A meeting of the minds behind bars - CNBC Africa

A meeting of the minds behind bars


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Empty prison cell, Robben Island. PHOTO: Getty Images

Towards the end of 1989, I received a telephone call in my office from a member of the South African Police. “Would you be willing to have a conversation with a certain prisoner?” he asked. I said that I did not know any prisoners to which he responded that I knew this one. With some surprise I enquired about the name. “Nelson Mandela,” was the reply.

“Good heavens, when would he like to see me?” I asked.


Thus in early January 1990 I flew down to Cape Town and was driven by a prison official to Victor Verster prison, outside Paarl. It was a sunny morning and, after going through the gate, my driver dropped me at a small cottage in the grounds.

I went up to the front door and before I could knock, Nelson Mandela came out onto the step and with a big smile ushered me in. He was much thinner than I imagined from the photographs which I had seen of him as a young man and as a boxer. Nevertheless, he looked extremely fit.

We spent the entire morning talking about the state of world politics and the characteristics required by a nation to succeed in what was becoming an increasingly competitive international game. While asking searching questions about the role of the private sector in South Africa, he never expressed any real criticism of the mining industry or the company that I worked for—Anglo American.

I was fully prepared to discuss the mines as openly as I could, but he was more interested in talking about the future than the past. What really struck me was his extraordinary knowledge of current affairs both here and overseas. He accompanied this wisdom with a grace and sense of humor which put me totally at ease.

He laid great emphasis on government being pragmatic in resolving the problems afflicting South African society. If memory serves me right, he quoted the Chinese Premier, Deng Xiaoping: “I don’t care if a cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice.”

He appeared not to be in any way hung up on any particular ideology, though he fiercely supported the Freedom Charter. He just wanted the best for the country and all its people. He showed no bitterness from his long stay in prison, nor did he give any definite indication that he was about to be released. Maybe he had not yet been informed of the date.

Following the formal conversation, he invited me to stay for lunch during which he chatted to me about his early life, including his brief career as a security guard on a gold mine.

From that short experience, he showed a very good understanding about the challenges facing the industry. For me it ended all too soon, when in the early afternoon he wished me a cheery goodbye. He asked me to pass a message on to Harry Oppenheimer that he had noted the latter’s public opposition to apartheid, which I duly did.

I had a bit of time before returning to Johannesburg so I went for a walk to reflect on the conversation. I had met the most famous prisoner on Earth—arguably the most famous human being too—and he had made me feel at home.

More than that, he had left me with a warm glow together with the feeling that as a free man he would promote reconciliation among the diverse groups in South Africa. He would move on rather than dwell on the past.

Not once did he disappoint me since his release in February 1990, and to this day I regard it as an incredible privilege to have shared that special moment with him.