Meeting Mandela

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I met Mandela in 1996 when I was walking through Cape Town’s Botanical Gardens. I was on my way to the Cultural History Museum, where I was working and for some reason paused to stare through the gates into the President’s palace garden. There were no guards about, there were never any guards about, if you compared it to No 10 or I’m sure the White House it was quite amazing how relaxed and open the security was here.

I noticed two men strolling about the gardens, one of whom looked just like Mandela, I stared a little harder and they noticed me and astonishingly came over to talk to me. They paused on the other side and Mandela held out a hand so I shook it through the gates. He laughed and asked me my name and where I was working, so I told him I was writing about how museums were changing now that Apartheid was finished and that I’d been interviewing curators about this. We had quite a long chat about it and then he introduced me to the other man, ‘This is my good friend Sam (Njomo, then President of Namibia) and we have been talking about everything and about the moon,’ and they both laughed again.

By this time a crowd had formed around the gate, people pressing up to the bars and thrusting their arms through so that he could shake them. I was moved back and self-consciously gave him a wave and then I was out of the crowd and walking in a pretty dazed state back to the museum.

I can’t imagine any other leader in any other state who would, not only have no guards beside him but would choose to go and talk to some complete stranger staring at him through the bars of a gate.

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