Nelson Mandela dies: He smiled, and I knew I would never see him again

John Carlin recalls his last, poignant encounter with a figure who had come to play a central part in his life

The last time I saw Nelson Mandela face-to-face was four years ago, on 8 December 2009, at his home in Johannesburg. I entered the front door, passed through the entrance hall and headed towards a large dining room. He sat at the head of a long table with his back to me. He was 91, and his hair was white – and at long last, I noticed, thinning.

That first glimpse has stayed with me as clearly as anything else from the hour I spent with him. It was around 1pm, and outside the sun shone brightly; but the big room was dimly lit and he was all alone, perfectly still, bringing to mind the statuesque immobility of his bearing at the numerous public events I had seen him at during my six years as correspondent in South Africa for the Independent, between 1989 and 1995; and recalling a previous interview I’d done with him eight years earlier for a book that had attempted, through the prism of the 1995 Rugby World cup, to capture the essence of his leadership.

Already then he was struggling to walk, yet he had been lucid, in full voice, chuckling frequently, and his hair was still grey. But when I did the talking he seemed to turn to stone. His face became expressionless, like the bust of a Roman emperor or a mystic in a trance. Or, perhaps, like a man who had spent 23 hours out of 24 all alone, year upon year, inside a tiny cell. It was disconcerting, until he replied and I discovered with relief that he had been rapt in concentration, listening after all.

Now, in 2009, as I approached the dining-room of his Johannesburg home – my eyes fixed on the back of that familiar head – I was disconcerted by the possibility that this time the sphinx would not come to life; that he would be lost in the fog of old age.

But no. Not entirely. Not at first. Unable to stand up, he turned his shoulders stiffly in my direction when we were introduced and shone upon me a shadow of the thousand-volt smile that all of us who had known him remembered so well. He reached out his hand – as enormous and tough-skinned as I remembered it from our first handshake 19 years earlier – and he said: “Hello, John.” I wanted to believe he recognised me, for we had known each other well, but in truth I cannot say for sure that he did. Maybe for a second there was a glimmer of recollection. If so, it was rapidly extinguished. I had little sense from then until we parted that he knew who I was.

Before him was a plate of untouched minced meat. He turned his gaze down upon his fork, as if debating whether to rise to the challenge of lifting it to his mouth. His head had shrunk, birdlike, since I had last seen it close up; his body was thin and brittle-boned. While not unhappy to receive a visitor, he seemed confused. No words left his lips. Nervously, seeking to fill the looming void, I mentioned a Hollywood film about him that had just been released. He replied, in an old conversational tic of his, “Good. Very good”; and then, “I see. I see.” But I don’t think he saw a thing. Nor did mention of ‘Invictus’ – the 19th century poem that he had loved or the film that Clint Eastwood had made – elicit any recognition in him.

The poem, which he read in prison and much later at the funeral of one of his sons, begins: “Out of the night that covers me,/ Black as the Pit from pole to pole,/ I thank whatever gods may be/ For my unconquerable soul.” Had darkness finally covered him? Or would I manage, as I had hoped, to catch some glimpse of light? I did, in the end – helped initially by Zelda la Grange, his Afrikaner personal assistant and the person with whom he probably spent the most time after becoming his country’s first democratically elected president in 1994.

 “Come on, khulu, eat up!” La Grange said. “Khulu” is term of endearment in Mandela’s native Xhosa language that can be taken to mean “grandfather” or “great one”. “Come, khulu, you need to eat,” she insisted. Recalling that he had always liked to joke about how women were always bossing him about I made a crack along those lines, speaking loudly, close to his ear, for his hearing was not good. He let out a little smile, chuckled lightly and said, “Yes, that is true. Very true.”

He got it. Success. A connection had been made. I sought to press home the advantage, evoking memories from his political past that I hoped he would continue, somewhere in the depths of his mind, to treasure. It worked.

I mentioned the names of three of his more formidable former Afrikaner foes, all of whom he had engaged in talks – initially  secret talks – that had been critical in steering South Africa away from the nightmare of racial war towards which the country seemed, during many years, to be inexorably headed.

The first name I mentioned was that of General Constand Viljoen, head of the South African Defence Force between 1980 and 1985, the most violent years of apartheid repression. “Ah, yes,” he said. “The military man…” Then I mentioned Niel Barnard, the former chief of apartheid’s National Intelligence Service, regarded in the 1980s as one of the most sinister men alive but whom Mandela met in jail more than 60 times before his release. “Yes,” he said. And last I said the name of Kobie Coetsee, apartheid’s last minister of justice, reminding Mandela that Coetsee had been the first representative of the apartheid government Mandela saw behind bars. “Ah, yes… Good. Very good,” he said.

And then he asked me a question. “Have you ever been to prison?” I said no, though I had visited his cell in Robben Island.

He smiled at that and then it happened. A light switch came on in his mind and, in less than a minute, he zoomed in on the very heart of his political achievement

 “My people said I was afraid,” he began, in a thin but steady voice. “They said I was a coward because I reached out to the Afrikaner. But I did not engage them in the debate. I said nothing to them. I knew I was right. I knew this was the way to peace. And after some time they understood I was right. They have seen the results. We have peace.”

There it was. The boldness and the vision he showed in engaging in dialogue with the apartheid state’s Afrikaner masters, in prison initially, without telling any of his fellow leaders in the African National Congress, for which he was much criticised internally; and the conviction that the only way to achieve his lifetime goal of building a stable democracy in South Africa and averting a bloodbath from which, as he often warned, no winners would emerge had been to appeal to the hearts and minds and better angels of his people’s ancestral enemies.

And yes, in the end, they all did understand that he was right. They saw the results. Mandela’s glory, unmatched in the history of political leadership, was that he got a whole country to change its mind. Faithful always to his principles, to his dream of a “non-racial South Africa”, he persuaded the black majority to repress their hatred and natural impulse for vengeance, and to embrace the spirit of reconciliation; and he convinced his people’s bullying white tormentors to abandon their ancient fears and their guns and accept him as their legitimate president. White South Africa succumbed, almost to a man and woman, to his charms. Proof came when I interviewed those three old foes of his, General Viljoen, Niel Barnard and Kobie Coetsee, after Mandela had left office. Each spoke of him with reverence, with admiration and – it is no exaggeration – with love.

That magically unexpected outburst that mention of those three men had elicited was as much as I would get out of Mandeladuring the hour I spent with him. But I want to believe I did him some good because, suddenly almost sprightly, as if energised after his out-of-the-blue cry of triumphant vindication, he started picking enthusiastically, with Zelda la Grange’s help, at his mince. The challenge of feeding his frail body was where his thoughts were chiefly concentrated for what remained of our encounter. I prattled away, getting scant response, and then we said goodbye.

He gave me the parting gift of that fabulous smile of his, the best smile in the world, and then I left, snatching a final glance at the back of that noble white head, alone and motionless at the big table, before I exited the front door.

It was terribly sad, because I knew I would never see him again and because it seemed that, surely, he did not have long to live. He hung on a lot longer than I, or many of those closest to him, imagined at the time that he would. I just hope he ended his days aware not only that he had secured his life’s mission of securing peace where there should have been war, but knowing also that one great last victory lay ahead of him in the grave: South Africans, black and white, would celebrate his life and mourn his death equally.

John Carlin is the author of ‘Knowing Mandela: a personal portrait’ and ‘Playing The Enemy’, on which the film ‘Invictus’  is based.

Read more from John Carlin: Nelson Mandela life story: The Magician's Legacy  

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