This is the only picture I have that proves that when I was very little, my mother and I met Nelson Mandela.
Yeah, that’s mini-me, front and centre. The lady on the left is my mother, proud South African and very short, especially when compared to the man on the left. His Excellency Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela. Madiba. Father of the Nation. One of the greatest people to have ever lived. I met him, knobbly knees and all. I wasn’t even wearing glasses full-time then, which is probably why the memory of how we came to this picture is as blurry as the picture itself. But I’ll tell you what I can remember.
In 1998, several years after he became South Africa’s first black president, he was invited to visit the Caribbean for a convention of some sort. To be honest, I was about 6, so I interpreted it as a World Tour, like how Britney Spears or Destiny’s Child or The Spice Girls did world tours (The 90s was a brilliant time for girl pop, let’s be real). He came to St Lucia and there was a huge fanfare, as befitting such a great man. We had welcome parties and celebrations in the streets. We danced to our local music in our traditional dress and named our streets after him. We treated him the best way we knew how. But for one person this was not enough.
“I am going to meet my president,” announced my mother. I looked up from the book I was reading.
“MoooOOooooOOm,” I said in that way all little kids do. “I don’t know if that’s allowed.”
“Too bad. He’s my president, I am the only South African in the country and I… am… going… to… meet him.”
I suppose this is a good time to mention my mother’s character. If you have an African mother then you’ll understand, but I’ll explain if you don’t. My mother is stubborn. Ridiculously so. She isn’t one to back down from anything and doesn’t take no for an answer. So when she said that she was going to meet her President, you better believe that come hell or high water, she was going to meet him.
We drove up to the hotel in my mum’s little old Suzuki, me dressed in my nicest dress and hair pulled so tight I felt like I was given a facelift. She got out and strode to reception, me lagging behind. The reception lady smiled.
“Hello I am here to see Nelson Mandela,” my mum announced. The receptionist blinked.
“I’m sorry, you can’t do that.”
My mum drew up to her full, impressive height of about 5ft2. “Well I am waiting for Mrs Compton, we are going to see him with her.”
Mrs Compton is the wife of the former Prime Minister of St Lucia. My mother used to work for her at the time and when she’d heard that her President was coming, she asked Mrs Compton for a little favour.
“Mr Mandela doesn’t see anyone without an appointment.”
“Well we have one. We’ll wait.”
My mum strode off and sat in the waiting area. I followed, slightly embarrassed.
Sure enough, Mrs Compton arrived and announced herself. Were my mother petty, I think she’d have stuck her tongue out at the reception lady who looked more than a little miffed, but instead we were whisked through, past some very tall security guards and into his hotel room.
“Hello my sister,” Mr Mandela greeted my mum. She got sniffly. The very tall, very important and quite grey man looked down at me.
“Hello,” he said, smiling. “Would you like some orange juice?”
I wish I could say I remember more of the conversation. My mum remembers talking to him about what part of South Africa she’s from and all sorts. The only things I remember is that it was a very nice glass of orange juice and he told me two things.
“Be a good girl and listen to your parents.”
And then we took that picture.
Mandela remains a present figure in my life, even after his passing. All that he sacrificed for my mother’s people remains in history books as a part of what changed South Africa to the Rainbow Nation it is today. We have a framed picture of him and his autobiography in our home. He inspired not just a nation but the entire world and his death marked a great loss to us all… although at 95, it’s a well deserved rest for a man who has done so much. A part of me feels sad that I met him at an age when I wasn’t old enough to really understand all that he did. At 6 years old, one can only understand so much about the world and its injustices. But then again, how many people can say that a world famous freedom fighter gave them a cup of orange juice?