The shirts, the humour, the empathy – the magic of Mandela

December 5, 2013 10:58 pm
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A file photo taken on July 24, 2007 shows former South African President Nelson Mandela joking with youngsters as they celebrate his 89th birthday/AFP
A file photo taken on July 24, 2007 shows former South African President Nelson Mandela joking with youngsters as they celebrate his 89th birthday/AFP
JOHANNESBURG, Dec 5 – South Africans called it the “Madiba magic” after his clan name – Nelson Mandela’s quirky mix of grandeur and simplicity, his ready quips, his ability to relate to the poor, his colourful custom-made shirts and his dancing prowess.

Mandela – who succumbed to a recurrent lung infection on Thursday aged 95 – drew politicians from around the world, as well as ordinary children and adults keen to get a glimpse of the freedom icon who spent 27 years in prison.

Many remember his solemn inauguration as South Africa’s first black president on May 20, 1994 at the age of 75, when he shuffled a few steps in perfect time despite the wear and tear on his body, fists clenched, with a beaming smile. The now famous “Madiba jive” was born.

Entertainers parodied it, radio stations took up the beat, and every time Mandela made a public appearance someone would ask him to jive despite his increasing frailty over the years.

Parodied too, in many bars in South Africa, was his distinctive accent – a slow, punctuated growl.

Indissolubly associated with the Madiba magic were his loose shirts – riots of colour which stood out among the sober suits and ties of his associates.

They were inspired by the shirts worn by former president Suharto of Indonesia, and hand-made for him by a Burkina Faso national living in Ivory Coast.

The photographers loved them, even though they were forbidden to use flash when taking pictures of Mandela because his eyes had been weakened when working in the glare of a limestone quarry on Robben Island, off Cape Town, where he was imprisoned for 18 years.

Thabo Mbeki, his successor as president who wore elegantly tailored dark suits, once described the shirts as “bizarre”.

The Madiba magic drew politicians from around the world, eager to be photographed alongside him long after he retired in 1999.

But when US President George W. Bush visited South Africa in 2003 he passed up the chance, after Mandela criticised the invasion of Iraq in stinging terms, describing Bush as “a president who can’t think properly”.

The children of South Africa adored Madiba, who had a special empathy with youngsters as he missed seeing his own grow up while in apartheid prisons.

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