I consider it an opportunity of a lifetime having met and taken pictures of our very first democratic South African president, Nelson Mandela. He always left me with a sense of wonder; at the same time, he inspired me to believe that it is up to us to choose what we do with our circumstances.
The first time I came into close contact with Tata was in 1990—the day after he was released from Victor Verster Prison, near Cape Town. My colleagues and I rented a house in Vilakazi Street, Soweto, to keep watch as Mandela was expected to tour his former neighborhood for the first time in more than 27 years.
It was so amazing, he was so much at ease and he spoke to people as though he had last seen them yesterday. He visited some families in their homes and asked about their health; how were the children? Were they doing well at school? He would stop and make time to talk to small children. I was in awe of this man, thinking that someone with his kind of history, would display arrogance and pride.
The highlight of the day for us was that he even let the journalists take pictures with him! Did he really notice us? Journalists are so used into being pushed around and today here was a man, who was the talk of the whole world, letting us into his world—what a man! I will forever cherish that picture. I enlarged it, framed it and hung it in our living room.
Mandela is man who lived without fear, a brave man. He had few reasons to want to pay a courtesy call on the family of Hendrik Verwoed—the architect of apartheid whose government vilified and locked Mandela away—but he did. Mandela went to in Orania, the Afrikaner-only community in South Africa, to sip tea with Betsie Verwoed, the late prime minister’s widow.
Ahmed Kathrada—one of the men who faced the death penalty with Mandela—said everyone talks of reconciliation, Mandela gave it content. This is a man who went in the conservative Free State to address farmers. He even went to the steel-making blue-collar community of Vanderbijlpark, near Johannesburg, to address a group of right-wingers; each time, he left me with a sense of wonder.
In 1994, South Africa held its first democratic elections. Mandela was to cast his vote in Ohlange High School, Durban. I was all set to capture this historic moment.
I had 10 packets of film and I started loading my two cameras. Having done that, some silly thought crossed my mind; what if the films have a factory fault? I took them out and loaded new ones. I went to take a shower, coming out of the shower I wondered what if someone tampered with my camera while I was in the shower. Eish! The door was not locked, then surely someone must have tampered with my cameras. I had better be safe than sorry, I discarded the films and loaded my cameras again, now I was panicking, I was nervous, I tried to sleep, but my mind was racing thinking the worst could happen the next day.
I do not know when I went to sleep, but I woke up in the middle of the night thinking what if the room service guy had come in while I was sleeping and exposed my films. I took them out and replaced them, again. Suddenly I was left with only four packets of film. Now my worry was that the four packets would not last; where would I buy film at this time? Maybe I should try in the morning? No, that would be too risky, I thought. I would definitely miss the story.
Needless to say the long awaited moment arrived. When I clicked my camera non-stop as Mandela cast his vote, it was the most beautiful feeling I have ever had in my life of taking pictures. It was a glorious moment and I was filled with peace and hope. This was no picture of violence, this was no picture of gruesome murder, this was no picture of strife, this was a picture of triumph and jubilation.
The ensuing presidential life never changed him. Protocol was never an issue, his bodyguards needed to be on the lookout at all times, because he would stop anywhere to chat to people—a true people’s president.
In 1996, Mandela received his Honorary Doctorate from Oxford University. The crowds were waiting eagerly for his arrival and as he came out of the car he waved to the crowds in Madiba style. I was busy taking pictures as I noticed that he was coming towards me. I followed him with my eyes preparing to take a shot any moment, he stopped right in front of me, extended his hand and greeted me and said: “How are you? Are you fine? Good to see you again.” My knees went weak. I do not know what I said, I mumbled something, I was just nodding my head, I was stiff, I tried to smile at the same time, I was close to tears.
I did not want to share this with anyone, after some thought I was convinced that, no, the old man must be mistaking me for someone else. I could not believe he had singled me out of the whole crowd. Phew! This man had the memory of an elephant.
In 1997, Mandela was on a state visit to in Libya and as he was escorted to the hall where they were going to have dinner he saw me and a colleague who worked for SABC, he greeted us and asked if we were being are taken care of in Tripoli, further, were our families’ fine at home. He even suggested that we sit with him at the table, but as soon as he stopped and greeted some dignitaries, we disappeared in the crowd.
I met him again in Lusaka when I was covering the SADC meeting. Mandela personally introduced me to the president of Burundi. I also noticed that before I took any pictures he would always greet and chat—I think it was his way of making people feel at ease and comfortable with him. He had a way with people, while you feel honored to know him; he honored you and makes you feel important.
Mandela was a man of integrity; as I look back from the time he was released, his pre-election campaign, his time of office, his retirement, through it all it, he did not change.
One other thing I loved about Mandela was that he made for good pictures, easy and comfortable pictures. Reuters presented him with the picture I took of him casting his vote in 1994. He was pleased and appreciated the gesture. I have nothing else but the deepest respect and honor for him.
Today I am one of the best known South African photojournalists and I attribute the best years of my career to this man who directly and indirectly encouraged me to be the best that I can be.
I thank God for his life.
BY JUDA NGWENYA