Meetings With A Legend – Rafat Mahdi

Nelson Mandela has passed away and the world is suddenly orphaned. This towering icon of icons once described his eventful life as a “long walk to freedom”. This was an understatement for his life was one of struggle. Yet in a strange way it was like a perpetual song in which the defining notes were that of freedom, justice and peace in articulate harmony with each other. The world mourns because it is significantly poorer without him. He was an inspiration for billions and ‘belongs to the ages’.

Any tribute to Mandela is merely an act of supererogation for one can never add to the beauty of the rainbow. This leader of men was an inspiration to all South Africans and to the people of Africa. To them he was a saviour, messiah and guide as he was to all those who value and fight for their God-given birthright to live in freedom and dignity.

His legacy of bringing people together – black and white, rich and poor – will live forever. Apartheid has been permanently dismantled and a path has been blazed for all those who struggle for liberty. The permanent dismantling of all forms of discrimination and class prejudice is yet to be accomplished.

I fear that I have strayed into the treacherous waters of subjectivity. Yet I have no regret because I have met the man on several occasions – perhaps more than any other Pakistani has – and each of these meetings convinced me that I was with a person who had altered the course of history. This was the highpoint in my assignment as the high commissioner of Pakistan to Zimbabwe if not of my entire career in the diplomatic profession.

I am in the process of compiling my memoirs and the pride of place is a chapter on my conversations with Mandela titled ‘Meeting with a Giant’ – borrowed from Beverly Nichols’ account of his meeting with Jinnah in his book, Verdict on India.

Twenty-seven years of rigorous imprisonment in Robben Island where he had to “break rocks in the sun” never embittered Mandela against his captors. When I asked him why he had never criticised the Pretoria regime, he replied: "We have suffered at the hands of apartheid; we do not want to apply it in reverse.” This was at the heart of his legacy of reconciliation and restraint which will live forever.

This article is restricted to two of my eight one-on-one meetings with Mandela. The first was a short discussion at a special University of Harare convocation for the conferment of an honorary doctorate on him during his tour of neighbouring countries. This was a month after he had been released from Robben Island on February 11, 1990.

On instructions from Islamabad to hand over a cheque to the African National Congress, I requested President Mugabe’s office for a meeting with Mandela. I was aware the chances of this materialising were slim in view of his cramped schedule during the two-day visit. I would have to wait for his next trip abroad or travel to Johannesburg for the meeting.

However I was completely taken aback at the convocation, when, after the ceremony, I was called to the stage. I walked falteringly to the dais unsure why I had been summoned, and that too amid all the glitter and ceremonious pageantry that marked the occasion. Mandela looked weak and emaciated as I shook hands with him. He was standing with the help of a cane and had to be supported by his wife (later divorced), Winnie Mandela.

For a few seconds I stood motionless and there was pin-drop silence which was finally broken by Winnie Mandela when she asked whether I had sought a meeting with her husband. I replied in the affirmative but added that I wanted to meet him privately and not at the convention. A young staff member responded that this was the only available timeslot, and, furthermore, that Mandela was leaving the next day.

I responded that I fully appreciated this and could wait till Mandela’s next visit abroad, or, alternatively, I could travel to Johannesburg to meet him. The proposal was readily accepted. But Mandela, who had been silently listening to this interchange, unexpectedly intervened and enquired about his first meeting the following day. On being told that it was at 7 am, he asked me whether we could meet at six in the morning.

From that memorable first encounter with this man of history who had captured the hearts and minds of millions, to my farewell call on him on August 8, 1992 prior to my departure for my next assignment in Brussels, he unfailingly came across as a person blessed with a razor-sharp intellect wedded to a mellow soul. But the meeting which I can never forget was one in which he asked me: “Do you know who my hero is?” I responded: “You are certainly an inspiration for me as you are for so many but I would not know who your hero would be.” Without any further hesitation he said: ‘My hero is Jinnah. Ask me why. I drew inspiration for my freedom struggle from him.” I was as dazzled as much as I was thrilled.

During my farewell call on him, I told Mandela how fortunate I was to have been my government’s first contact with the ANC and, in particular, with him. But I was leaving with an unfulfilled dream – my failure to have organised his visit to Pakistan. He promptly replied that he would make amends and asked his secretary whether his schedule permitted a trip to Pakistan in September. On being reminded that his daughter’s marriage was in that month, he suggested a visit after the wedding.

I immediately seized the opportunity and started discussing the details. Mandela refused to accept first class tickets saying that he would prefer to travel by economy class. At my insistence he reluctantly agreed to accept just one first class ticket and a few in the economy class. I suggested an itinerary via Nairobi, Dubai and then directly to Islamabad.

I can never ever forget his impassioned response: ‘How can I enter Pakistan without paying homage to my hero?” It was then that his visit was so arranged as to take him to Karachi first where he went to the Quaid’s mazar before flying to Islamabad. The visit took place in October 1992. My dream was fulfilled. And he too was able to begin his tour with a visit to the mausoleum of a leader from whom he drew inspiration for his own freedom struggle.

The world will never forget his timeless words: “Real leaders must be ready to sacrifice all for the freedom of their people…Do not judge me by my successes… judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again…I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if need be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” That was Nelson Mandela.