I take my seat to get out of the way.

“How on earth did you manage to be on this plane ahead of us? Only you could do something like this,” says Winnie Mandela, who I’ve come to know after a few years of working for Expressen and writing her story for foreign media.

We hug and kiss each other. Nelson Mandela is still on top of the stairs waving at the crowds. As he walks into the cabin, Ma Winnie says:

“Look who’s here. What a pleasant surprise.”

As we take off, Nelson Mandela carefully watches the cabin attendant doing the safety demonstration. Winnie drinks orange juice and champagne and talks to me nonstop.

When the plane begins to taxi, Cyril Ramaphosa leans over me and says:

“You should return to your seat now.”

I feel a wave of mischievous delight and recall a Lusaka invitation to a dinner interview that never materialised as I say:

“This is my seat, Cyril.”
When we have settled down, Mandela says:
“You work for a Swedish paper, is that right?”
He remembers the day at his house in Soweto a month ago and

the message in my notebook. We talk about Tanzania, the weather and the fact that he has a slight cold.

“It is the change in the climate. It was unbearably hot. I was sweating so much at the press conference that my clothes were drenched,” he says, still wearing his dark two-piece formal suit.

He remarks on how cold it will be in March in Sweden and how much planes have changed since he was passenger on his underground travels before he was jailed in the ’60s.

“Should we wake you for breakfast, sir?” asks a flight attendant.

“Don’t worry, I will wake up on my own. But could you bring me an extra blanket?”

The usual professionalism of the flight attendants goes out of the window as everyone, including the captain, jostles for a picture with Mandela.

Soon he is asleep and Ma Winnie, who is sitting next to the window, chats to me across her sleeping husband. I am hesitant to answer but then I realise he is wearing earplugs. I now feel more comfortable talking across my hero wrapped in a double blanket between us.

I feel as if we are enveloped in a special, intimate bubble. A private room very far removed from the hordes of passengers behind the flimsy blue curtain that signals the entrance to business class and the rest of the world.

Intermittently I make my way to the toilet to record everything in my notebook. It seems bad manners to interrupt our warm, easy chat with note-taking.

It is the very first time I am travelling first class and even once Winnie has joined Mandela in sleep under the blue blankets, I am still ordering from a menu of real French champagne, canapés and never-ending meals.

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The next morning everyone on board is saying goodbye. I can’t get over the thrill of having spent the night sleeping next to Mandela. We chat briefly before he says:

“I mustn’t keep you, you are a busy woman.”
I learn over the years that this is our little private joke.

“Hello Sylvia,” he says almost half a decade later when I arrive at the presidency as I have been invited to dinner with a group of media colleagues. “Now that you are famous you no longer visit me.”

The gentle, almost childlike pretence that I am too busy to give him time continues on each of the many occasions that we meet. It’s an old-world charm that works. I feel special and he has had some fun.

Covering the Mandela era – the years leading up to his release from prison, through the negotiations until the eve of the first elections – for Expressen changes me fundamentally.

Following people from the dying days of their exile, to the joyous homecomings makes me see the world in very different light.

My reputation as one of Madiba’s favourite journalists grows.

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In the early ’90s I stop working for Expressen because the time has come to join the ranks of people who are building the new South Africa. I am appointed as part of a team that will kick-start transformation at the South African Broadcasting Corporation, managing the change from a state to a public broadcaster.

There are formidable enemies in this place, which is still run by the old guard. I plaster photos of myself and the liberation heroes who are soon to become political leaders everywhere in my office: Madiba and I in Sweden; with Thabo in Paris at talks arranged by Danielle Mitterrand’s Foundation and partying with Lindiwe Mabuza in Stockholm. It works; the sabotage and plotting against me and the transformation team is reduced somewhat.

At one dinner at the presidency, a few years after leaving Expressen, I sit down and notice that the place next to me has no name tag. The chair is upturned, clearly off limits. When I ask one of the aides if my friend can sit there, he says:

“No, that’s where Madiba has asked to sit.”

When I am executive producer of the nation’s flagship breakfast TV show, he allows us to broadcast live from his home on the morning of his 80th birthday. Once again I experience the envy my colleagues displayed the day he wrote the message in my notebook. He comes out onto his front porch, looks at the small crowd gathered there and asks, “Where is Sylvia?”

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Journalist friend Audrey Brown and I realise at the last minute that we don’t have one of the coveted official Mandela 80th birthday party invitations.

“Let’s gatecrash,” says Audrey on the phone.

I’m hesitant. The intense security at Johannesburg’s Gallagher Estate is off-putting. But we get dressed up and brave several levels of pissed off people (many of whom we know) with a combination of media chutzpah and name-dropping.

But it’s all worthwhile. I watch the finance minister, Trevor Manuel, climb onto the table of the upmarket Sandton hotel to do an impromptu dance. I feel a sense of pride so intense it makes me weep.

Michael Jackson, Nina Simone, Oprah Winfrey, Robert De Niro … the guest list is long. But I am most pleased to be rubbing shoulders with the finance minister and former guerrilla on the table.

It sums up the excitement and warmth of the Mandela presidency. I am thrilled that Michael Jackson gets hardly any applause but people stand when Nina Simone enters the room. They clap loud and long.

An opportunity to do a prestigious co-production with the BBC Panorama team, David Dimbleby and David Harrison, comes my way out of the blue. They have sent Madiba a proposal: they wish to journey to Qunu where he is holidaying to shoot an interview for a two-part TV series called Mandela – The Living Legend. He tells them flatly that he will only allow it if they work with the SABC and if I am part of the team. One of my bosses at the SABC tells me:

“The old man is insisting that you come with them.”

The BBC is coerced into accepting me as a ‘co-producer’ on the series. Sometime later, as we leave Qunu, Madiba calls to one of the children.

“Fetch Graça, Sylvia is leaving now.”

They tell him they don’t know where his wife Graça Machel is right now.

“A pity, I wanted her to say bye to the one person who could have replaced her.”

Our joke has now taken a new twist.

As I write this, the way to frame Nelson Mandela comes to me … The way to put him in an appropriate place in my professional life, which started with the Soweto uprisings of June 1976, reached a peak with his release in the ’90s, and slowed down after he left us in 2013.

Madiba helped me understand that true greatness is underpinned with genuine warmth. That glorious moments are framed with watermelon droplets. He made me feel proud to be a South African for the very first time… the heart-expanding thrill of being part of something so momentous it can never be repeated in my lifetime.

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