February 11, 2010 / 1:56 PM / 9 years ago

Witness: Driving fast with Nelson Mandela

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - There was one prerequisite for journalists reporting on Nelson Mandela in the heady and chaotic days after his release from 27 years in South African jails.

A fast car.

From the day Mandela was released from a prison farm near Cape Town on February 11, 1990, the convoys ferrying him around the country travelled at breakneck speed — making it exceedingly difficult, and almost always illegal, to keep up.

As a white South African, I always equated the speed at which Mandela’s convoy travelled with his desire to bring reconciliation quickly to a racially divided country.

When he walked free from the Victor Verster prison in South Africa’s wine-making region, Mandela was whisked away in his lawyer’s small Japanese car, which promptly collided with a minibus taxi as hundreds of supporters thronged around the car.

I never thought small Japanese cars could reach the speeds at which we travelled to Cape Town where Mandela was to address tens of thousands of supporters.

On the way, at least three vehicles carrying television crews collided. The crews left the damaged cars in the middle of the highway, hitching rides with other journalists as thousands of people lined the road into Cape Town.

Mandela did address the celebration rally in Cape Town but he read his speech with spectacles borrowed from his then wife Winnie. He left his own at the prison.

Ahead of South Africa’s historic all-race elections, which installed Mandela as the country’s first black leader in May 1994, his drivers stepped up their pace, often reaching speeds of over 200 kmh (125 mph) as he criss-crossed the country campaigning for the African National Congress.

I never received a speeding fine while chasing after Mandela but always considered myself lucky in having covered his release, the day he voted for the first time and the early years of his presidency.


More than anything else, Mandela’s charm, presence, humor and genuine concern for his countrymen made each assignment involving him something out of the ordinary.

At the end of his first news conference as a free man, Mandela was spontaneously applauded by the scores of journalists present — something I have never seen a group of journalists do since.

At briefings for foreign correspondents, Mandela would charm usually cynical journalists to such an extent that we often complained afterwards of being too much in awe to ask probing questions.

It would have been unthinkable for anybody but Mandela to host a lunch for the wives of politicians across the apartheid divide as he did in 1995.

Among those present were Nontsikelelo Biko, whose husband Steve Biko died while in police detention in 1977 and Tienie Vorster, wife of former prime minister John Vorster who ruled the country with an iron fist from 1966 to 1978.

At the lunch Mrs Vorster stood up to offer her seat to Mrs Biko, prompting Mandela to say: “Mrs Vorster, please sit down. Or I will be as authoritarian as your husband.”

The full impact of his drive to reconcile South Africans of all races after more than 300 years of white domination was perhaps only really recognized after he retired.

But during his presidency, his reconciliation efforts drove his bodyguards nuts.

His security was of major concern in the 1990s. Threats came from the white right wing and in one case, shots were fired near him and his helicopter stoned by supporters of the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party.

Mandela would often instruct his driver to stop, and would then get out and speak to ordinary South Africans — contrary to all security protocol.

He also went out of his way to greet journalists.

In late 1992, after I returned to South Africa after a three-month trip abroad, I had to cover a news conference at ANC headquarters and Mandela and his bodyguards walked past.

He came over to me, shook my hand and said: “How are you my boy?”

It was good to be back home.

Editing by Giles Elgood

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