Saturday, April 7, 2018



Nelson Mandela and I stood under a tree awkwardly eating a buffet lunch while bodyguards watched suspiciously within grabbing distance and the elite of the world press circled waiting for their chance.
Mandela had lined up for the food at the Nijo Castle with hundreds of publishers and editors gathered for the prestigious annual conference of the International Press Institute in Kyoto.
But they weren't as quick as me to slide in behind him in the queue for food and chat about what he liked to eat. Turned out his favourite food came wrapped in nostalgia about his childhood - maize  porridge.
I followed him to the shade of the tree, having established a weird rapport when earlier we had crashed head-on into each other on an elevated walkway as we surveyed the famous 15 rocks in what is said to be the most famous Zen garden in Japan, Ryoan-ji, a raked gravel "garden" where the Japanese come to meditate. (It's also called Temple of the Dragon at Peace.)
 Neither of us had paid enough attention to those walking towards us. I'm big, but he was an inch taller and hard from a youth as a boxer and those awful years in the quarry of his prison on Robben Island. Still I almost launched him into air since he was 73. And that would have been a dangerous fall that would have snapped bones. But I managed to grab him and haul him back up to safety while his bodyguards behind him glared in horror. "Gawd, I almost wiped out the guest speaker," I said as we both grimaced in bruised embarrassment.
So I had really made an impression.  Thank heavens, I thought.  My wonderful and difficult boss, Doug Creighton, reluctantly paid for the trip during Sun budget cuts after telling me I had better get an "exclusive" interview with Mandela. (I hate media labelling interviews as exclusive if they are with famous leaders or personalities who live in the media spotlight. and are interviewed constantly.)
After a few mild questions not to alarm him since this was a touring day, I asked just what he was doing in Japan at exactly the same time as his wife's notorious trial for kidnapping and murder was starting in South Africa. (In this story, the dragon was not at peace but back home in court.)
He studied me in silence, then slowly said: "We have good lawyers. They were good for the family. They were in the struggle."
There were other questions that day and the next, after he asked "the Canadian who hits so hard" what I thought of his speech defending his African National Congress in a forum that included such luminaries as Robert McNamara, the former U.S. defence minister.
I told him it would have been better if he had written the speech himself. Mandela challenged me on that, but laughed when I pointed out that he hadn't known when he got to the end and had turned the last page expecting to find more.
Yet it was his almost painful response to my questions about Winnie, the beauty for whom he left his first wife, by all reports a gentle nurse, that I remember most about this encounter with a remarkable man who bloomed in world stature and acceptance for his compassionate leadership despite his beginnings in the bloody terrorism of the ANC.
A year after this, he decided to stop being polite in public about the woman who was lionized for her struggle against the brutal apartheid regime even as she was attacked as the cruel den mother of a deadly vigilante group which beat and murdered any opposition. He separated from Winnie as she  flaunted her nickname of Mother of the Nation, then several years later sued for divorce for being so blatant in her infidelity that "I was the loneliest man when I was with her."
Mandela married again, this time happily. When he died, he left Winnie nothing, and his family squabbled over his will. She died April 2, but that will not end the controversies over her corruption and cruelty and her many roles with the ANC government that so often is an affront to the decency and honesty of the leader who  brought it to power.
Unfortunately, there are those who choose to ignore the calamitous history as apartheid was strangled  and now portray Winnie as the valiant woman who wouldn't be hobbled by men or apartheid thugs. Her obituary in Time by a former UN official skips over the trial of her gang for the murder of the youth where witnesses just happened to disappear. (Of course the UN staff are always painfully politically correct when it comes to gender and whatever myth the power blocs dictate. Just look at their  dishonesty over Israel.)
Winnie was the firebrand who believed in tires of fire hung around necks as well as in oratory. Only a great man could have survived her to continue to be respected by all who met him, even if it was just for two days long ago on a foreign island.

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