Mandela, a natural charmer with the measure of those he met

Tue Dec 10, 2013 6:27am EST
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By Luke Baker

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Thousands upon thousands of people, great and small, met Nelson Mandela, and as a correspondent in South Africa from 1997-2000, I was fortunate to be among them.

During his presidency and in the early years of his retirement from office, Mandela made a point of meeting as many of the people who beat a path to his door as possible.

He loved the gatherings which, while often stage-managed and to a certain extent set up for the media, were also perfect opportunities to observe Madiba at close range.

Two meetings are crystallized in the memory, not so much for their political importance but for what they showed of his personality and almost child-like enjoyment of the moment, not to mention the intense impact he had on people.

The first was an encounter with the Spice Girls in 1997, when the British band was taking the world by storm. They were performing at a concert in Johannesburg to help raise money for the Prince's Trust, a charity overseen by Prince Charles.

As he was hugged and kissed by each of the women in turn, including Ginger Spice wearing bright-red, six-inch (15-cm) platform shoes and a super-short Japanese-style dress, Mandela beamed and declared it to be the "greatest day of my life".

It was a phrase he often used when meeting high-profile visitors, an easy way of flattering them since it was nearly always the greatest day of their lives rather than of his.

But he always managed to say it with a ring of truth, and perhaps at some level meeting five excitable 20-something women in skimpy clothes really was a great day - certainly not the sort of thing that happens in prison.   Continued...

A placard showing a picture of the late South African president Nelson Mandela is seen on the pavement outside the First National Bank (FNB) Stadium, also known as Soccer City, ahead of Mandela's national memorial service on Tuesday in Johannesburg December 10, 2013. REUTERS/Yves Herman