My encounters with Madiba


When Nelson Mandela visited Kenya upon his release from detention, I was in detention myself so I only heard of his visit.

But I was later to meet Mandela on several different occasions. Each meeting left very lasting impressions.

We first met at the Mandela Lounge at the Michelangelo Towers in Sandton City on the outskirts of Johannesburg.

It was at this meeting that he told me that he had wanted to meet Jaramogi Oginga Odinga during his first visit to Kenya but he did not because the State did not make arrangements for it.

He told me he had met Jaramogi way back in 1963 when the OAU was being launched in Addis.

ANC was one of the liberation movements that had been invited to Addis, together with KANU and movements from all nations that were struggling for independence including all Portuguese colonies.

Mandela recalled that it was himself and Jaramogi who were chosen to speak on behalf of liberation movements and a strong bond developed between the two of them.

He remembered vividly and emotionally the events of that day in Addis during our first meeting. I was amazed at the clarity of his thoughts about an event that took place so many years ago, despite many years of being cut off the rest of the world by detention.

At that meeting he talked to me about my on detention and I told him he had been my inspiration. I told him I kept saying if Mandela could do 27, why could I not do more. He took it very humbly and lightly. I was there with my wife Ida and he was with Graca.

Next we met at his home in Johannesburg with our families. I was with mine and he was with his and grand children. We spent a long time and I was amazed how easy he was with small children, familiar with the habits of each and knowing them by name.

At that meeting, he talked much about the importance of family particularly at times of great struggle.

Our other meeting was at his other home in Cape Town. This time his memory was fading and had a problem hearing. He had to be told things and he would then respond.

Our meeting was at his residence in Johannesburg. This time too he was not so much himself.

The remarkable thing was that even when he was ailing, his spirit was still very strong and he was very composed. His legs were weak he needed quite a bit of support.

But he retained a unique capacity to grasp and interpret international issues. You would mention an issue taking place on the international stage and he would quickly give an interpretation of what it meant and where it was leading.

Looking at his advanced age and the times in which he grew up, one would think Mandela was part of the old stock of politicians but he was well above them and completely different.

He strongly believed in term limits. He was very unhappy that leaders were reversing constitutions to extend their stay in power. He felt two terms were more than enough for leaders to do whatever they want to do for their people.

At one stage, I was with him as debate was raging in two African countries where the sitting presidents wanted to extend term limits. He was very unhappy about it.

Mandela was quite passionate about the issue of HIV/AIDS. He wanted open discussions about Aids. He was very unhappy with leaders who tried to sweep it under the carpet.

In all my encounters with Mandela, it was impossible not to notice the kind of support Graca was giving him.

I don’t think Madiba would have made it this far without the support the lady gave him. It was amazing and this recognition is missing in the condolences.

Graca insisted on making Madiba look stately even with failing health and advancing age.

I recall Graca did not attend the signing of our Peace Accord because Madiba’s health had deteriorated and he needed her support.

Around Madiba, Graca exuded a sense of responsibility that is unmatched.

(Odinga is a former Prime Minister of Kenya)

3 Replies to “My encounters with Madiba”

  1. Mandela was a great man. I hope that the people who are now praising him can allow democracy to thrive without wanting to be small gods. It may be an incumbent president trying to change the constitution to favour him/her, or a party leader imposing ‘his’ people on to the electorate, or using power in ways that do not help the people

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