My Mandela Moment

Journalists work at unearthly hours, go to unwelcome places, ask uncomfortable questions, and face unappreciative criticism.

But the best perks of the job include, if one is lucky, meeting the greatest people who walked the earth.

It could even include conversing and dining with eminent personalities and taking away from them great value; not only notes of motivation to publish for others, but also lessons of inspiration to apply onto our own lives.

I was blessed with such a privilege in 1995 when I was able to spend almost one hour in the presence of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, one of the greatest leaders the world had ever seen. 

As I saw and heard the various news reports and commentaries now – after he passed away this Thursday, on 5 December, at the age of 95 – my memory went back in time, to my momentous meeting.

With some senior journalists I attended a press conference addressed by Mr Mandela at the Gudaibiya Palace, where he was staying during his state visit to Bahrain.

We journalists knew him first as the world’s most famous political prisoner. Then, after his release in 1990, we knew him as a great political leader. And then in 1995, as the President of South Africa – his official position when he visited Bahrain.

We all knew he valued people, peace, and most important of all, freedom, the last of which was denied to him for 27 years.

“Those were of course the darkest years in my life,” he told us. “I did not know when the Sun rose or fell, I was not sure if I would walk again as a free man. But I kept hope, motivated by the life and sayings of Mahatma Gandhi,” he told us.

At the end of the press conference, when I met him and introduced myself as a citizen of India, he said happily: “Good to hear that you hail from the land of Mahatma Gandhi, whose concept of peace I pursued and who had always been my source of inspiration.”

He told me of his special admiration for the way Gandhi fought his battle against injustice. He said it was the best way; Resistance without violence.

The late HH Shaikh Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa, the then Amir of Bahrain, said as he received President Mandela at his Riffa Palace then, “He (Mandela) is an inspiring leader with patience and goodwill as his greatest virtues. He has added dignity and honour to his country and his people.”

Earlier in 1990, a few months after his release from prison, when Mandela made his first visit to India, there was such admiration for Mandela that over 100,000 people thronged to see him in Kolkata’s Eden Gardens.

India had also conferred on him the highest honour that Indian Government gives civilians, the Bharat Ratna Award, in 1990.

Unlike what many people think, Nelson Mandela is not the only non-Indian to be awarded by the Indian Government. The ‘Bharat Ratna’ has been conferred to two non-Indians so far — Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan (1987) and Nelson Mandela (1990). The naturalised Indian citizen Mother Teresa was also given the award in 1980.

In Mandela’s own country, African National Congress had the best of times during his leadership, although as a self-effacing man, he always believed that he was only a part of the party, not its head. He was undoubtedly the most potent political figure in his country.

So, as a country’s President, party leader, politician and even as a prisoner, Mr Mandela was born to lead, with qualities that distinguished him as a great human being.

My few minutes with that great human being will remain etched in my mind for ever.

He chased peace all his life and, I believe, he found it at last, in eternity.