'You are Graca Machel's only friend in South Africa'

“You are Graca’s only friend in South Africa,” Nelson Mandela told me.

Graca Machel and I had worked together in an Eminent Persons group of the UN-dealing with children in armed conflict. We were invited to Mandela’s and Machel’s wedding and into an inner room where the special guests and his family were present and had tea with Mandela and Graca in their home.

I had known Graca five years before I came in touch with Madiba (Madiba means teacher or the popular name for Nelson Mandela in South Africa) in South Africa in 1997-98. Recently (March, 2013) when I was in South Africa, Graca Machel invited me over for breakfast. Madiba was recovering from lung infection bouts. He had come back home from the hospital.

When she showed him my photographs, he asked about Lakshmi. She told him Lakshmi had passed away. Mandela looked sad and asked whether some condolence message was sent to me. I did not know whether to cry or be grateful –  for both my husband and this tall, strong but big, bundle of love and care - Nelson Mandela.

My husband L C Jain and I arrived in South Africa in late 1997 on his being appointed India’s High Commissioner in South Africa. He could not immediately present his credentials to Nelson Mandela either because the President was travelling or there was a long queue. We got to know of an ANC meeting at Mafeking, said to be a defining moment.

The next President of ANC and therefore of South Africa was to be elected and confirmed. For the first time we saw and heard Nelson Mandela at close quarters. He made a speech now famous for its quality in both describing the situation in South Africa and what ANC should aspire to achieve.

Every sentence was greeted with huge responses from the stadium  – each province having its own colour in their clothing. “Amandla!” (power) was being shouted and the crowd responded with “Awethu!” (to us). Nelson Mandela has not only a stentorian voice but speaks more like an army commander than in the nuanced prose of a politician.

But his commands are actually information and arguments. A tense, fearsome moment I will never forget was when Mandela handed over reins to Thabo Mbeki. Mbeki, different in every way – short stature, clipped voice, no body language, severe looking - came to the mike and alarmed the audience saying: ‘You can be sure I will not step into the shoes of Madiba’. There was ominous silence. After a minute’s pause, he said “Have you seen his shoes? They are the ugliest, dirtiest, old shoes that I have ever seen”.

He got loud applause and a big smile from Nelson Mandela, who I found likes to mingle, embrace and talk to his people on the streets of Pretoria! When we presented our credentials, he welcomed us and could not resist saying straight to our face that he missed Gopal Gandhi, our predecessor.

We could understand -  Gandhi was not only gentle and thoughtful, but also Gandhiji’s grandson representing India in South Africa.
Devaki Jain, developmental economist, is the wife of the late Lakshmi Chand Jain, former member, Planning Commission and High Commissioner to South Africa, 1997-98.

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