Few people have fought with Madiba. Such a pleasant man, so wonderful in so many respects, fighting with him seems silly and stupid.
Certainly not something you would want to put on your CV.
I fought with President Mandela. The little fight we had sparked a media frenzy, it filled an edition of Rhodes University’s journalism department’s magazine at the time.
My relationship with the great man had always been a good one; friendly, supportive, professional, admiring.
While he was in jail, I wrote many columns about him, calling for his release, publicly offering to interview him in jail, so that if he died at least the world would have an accurate record of his thoughts.
We met in Cape Town shortly after his release, where I introduced myself to him, had the briefest of conversations, then moved on as many people were waiting to meet him.
Six months later, I met him again, after standing in a line at an embassy garden party in Pretoria.
“Peter Sullivan, editor of The Star,” I said as my turn came to shake his hand.
“Yes,” he said, “we met in Cape Town. I’m Nelson Mandela, you obviously don’t remember me…”
He laughed as I stuttered and stammered.
After that we met many times, he came to a lunch at The Star, did a tour of the newsroom, I went to his home several times, and to his 80th birthday party.
On his tour of the paper, he stopped at the one desk where a reporter had said he was not interested in meeting Mandela. He stuck out his hand, the recalcitrant subeditor’s eyes went wide as he slowly stood up and said in awe: “It’s such an honor, sir, to meet you and shake your hand, such an honor…” his mouth gaping open.
“No,” said Madiba with that twinkle in his eye, “the honor is all mine. For two weeks I will not wash this hand that has shaken yours.” Chuckles all around.
At Lunch in Pretoria, President Mandela greeted editors coolly, shaking everyone’s hand, then asked what was on the agenda. We suggested Section 205 of the Criminal Procedure Act, which forces journalists to give evidence and reveal sources.
Mandela said this issue should wait for the minister’s return.
“And you should not deal with the deaf old president on this,” he said with a smile, “but with the de facto president and Thabo Mbeki is on holiday.”
Nice little joke, calmed everyone’s nerves.
He excused himself for a few minutes and when he returned, editor Thami Mazwai, said the group wanted to discuss Mandela’s Harare remark that black journalists only presented the views of white conservative owners and editors.
Mandela bristled a little and said: “It is no use beating about the bush on this issue, we need to be frank with one another.”
He did not believe much had changed; newspapers were in the hands of white owners who, because of their upbringing, could not share the life experiences of the majority of the country. It was not their integrity in question, just a statement of fact. He had said what he had about black journalists because he wanted to protect them and it was only natural that if they wanted promotion they would write what would impress their white conservative editors.
Editors were stunned. After a few seconds’ silence, Brian Pottinger of the Sunday Times piped up to say his black writers were independent, did not listen to what he said all the time, and in fact would be insulted if it was insinuated that what they wrote was to please him, so that they could attain promotion.
Mandela said in a harsh voice: “You should be the last to speak. I do not want to listen to what you have to say. I gave you a confidential briefing on what was happening and you walked out of this office to write a leading article accusing the ANC of dishonesty...”
Brian tried to interrupt, but Mandela cut him short again, saying: “You are now making things even worse for yourself, you are getting even deeper in it, because it does not help to say you are not attacking my integrity. Because who do you think the ANC is? It is Mandela and Mufamadi and Mbeki and you are saying we are dishonest. Why should I listen to you if you say we are dishonest? I will not listen to what you have to say!”
After another few seconds of silence, I ventured to ask who these conservative white editors were, did he perhaps mean me?
“Yes, Peter, I must be frank and say it is you who I had in mind. You said at a book launch one day that I had fought with Mbeki in Cabinet over who would be his deputy and that is why I had un-anointed him, and when you were asked by somebody standing nearby when you would publish this you said ‘when the time is ripe,’ now what did that mean?”
I was flabbergasted, thinking I had long ago nailed that rumor.
“Mr President I let your office know precisely what I meant by that because your informant was wrong. I know who she is. What I meant was when that rumor was checked with a second source, and found to be true, we would then publish it because that is what is correct in journalistic ethics. But we did not find a second source and as I did not think it was true, we did not publish it.
So there is nothing sinister in saying ‘when the time is ripe’ and I am amazed your office did not inform you as I made sure they knew when I heard you were unhappy.”
“And is it not true, can you say categorically, that you have never said, you will not publish something written by one of your black journalists?” he asked, somewhat scornfully.
“Of course it is true,” I said somewhat angrily. “Of course I have refused to publish things written by every single one of my journalists, black and white, as everybody around this table has had their stories refused at some time or another by an editor.
“That is an editor’s job,” I said, “and in the same way as you have reprimanded—no, that’s the wrong word—the same way you tell your cabinet ministers ‘ no’ if you disagree with their ideas because that is the job of a president, so must I sometimes say ‘no’,” I said, now a little puzzled.
President Mandela persisted: “You sit there like an angel but you wrote the only thing for which Mandela will be remembered is for firing his wife...”
“No, sir, I never wrote that... why would I write something so foolish?”
“Is your name Peter?”
“Then you wrote it,” he said triumphantly. “Either you are being less than candid or you are suffering from a poor memory.”
“I did not write it, sir, but that is a matter of fact and it would be foolish to argue about it.”
“Whatever you say, you cannot deny there is a campaign by The Star against the ANC.”
“Of course I deny it. Why would there be when research shows 62% of our readers vote for the ANC, and about 95% of my staff is in favor of the ANC, so why on earth would we campaign against it?”
He softened, saying: “You talk too much like a diplomat. You are too diplomatic and I was in jail for 27 years so I have not learnt these skills.” We all laughed, albeit a little nervously, and moved on.
At the end of the meeting, having driven back to Johannesburg, I found myself so troubled that I wrote him a long letter, which said among other things:
“ …The Star is forging a new nation under your leadership. In Katharine Graham’s book on her years as owner of The Washington Post I noted ambitious people dripping poison into the president’s ear often bedeviled her relationships with presidents from Roosevelt to Clinton. I hope this is not happening in our case but I was really disturbed by your belief that The Star has some sort of campaign against the ANC.
“The truth is precisely the opposite. The Star has been most supportive of the ANC, and within The Star all our political writers are sympathetic to the party, and were part of the struggle which brought it to power. Which does not mean we are uncritical.”
I ended the long letter:
“…I am tempted to end this letter in the old tradition of saying I remain your obedient servant, but would prefer to be presumptuous once again and say,
“PS: Nowhere in our library can we find anything justifying the claim that I wrote you would only be remembered for firing your wife. We will just have to disagree on this one.”
That evening as I sat at home watching the Springboks play Tonga at rugby (and thrash them) my cellphone rang. Would I meet the president the next day at 11? We met for an hour, just the two of us, no secretaries, bodyguards or anyone else and he was like an avuncular grandfather, telling me his problems with The Star were all over now that they had been discussed.
I insisted on going over them all once again, and he admitted his staff had been unable to find that I had written the stuff about the only thing for which he would be remembered.
It was a cheerful, pleasant meeting over tea at Mahlamba Ndlopfu, or the Place of The Elephant, as the former libertas, residence of prime ministers and presidents, is known.
(The previous time I had been there was as a reporter to interview John Vorster about the arrival of Henry Kissinger and Ian Smith, an occasion on which Vorster allowed me to use the kitchen telephone to get hold of my newspaper to give them a scoop on Rhodesia.)
That Friday a reporter, Priscilla Singh, came to me and said with a twinkle: “Shall I make your day?” I asked what she meant. “President Mandela said to me, when I told him I was from The Star, ‘Be sure to give my good friend Peter Sullivan my warmest regards.” A truly happy outcome and yes, she did make my day.
A final anecdote: In 1999 President Mandela called to invite me to lunch at his home in Houghton. I said I hoped it wouldn’t be one of those expensive lunches, and he laughed, promising it would not be too expensive. I explained editors did not have a great deal of money.
Just four of us for lunch: Graça Machel served us (“have more peas, Peter, vegetables are good for you, and you look so thin!”) and Maki Mandela sat next to me.
Madiba told me he had asked a little girl why she was not smiling and had found out she had this terrible problem, called Moebius Syndrome, that could only be fixed with an operation that was only done in Canada or America and required a team of surgeons.
The Lubner family had agreed to pay costs to get her there, but a second operation was needed six months later, so the child’s family would need to stay in Canada for six months. It would cost about R200,000. He asked would The Star agree to pay these costs?
I said “No, but …”
He interrupted, irritated, to say only one other person had ever said no to him—and he was an old-style nationalist!
I repeated, “No, but I will arrange accommodation for the child in Canada.
“And her mother?”
I said I would organize that as well. Having just returned from a trip to the Toronto Star, I knew we could call on their readers to provide a home, and with the Mandela name we would be inundated with offers. It would cost nothing.
But I queried why we could not bring the team of surgeons to South Africa instead? That way we could transfer skills.
Marc Lubner later came to see me, and said the family agreed it would be better to bring the surgeons out here. Would The Star pay transport costs to a game reserve? We would.
Surgeons from Johns Hopkins came, and we all went to tea at the Mandela residence in Houghton.
To my absolute astonishment, Mandela started off not by thanking the good doctors, but by telling them how disappointed he was with them, because they had set tea with him as a precondition to coming.
In his universally recognized accent, a cross president said: “When one-a does a good deed,” a pause, “it a-should be done with no a-strings attached. The reward is in a-doing the work, and we should not a-seek rewards for ourselves for good deeds.”
A stern lecture to the do-gooders.
In typical fashion, he then broke into a big smile, and said he now wanted to thank them for doing this absolutely wonderful thing for this child, for all children, for South Africa.
They gave their very expensive time free, and flew all this way from Canada just to teach us in Africa how to do this operation. Wonderful!
“We, cannot thank you enough, you are fantastic doctors,” he said.
Marc came to see me again, with plastic surgeon, George Psaras to say there was money left over, and there was a large backlog of children needing cleft palate operations
I suggested we start The Star Smile Fund.
Under Marc’s leadership that has become the spectacularly successful Smile Foundation, still going, helping hundreds of children.
Madiba loves children. I took mine to his home for breakfast and Mandela asked Helen (9) what she was going to be when she grew up.
"A vet, oh very good,” he said, "when you become a vet you must come to my village in Qunu and look after the very few cattle that I have there. Will you do that?"
"I don't think so," said Helen.
Mandela laughed. “Your father says you are named after a famous fighter, Helen Suzman.”
A year later, when Helen Suzman phoned at home one day, my youngest puzzled me by asked if she was still boxing.
“Mr Mandela said she was a great fighter,” said Julia, aged 8.
"And you Julia, what will you be when you grow up?" Mandela asked before breakfast.
"I don't know," says Julia.
"Why did you say you don't know," I asked her later. "You do know what you want to be." With that resigned air of dealing with a mentally defective parent, she explained: "Dad, he didn't ask what I want to be, of course I know that. But he asked what will I be. How'm I supposed to know that? So I had to tell him the truth: 'I don't know.'"
Everyone who has met him has a hundred stories. Every editor has two hundred. Madiba has left an indelible mark on every person he has met. What a delight, even in a fight.
BY PETER SULLIVAN