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.
His minders said they were sure he hadn’t heard of the Spice Girls until that morning, but it didn’t matter to Mandela.
That was the mark of the man: that he could switch from meeting kings and presidents one day, a child from Soweto or his former jailers the next and the Spice Girls the day after, and genuinely be able to say each time that it was the best of all possible days.
That said, it was the boxers he met, including Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, who really put a smile on his face, reminding him of his earliest sporting passion.
The other meeting that stands out took place with Tiger Woods and his father Earl Woods in 1998. Tiger had won the U.S. Masters the year before and was on his way to being regarded as the world’s greatest player at the age of 22.
But rather than a champion with the world at his feet, the person who met Mandela that day looked like an awe-struck schoolboy in an oversized grey suit, one hand in his pocket.
No one but Woods knows what was said in the private meeting with Mandela, but in an appearance in front of the press immediately afterwards, Tiger barely uttered a word. In photos, he can be seen staring in silent amazement while his father talked about the importance of his son meeting Mandela.
Despite his reticence 15 years ago, the moment clearly left an impression on Woods. He called the meeting an inspiration and wrote on Twitter the day Madiba died: “Pop & I felt your aura when we met. I feel it today & I will feel it forever.”
The only time I shook hands with Mandela again provided a moment of amusing insight into his character.
It was at a Foreign Correspondents’ Association dinner in Johannesburg in 1998 and Mandela had been invited as the guest of honor.
About 150 journalists were there, including Charlayne Hunter-Gault, at the time a correspondent for U.S. National Public Radio who had been one of the first people to interview Mandela when he was released from prison.
Knowing Hunter-Gault a little bit and knowing that she knew Mandela, I shamelessly stood beside her as Mandela came down the receiving line shaking hands with everyone as he left.
As he got to Hunter-Gault, Mandela broke into a broad smile and held his arms out wide for a hug. “Charlayne! Charlayne! Lovely to see you again,” he said in his distinctive voice, taking her hands in his and holding her with a tight gaze.
“When are you going to become a South African citizen?” he asked with a twinkle in his eye. “We would be honored to have someone as lovely as you as a South African.”
His flirtatious banter left Hunter-Gault, a striking woman seldom at a loss for words, speechless and close to blushes.
He may be 80 but he’s an outrageous charmer, I remember thinking. But before I could complete the thought his hand was outstretched in my direction. We exchanged a quick shake.
“Hello,” I said, “nice to meet you.” But there was no reply. He had already moved down the line.
(Luke Baker was a correspondent in South Africa from 1997-2000 and is now Reuters bureau chief in Brussels)
Writing by Luke Baker; Editing by Michael Roddy