Meeting Mandela – Wilme Verwoerd, WIP 2012

Let me tell you a story. It begins like this. I am Irish and I am also South African. Half and half if you like. I was born in England, grew up in South Africa for 10 years and have lived in Ireland ever since. I like to think of myself as the early experiment epitomizing the new and globalized world that we all live in. Last week the WIP class of 2012 was invited to attend an event hosted by South African Washington International Program to share an evening themed around the legacy of Nelson Mandela. It centered on the idea of what “Madiba” meant for the students from South Africa, what he signified for their country and what he represented for the world. A distinguished panel of journalists ranging from RTE correspondents to the New York Times led the discussion, many of whom worked closely with Mandela for many years. As they reminisced about their encounters with him I couldn’t help but think back to my own experiences.

I was 4 years old when I first met Madiba. Like most people in their twenties, I don’t have many moments from over 18 years ago that I can remember vividly. This is one of those rare exceptions. My younger years took shape during a turbulent political period in South Africa. The country was beginning a journey, transitioning from an oppressive Apartheid regime to a newly formed democracy. Of course I was too young to grasp this at the time. But unlike most white Afrikaans children at the time, I had a mother and a father who had joined the African National Congress (ANC); Nelson Mandela’s political party. To give you an idea how unusual this was, it can be summed up pretty quickly. This decision led to my father being ostracized by his family for more than 10 years. Their relationship today still carries the scars of this decision. My father’s grand-father was the South African prime minister in the early 1960’s perhaps better known as the architect of Apartheid. My mother, the youngest woman MP at the time, was put on death lists by conservative Afrikaans extremists. To an extent, I had some awareness that things were a little different in my house. So when I met Mandela in parliament in 1994 he had just been inaugurated as the first democratically elected president of South Africa. I shook his hand and told him my name. When he couldn’t get the pronunciation right, naturally, I had to correct him.
Fast forward to 2003 living in Ireland. All traces of my early South African upbringing hidden by my strong Irish accent and pale complexion. Nelson Mandela was to visit Ireland that year for the Special Olympics and to have an Honorary Doctorate of Law conferred upon him by the University of Galway. He was staying in the Four Seasons in Dublin so like most other people in town that day, I went to the hotel to try catch a glimpse of him. Walking into the hotel with my father, I was asked to meet my mother upstairs who was conversing with Mandela’s PA. Further instructions ensued. “Go into that room over there and wait inside”. Who was I to argue so off I went. Entering the empty room, I sat down on a chair, my dad following closely behind neither of us really sure of what exactly was going on. I heard a toilet flush. Weird I thought. Slowly from around the corner I caught a glimpse of someone. The next moment Nelson Mandela walked in. I remember looking around thinking “What the …”. For more than 20 minutes I sat with my dad and Nelson Mandela. We sat and talked. And now I was old enough to understand what it meant. For Mandela to sit with the grandson of the man who imprisoned him, while at the same time asking me whether I had a boyfriend was one of the most surreal and significant moments of my life.
When asked what Mandela meant to him, a SAWIP student answered “He is like a brother, like a friend to a whole country.” Thinking back to all these years ago, I reflect on what Mandela means to me. He is more than a symbol of hope and inspiration. For me, he is someone who defined the very meaning of courage. He reached across a broken nation and brought together a country of divided colors.
Looking to Northern Ireland, there are many striking parallels. As in South Africa, many of the physical structures enforced to separate communities have been broken down. But with it still exists a dangerous undercurrent of issues that need to be addressed. South Africa is far from being a country free from racism. And Northern Ireland has a long way to go to create a ‘shared future for all’. We all have painful lessons to learn from each other.