It was a freezing cold February afternoon in 1990 when Nic Wolpe, dressed in a suit topped by a calf length coat, shivered into his family home in London to find his mother on the telephone. AnnMarie Wolpe said something and handed over the receiver; at the other end was a friendly and familiar voice.
“‘Oh hello, Nicolas, how are you?’ And I said, ‘I am fine how are you? ’ ‘I remember you as a baby, you were ill and you caused grief to your parents.’ I thought my God, this man remembers! And then he asked me what have I been doing and what is my life like in the UK. We spoke for about five or six minutes. I remember being so nervous that I handed the phone back to my mother and my knees were weak!"
"But the best part of the story is that I went to work the next day and we were sitting around before starting work and someone said to me what did you do last night? I said, ‘I spoke to my leader’, so they said ‘who is that?’ I said ‘it’s Nelson Mandela’. Someone else said ‘oh yeah and I spoke to George Bush!’” says Wolpe.
It was an encounter 27 years in the making. Wolpe was the son of South African activists, who worked with Nelson Mandela in the dangerous days of the underground.
Howard Wolpe was the lawyer to many of those who stood up against apartheid. He found himself under lock-and-key, when the police arrested every activist they could lay their hands on in the wake of the raid on Liliesleaf Farm in Rivonia in July 1963. The raid rounded up the leadership of the armed struggle including: Govan Mbeki, Ahmed Kathrada and Andrew Mlangeni.
Wolpe ended up in police cells in downtown Johannesburg, in 90-day detention under emergency regulations. Together with fellow activist, Paul Goldreich, Wolpe bribed a young police officer to unlock the cells and they made a run for it. They traveled in the boot of a car to Swaziland where, they dressed as priests, before flying to Botswana, and on to London, via Tanzania. Their families followed.
The Wolpe family returned to South Africa in 1991 and Nic Wolpe now runs a historical site at the place of the raid at Liliesleaf. The work brought him into contact with Nelson Mandela and he saw all sides of the man—including the rough side of his tongue.
“I had it once and it’s not ferocious, I remember sitting there thinking; how do you deal with this, because this guy is held in awe, he’s a living saint. He is revered around the world, you know, how do you challenge that type of person? Whether they’re right or wrong. The respect is overwhelming, so because you have this respect you’re stuck, because you feel you cannot challenge him.”
Like most memories of people who met Mandela face-to-face, the best is saved until last with a smile and a twinkle in the eye.
“My favorite story I was told by Tom Cohen from the Associated Press. He said they were waiting for Nelson to come to the hotel where the chief executive of AP was waiting to see him. They were waiting up at the hotel room and he said a call came that Mandela was on his way and in a couple of minutes, please come down."
"The one thing Tom said to me was, the one thing you didn’t talk about was the height of the chief executive because he had short man syndrome. He said if you raised the subject of his height he would fire you, he literally would fire people. He said there he was standing there and this car pulls up, Nelson gets out, shakes hands, and says: “Oh hello. Lovely to meet you. Oh, I had no idea you were so short!”
FORBES AFRICA EDITOR, CHRIS BISHOP