Awestruck over lunch with a legend: a personal memory of Nelson Mandela
Bonny Schoonakker, now a South China Morning Post night editor, reveals how he found himself on the wrong side of Mandela
Despite his friendly welcome when I arrived for lunch, no sooner had I sat down at the table than he unleashed a tirade.
Ever since his release from jail, he said, he had met many, many journalists. On the whole, we were a decent bunch. However, there were some bad ones among us – “and you”, he said, raising both voice and index finger, “are the worst.” Scolded by the world’s most beloved man, I panicked. For decades, millions – no, billions – of people held him in reverence and awe. So did I. Unanimously, the world’s media had been telling us that he was a saint who had saved his people and redeemed his nation, if not mankind itself.
Now, more 12 years after he had walked out of jail in February 1990, here he was with some cheeky white man who had dared to write a story in the newspapers that had raised questions about his integrity. I had reported on a scam in which donations meant for Mandela’s charities were ending up in his lawyer’s private bank account and on the day the report appeared, Mr Mandela phoned me at home.
“Hello,” he said. “Would you like to come and see me next week? We would like to cook you a big lunch.”
Everything would be explained, he said. He sounded jovial, belying his anger.
Less than a week later we were seated in the dining room of Shambala, a game lodge in north-western South Africa owned by Douw Steyn, one of the country’s richest businessmen. Steyn had been assiduously courting the African National Congress and had made his mansion north of Johannesburg available to the ANC’s Youth League as some kind of pleasure dome. Mr Mandela had been given the use of Shambala, to serve as a retreat where he could work in peace and quiet on the sequel to Long Walk to Freedom, his autobiography.
Quiet it certainly was. Too quiet. From what I could see when I arrived, there was only one policeman at the entrance gate. Indoors, the only person keeping Mr Mandela company was Zelda la Grange, the woman whom he had retained as his personal assistant after stepping down as president three years previously. Zelda had asked me to bring up the day’s newspapers, as these were difficult to buy in Vaalwater, the closest town.
After entering Shambala’s foyer I thought I could detect a sense of loneliness rather than solitude – that not much in the way of book-writing was taking place here. Mr Mandela was clearly isolated, far from home, friends, family and former colleagues. As it turned out, a sequel to Long Walk was never written.
The report which Mr Mandela wanted to discuss with me involved an issue that had come to light in June 2000, more than a year previously, after a strange incident at his home in Johannesburg.
Back then, Norman Adami, the head of South African Breweries (now known as SABMiller), had been kicked off the property in Mandela’s leafy, upmarket suburb of Houghton by Ismail Ayob, Mr Mandela’s personal lawyer, despite having a cheque in hand to donate for one million rand, to donate two of Mr Mandela’s two charities, the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund (NMCF) and the Nelson Mandela Foundation.
For years, ever since Mr Mandela’s release from jail in February 1990, the great and the good had been beating a path to his door, money in hand, eager for a photo-op with the great man himself. On this occasion, however, Adami was ordered to leave immediately, and over the following year, through some digging, I had discovered that money being raised for Mr Mandela’s charities was landing up in his private trust account held by Ayob. It seemed that little of the money was going where it said it had been intended, and when the story ran it created a bit of stink, shall we say.
Ayob told SAB and, later, myself, that he had ordered Adami off the property because Mr Mandela was a teetotaler and therefore could not accept money from a company that made alcoholic beverages. This was nonsense. As an SAB auditor told me, Ayob and Mr Mandela had previously been happy to accept their donations. Mr Mandela had even opened SAB’s World of Beer centre in downtown Johannesburg in 1995, his first year as president.
Intrigued by Ayob’s lie, I started digging, and may well have gotten nowhere but for a stroke of luck. An old friend from way back had read my report about the Adami incident and gave me a call. Documents he gave me, including the contract for a failed project deal, also showed how Ayob had conducted business in Mr Mandela’s name. These confirmed what SAB has suspected – that Adami’s offence had been to offer a cheque made out to the Mandela charities and not to Ayob’s trust fund or to Mr Mandela personally.
The contract also showed that Ayob, on Mr Mandela’s behalf, had signed a business deal with a Cape Town-based advertising company, and one of its directors. It was shabby, fraudulent, and a betrayal of everything that Mr Mandela represented to the people of South Africa.
In return for six million rand, Mr Mandela agreed to sign a series of sketches supposedly drawn by him but in fact drawn by a commercial artist. In return for the rights to Mr Mandela’s signature on their prints the company would pay proceeds from their sale into his trust account with Ayob. If the tax man found out about any of this, all Mr Mandela’s tax liabilities were to be paid by the company.
According to this agreement, at least some of the money was to be paid from the trust account to the foundation and the NMCF, which Mr Mandela set up in 1994 with the first paycheque he received as president. However, the deal went sour long before a single so-called Mandela print could be sold. Payment of the six million rand had helped to propel the company into bankruptcy.
The company’s creditors sent in the liquidators. Foremost among the recoverable assets they identified was the six million that had been paid into Mr Mandela’s trust account. Ayob refused to pay it back, because (the creditors suspected) it had already been spent. The two charities, however, insisted that they had never received any of it, and the matter of recovering the money was destined for the courts.
Astonishingly, the NMCF and the foundation confirmed on the record that money raised on their behalf, often donated by people who wanted their picture taken with Mr Mandela, did not always reach them. I was surprised that they were so forthcoming, especially to a journalist, but no one had ever asked them about this before.
It was a story which my newspaper, an enthusiastic supporter of the NMCF from the day it was launched, was too nervous to touch. But there was no doubt that the documents from my source were authentic. Even Ayob had confirmed this:
“If you publish anything I will have you charged with theft because they were stolen from me,” he told me on the phone.
Mr Mandela refused to speak to me directly – I could never get past Zelda, who insisted that I had to speak to Ayob and Ayob alone. My editor then decided that we should wait for the matter to go to court, and for the documents to become a matter of public record before we could quote from them.
A year later the creditors filed their papers with the Rand Supreme Court in Johannesburg, on a Friday afternoon. On Sunday we published a cautiously worded account of the dispute between Ayob and the creditors, and the whereabouts of money that should have gone to the Mandela charities.
A year later, on the Sunday evening, when I received that call at home, I recognised Mandela’s voice instantly. A few days later I flew up to Johannesburg, and then drove to Vaalwater, 400km northeast of the city.
When I arrived Mr Mandela and Zelda met me at the entrance to Shambala. Formalities and security measures were notable by their absence. The lone policeman at the entrance was dressed in civilian clothes and had an automatic pistol sticking nonchalantly out of his trouser belt. Douw Steyn was not there.
Before we sat down, Mr Mandela invited me to sign the guestbook. I noticed that the previous entry was more than a month old (the newly-weds Prince Willem-Alexander and Maxima of the Netherlands. A few weeks earlier the Netherlands embassy in Pretoria flatly denied as false a rumour I had heard that couple were on honeymoon in South Africa).
At the table, Mr Mandela had before him a list of follow-up questions which I had faxed to Zelda. As we sat down he said he was annoyed because I had failed to give him an opportunity to respond prior to publication, hence his belief that I was the world’s worst journalist.
I tried to explain that I had tried to get hold of him, many times.
He shouted me down.
“Let me finish,” he boomed.
I sank deeper into my chair.
Zelda kept her silence through an indignant, 15-minute harangue of how he had always tried to help those around him, how he had never done anything wrong, and had lived according to his conscience. Judging her moment perfectly, Zelda interrupted him after a few minutes.
“Mr Mandela, he did try to get hold of you, but I always referred him to Mr Ayob,” she said.
This stopped him in mid-stride. It was as if he had decided to stop reading from a teleprompter spinning in his head.
“Oh.” Pause. “Oh I see. Oh well, OK then,” he said, and looked at me as if for the first time.
He raced through my questions: how much money had he raised for the charities? How much of this was retained by trust? Was there any oversight of donations for the charities? Who kept track of these donations?
He could not answer any of these in any meaningful detail. All of this was Ayob’s responsibility, he said.
In general, however, he would say that he had always felt obliged to provide for his family, whom he had neglected during his 26 years in jail. He had to do something for them, and Ayob had come up with some ideas. He had no reason to believe there was anything wrong with any of these ideas, as Ayob himself had checked and approved of everything.
Besides his family he had also done favours for many, many others. He mentioned by way of example Modjadji the Rain Queen, a traditional ruler revered by her people. For her, Mr Mandela said, he had persuaded Toyota to provide a fleet of limousines. It was the least he could for a woman of her stature. He had also solicited donations from many private companies, for charitable purposes, and was happy to name them.
“Is that thing working?” he asked at one point, pointing at my tape-recorder. “Good, because I want it work.”
Unfortunately, though, I had brought along only 90 minutes of tape, enough for what was meant to be only an hour-long interview. Instead, the interview lasted three hours, with the second half recorded only in shorthand.
The interview ran over its scheduled length because, once the faxed questions were dealt with, Mr Mandela enjoyed having some company. Relieved to have some company, he revelled in memories of his youth. And although he spoke mostly of personal things, he said nothing about his days in the struggle against apartheid, and the formative years of Umkhonto weSizwe, the ANC’s armed wing, which he established.
Instead, he recalled how in the late 1930s, he had bought a new hat, and, while wearing it at a jaunty angle, had walked all the way from Alexandra township to Sophiatown, a distance across northern Johannesburg of some 30 kilometres, to impress a certain young lady. She had indeed been impressed, he said, twinkle in his eye. (If he had walked as the crow flies, he would have passed through Houghton, where all the very richest people lived. Did ever he imagine that he would live there one day, 60 years later?) As he held forth in this manner to a stranger, I was bewildered, and wondered whether I had any right to be there. I was awestruck, not only by the man himself, but intimidated by the immense distance between his public persona and his private self, and the tragedy of a saintly man adored by billions but let down, even betrayed, by those closest to him.
It was as if I had stumbled on a grandfather in an old age home where he had been abandoned by his family. He may have rambled on a bit, but I treasured every word, every moment, so that I could embed every detail in my mind for the rest of my life.
I was also relieved. He may have started off by thinking I was a bad journalist, but, as was confirmed over the following months and years, he urgently needed to get his affairs in order. Above all, he needed to reconsider his relationship with Ayob.
Later, other journalists also got involved in the story, which still had a few twists and turns to make, but some hasty reforms were made to the running of Mr Mandela’s affairs. Eventually, he did sack Ayob. He was slow to recognise the need to do so, but my report was the first to alert and his advisers to the danger he was in.
Our interview at Shambala came to an end when Mr Mandela began to tire. Zelda explained that it was time for his afternoon nap. As we rose from the table, Mr Mandela offered to pose for a picture with me, to show that there were no hard feelings: the world’s most beloved man and the world’s worst journalist, friends for a moment, however fleetingly.
The more lasting image from that day, however – one which is recorded only in my memory – occurred after Mr Mandela took his leave and walked down the passage leading to his bedroom. The late afternoon sun streamed in from the far end, reflecting off white marbled walls and casting Mr Mandela’s form into a silhouette as he walked towards its dazzling light. It looked exactly like, I was stunned to realise, as if the old man was ascending to heaven.
President Xi Jinping:
"The Chinese people will forever keep in memory the outstanding contributions he made to ... the development of humankind."
South African President Jacob Zuma:
"Our people have lost a father. ... His tireless struggle for freedom earned him the respect of the world."
US President Barack Obama:
"We've lost one of the most influential, courageous and profoundly good human beings that any of us will share time with on this earth."
British Prime Minister: David Cameron
"A great light has gone out in the world. Nelson Mandela was a hero of our time."
Myanmar democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi:
"He made us all understand that nobody should be penalised for the colour of his skin, for the circumstances into which he is born. He also made us understand that we can change the world."
Desmond Tutu, archbishop emeritus and anti-apartheid activist:
"Like a most precious diamond honed deep beneath the surface of the earth, the Madiba who emerged from prison in January 1990 was virtually flawless."
Exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama:
"The best tribute we can pay to him is to do whatever we can to contribute to honouring the oneness of humanity and working for peace and reconciliation as he did."
Former South African president F.W. de Klerk, on CNN:
"He was a great unifier and a very, very special man in this regard beyond everything else he did. This emphasis on reconciliation was his biggest legacy."
Irish rock star Bono:
"It was as if he was born to teach the age a lesson in humility, in humour and above all else in patience."
FIFA President Sepp Blatter:
"When he was honoured and cheered by the crowd at Johannesburg's Soccer City stadium on July 11, 2010, it was as a man of the people, a man of their hearts, and it was one of the most moving moments I have ever experienced."