‘He hugs us both, and we notice how thin he is beneath his clothes’

Anthony Sampson on a meeting with Nelson Mandela after his release from prison


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The Independent Online

24 March 1990

... The plain, single-storey brick house is now the centre of black South African politics, with leaders bustling in and out. The ANC flag, which two weeks ago was illegal, is flying from a flagpole above the concrete garage which has greetings printed across it: “WELCOME HOME DR MANDELA.” But the contrast with the white parliament buildings down in Cape Town is total: the whole Mandela house could fit into a single hall.

It looks more like a biblical scene, a rumoured miracle-working, than a political headquarters. Schoolgirls are peeping through the garden wall, or sitting piggy-back, looking into a small garden where a tall black man with grey hair is calmly talking to a television team. People coming away from him look and talk as if they’ve been redeemed, or forgiven.

We’re greeted by Peter Magubane, the Dum photographer who in the past has been detained, interrogated and tortured. He has recorded nearly every previous crisis, and seen hopes of liberation rise and fall. I ask him: “Is this really It?” He says: “Yes, it’s It. Since the end of the year it’s all changed. They can’t put it back.”

Eventually, we’re beckoned through the narrow, well-guarded gate and in to the kitchen, which is full of women preparing a meal. Winnie Mandela is among them, looking the dedicated housewife. She gives a shout of recognition, and double-hugs us both. We’re taken through to the sitting room, which is half-filled with bowls of flowers and a huge television screen. The walls are bare pine, which gives the place a still more rustic look, like a small beach-house. But it’s overflowing with people: young comrades supposedly guarding it, officials organising it, women running it.

Then Mandela comes into the room, looking far too big for it. He’s taller than I remember him, with no stoop. He looks more like a head of state than a politician: erect and perfectly groomed in his double-breasted light suit, with a white shirt and broad red tie in place of the prison clothes in which I last saw him. Yet, at 71, he looks uncannily the same as the man who looked back at me from the dock 26 years ago; he has the same firm features, the ability to switch from an open smile to a stern gaze. I can’t help thinking of him as a young man pretending to be older, who has put some flour in his hair – until I notice a slight uncertainty in his stride, and recognise an old man’s walk. He hugs us both, and we notice how thin he is beneath his clothes.

He chats in the style of a benign headmaster, combining intimacy and authority. He asks about mutual friends in London, particularly David Astor, who sent him books in jail, and Mary Benson, who wrote his biography. He seems to have no trouble in picking up the threads of 30 years ago. He tells Sally: “I remember Tony as a bright young man.” He looks Sally up and down and says: “Tony didn’t tell me about you. He’s kept things from me!” (We weren’t married 30 years ago). He smiles and says, “Look after him”, while Peter Magubane snaps pictures.

We sit down in a small dining room. One of the women points out the steak that is waiting for him, but he ignores it and sits at the other end, as if for a meeting, laying his big hands on the table with thumbs touching, like a judge waiting for evidence. He is clearly already well-informed about events that took place while he was in jail. He talks like the lawyer that he always was, using words precisely. We chat about that scene in the dock in 1964 while Sally takes some pictures. He laughs as if all those years – of hard labour, isolation and political deterioration – had simply disappeared.

Walking outside afterwards, away from this presidential presence, it seems all the odder to be back in a crowded village garden. We are assured that Mandela’s house is more secure than it looks. But the vulnerability of the tall man inside, on whom both whites and blacks have put so many of their hopes of peace, remains fearful.

Driving back through the spacious white suburbs, the image of their crowded Soweto house seems to have evaporated into a fantasy. Have the whites really absorbed what Mandela is demanding? Can they visualise how their comfortable lives will be changed if he achieves his one person, one vote?

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