I’ve been trying to remember what it was about; the budget, the new constitution? Not that it’s that important. I had been to his home often, along with the other reporters. Sometimes he made a statement; sometimes his aides spoke to us. It had all become rather routine.
One this particular day, we all huddled under what I remember as a portico, trying to get out of the way of a cold, miserable drizzle. There was the guy from London blowing cigarette smoke in everyone’s direction, the other American quietly cursing about his editor back home, and me grumbling about not yet having a proper breakfast.
It was a collection of the unhappy, a fellowship of the miserable.
And just when the rain picked up, and the wind started blowing it our way in full, when the shadow of dismal started to engulf our pitiful lot, the president’s kitchen door cracked open and a voice beckoned us inside.
In the last few hours, I’ve hear radio reporters and read print journalists recall the humanity of Nelson Mandela, how he saw people, common people, not just reporters, of course, but the whole underclass of South African society.
And that is what made him such a great leader. He walked with kings, but he never stopped seeing, and recognizing, the people.
He saw us that day, out there in the rain, fidgeting, complaining, wishing we were somewhere else.
So it was tea and crumpets for all, right there in Madiba’s kitchen. It was a tight space surrounded by nothing remarkable at all. But the crumpets were tasty, and the tea was steaming. For a few minutes we delighted ourselves in the warm embrace of that little room, the collective mood rocketing skyward.
Up it continued a while later when President Mandela joined us before ushering us all back outside where the rain had slackened, to dispense with whatever matter of state business that needed his statement, which we all studiously jotted down.
That’s when we would usually have all been shooed away by the good-natured minders. But we had had that moment earlier when we broke bread in the kitchen. An extra degree of levity had crept into the morning, so he, and we, lingered.
It was about then, when a photographer crept in, a South African from one of the big papers, asking for close-up. First one shot, then a dozen, rapidly. The president smiled, that big, wide grin, the one that made his face crinkle, the one that made his eyes squint almost closed.
The photographer pulled in even closer and asked what seemed a most brazen question for a leader of state: “Sir, can’t you please open your eyes?”
Something about it was so awkward, so embarrassing, that the festive little gaggle there fell silent.
Nelson Mandela, too, was quiet, and still as a bone.
His face slack, unsmiling, eyes wide open.
He addressed the photographer sternly, asking if his eyes were wide enough now.
After another moment of ghastly silence, the president of South Africa burst out laughing, knowing he had just had, and saw, a common person.
Nelson Mandela never lost his greatness because he never lost his common touch or his sense of humor.
Even around a bunch of surly reporters.
John Fleming, a former Anniston Star editor, is the executive editor of the Center for Sustainable Journalism http://sustainablejournalism.org/.