Nelson Mandela: A life remembered in anecdotes

Humble, tough, gracious – and funny. The anecdotes of those who have come into contact  with Nelson Mandela have been touching and revealing. Here we recount some of them

Friday 13 December 2013 20:57 GMT
Mandela's laughter 'nearly broke the windows'
Mandela's laughter 'nearly broke the windows' (AFP/Getty Images)

Morgan Freeman

“Madiba and I became friends back in the 1990s when, during a press conference, he was asked whom he would want to portray him in a film. To my everlasting honour, he mentioned me. I got to walk with him, talk with him, hold his hand... Nearly 20 years after our first meeting, my company had the unique pleasure of producing Invictus. His only comment after we first screened the movie for him was a humble: ‘Now perhaps people will remember me.’”

Spike Lee

Nelson Mandela’s sole acting credit came via a cameo in Lee’s ‘Malcolm X’, in which he played a teacher reciting one of Malcolm X’s famous speeches

“During my research for the film I found out that the autobiography of Malcolm X by Alex Haley was one of the books that kept Nelson Mandela going in his many years of imprisonment, so I got the idea that we could have Nelson be in the last scene of the film. The last line of the speech was: ‘By any means necessary’, and Nelson told me: ‘Spike, I can’t say that. I cannot say “by any means necessary”.’ So we cut to archival footage of Malcolm X saying it instead.”

Matt Damon

Damon played Springboks captain Francois Pienaar in the film ‘Invictus’

“When I was doing Invictus in South Africa we had a chance to meet Mandela. They told us that we could bring our kids – Gia was about eight months and Isabella was two, and when we were waiting in the hallway to be ushered in, I was holding Isabella and she said to me: ‘Daddy, who’s behind that door?’ I don’t know whether she felt my heart start to beat faster, but she was aware that [it] was somebody special. So I said: ‘It’s Mr Mandela. He’s a very special man and we’re going to go and say hello to him.’ So we walked in, and neither of the two little ones would take their eyes off him. He has this aura about him, so much so that a child … was absolutely aware that there was something incredible happening. It’s amazing.”

Oprah Winfrey

“I’d tried three times to read Long Walk to Freedom and finally managed to finish it the night before I was due to arrive at his house. I was invited to his home in Qunu, and spent 10 days and nights there. Every morning I’d have breakfast with him and he’d be the first one up, and sometimes I’d be like: ‘Oh my God, what am I going to say?’ We did The Oprah Winfrey Show with him in Chicago, and he said to the producer: ‘Who is on the show and what is it about?’ It’s about YOU! That speaks to the depths of his humility.”

Richard Stengel

The writer who collaborated with Mandela on ‘Long Walk to Freedom’

“I remember once we were going to do an interview and it was in the afternoon, and he gets tired in the afternoon. He was having his nap, and he had this lovely housekeeper... and she said: ‘Just go upstairs, Richard.’ I came into his bedroom. He had this great king-size bed. But there he was, in one tiny corner of it... The whole rest of the bed was pristine. Completely made, and he was just in this little portion of the bed lying there like this. It was very poignant. That’s the constriction of the world that he had to learn to live in.

Liverpool FC footballer Ian Callaghan

Mandela, a self-confessed Liverpool fan, met Callaghan in 1997

“He shook my hand and said, laughing: ‘I don’t think I should wash my hand ever again’. He said that he wouldn’t wash his hand because I had played the most games for Liverpool.”

Dr Aron Mazel

The anti-apartheid campaigner, now a lecturer at Newcastle University, met Mandela at a wedding in 1991

“Mandela gave a speech. He said [he] had been in prison for 27 years, and although it was a year-and-a-half after he had been released, I think he was still finding his way in society, so he had asked one of his daughters what he should wear. And she said: ‘Look, these are young people, so you should go quite casually dressed’. So he dressed casually with a white shirt, white trousers, white shoes, and when he arrived, everyone else was very formally dressed, and he obviously felt a bit put out.”

John Simpson

“My warmest memory comes from a visit he made to my old college at Cambridge. Mandela is an excellent speaker, with a real feeling for his audience and what they want to hear; again, I suppose this comes from that deeply personal sympathy for each individual he meets.

“‘I am very nervous about speaking here,’ he announced. ‘For three reasons. First, I am an old-age pensioner.’ A faint titter of amusement went round the hall, but uncertainly: was he joking? Or was he simply being self-deprecating?

“‘Secondly, because I am unemployed.’ A slightly louder, more confident laugh; he had stepped down as President not long before. ‘And thirdly, because I have a very baaaaad criminal record.’ The laughter then nearly broke the stained-glass windows.”

Tim Donaghy

Brixton resident who attended Mandela’s visit in 1996

“Someone put a girl over the railings with flowers to give to Mandela and the security got in a flap and put Mandela and Prince Charles in a car to whizz them off to Trafalgar Square where he was giving a speech. Everyone chased the car. There were shoes everywhere on Brixton Road because everyone lost them when they were running.”


Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in