Towering above his escorts, he was the freest man on earth, freer, certainly, than his captors who’d have to wrestle with their souls as cat’s paws of unjust power.’ Mandla Langa, "The Texture of Shadow"
I had Luciano Pavarotti to thank for this invitation. He was raising millions to help War Child and I think the NMCF wanted to find out how we had won his support in the hope that his generosity might extend to their work. With Eric Clapton and Elton John’s music ringing in my ears, I flew from Rome on Alitalia, hoping this new connection with Mandela would be a major part of internationalising our music work.
As we approached Johannesburg the steward announced, ‘We will soon be landing at Jan Smuts Airport. Do not enter the Republic of South Africa with any material defaming the Republic.’ A moment later came an apology. ‘We are not landing at Jan Smuts, but at Johannesburg International. The restrictions on entry no longer apply under the new constitution.’
In the arrivals terminal, I watched an elderly white couple reject the offer of a taxi from a black cabbie. The husband insulted him while his wife tried to hit him with her handbag. Could this be, I asked myself, the new South Africa?
While I was in Johannesburg, I stayed with a businessman who had been trying to get War Child involved in a project of his. He and his wife lived in the exclusive suburb of Waverley. The only black faces I saw there were sweeping the roads, guarding gates or clipping hedges. I was told not to make my bed in the morning and to give their maid any dirty laundry. I made sure to tidy my room and had brought enough clothes to see me through the week.
I had arrived at the weekend and my hosts took me to their country club. The buffet was set up on the lawn and we were served by turbaned waiters dressed like sepoys. Only the red bishop birds in the trees and the ibis standing on the side of the lake hinted at Africa.
On Monday morning I had a meeting with Jeremy Ratcliffe, the CEO of the Mandela Fund. He told me the President was ill, but that he was coming to London the following month so he would arrange a meeting with him there.
I decided to visit a street children project in Soweto. After driving through a ‘suburb’ of small brick buildings, I arrived in an area of densely packed shacks and barrack blocks. The shacks had canvas, plastic or tin roofs and were made in an attempt to recreate a long-lost village. Many homes had no proper sanitation and no access to drinking water.
I then flew to Durban to meet Edmund Mhlongo. I’d promised to visit him when we’d met in London. A member of the local Peace Council, he ran a children’s arts centre in KwaMashu. As we entered the township, we passed squatter camps: rows and rows of barracks which, Edmund told me, housed recent arrivals from Mozambique and Angola. We then drove past four-storey hostels where migrant Zulu workers lived. It was apparent to me that the conditions of the people here were even worse than in Soweto.
We arrived at a derelict and roofless shopping centre where Edmund ran his workshops. I was introduced to the caretaker, a woman who looked 60 but told me she was 35.
As we drove out of KwaMashu, a voice on the radio was talking about the need for reconciliation and quoting Mahatma Gandhi: ‘An eye for an eye and the whole world is blind.’
Back in Durban, I took Edmund and his colleague, Makhuscheke, for a meal at the Blue Water Hotel on the sea front. The restaurant was full of white businessmen and their wives who looked blissfully unaware of the new South Africa.
I couldn’t help thinking that Gandhi’s reconciliation seemed far off and that it had to come from the residents of Waverley and the diners at this hotel. It had to come from the people I’d met at that country club who’d travelled to London, Paris and New York, but had never visited Soweto.
On my return to London, an invitation was waiting for me. ‘Mr and Mrs Nicky Oppenheimer request the pleasure of your company at Apsley House on Friday, 12th July 1996, at a dinner to celebrate the work of the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund.’ The guest speaker – Mandela himself.
There were 36 guests, including the Duke and Duchess of Westminster, Lord and Lady Montagu, Lord and Lady Sainsbury, bankers Rupert Hambro, Bruno Schroder and Oliver Baring, as well as prisoner-in-waiting Conrad Black.
I arrived with my War Child co-director in Bill’s ancient Volvo. The epauletted valet tried to hide his disgust as he steered the banger away to join the Mercedes, Daimlers and Rollers in the underground parking lot. I noticed that he took off his white gloves to drive.
My partner, Anne, stepped out of our battered coach wearing a hired gown from Angels, the costumiers. I had borrowed a tie and hoped that no one would see that moths had made a meal of my suit.
The Oppenheimers welcomed us into the chandeliered lobby. After delicate canapés and two flutes of champagne, we were ushered into the Duke of Wellington’s dining room. Mandela was sitting at the far end as we settled down to enjoy the food and wine.
I am not someone who is star-struck, but here I was in the same room as one of my political icons, a man who’d endured so much in the struggle for freedom and never given up hope, even during his long imprisonment.
I was talking to Ken Follett’s wife when I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned my head to see Mandela smiling down at me. ‘I’m so sorry,’ I mumbled and started to get up.
‘Stay there. I can talk to you from here.’
The conversation continued, with me awkwardly looking up at him over my shoulder. ‘Very good to meet you, Mr Wilson.’
‘It’s an honour to meet you, sir.’
‘No, it’s an honour for me to meet you. I am sorry I was unwell when you were in my country. I hear you are doing great work with the children of Bosnia.’
I was stunned that he knew about me and War Child’s work. I realised that he’d been walking around the table, introducing himself, presumably well briefed on everyone there, though I never imagined that he would speak to me. I mumbled that we were planning to open a centre for young people to try and bring the communities together through music.
‘I know. I have heard. You must keep us informed. We need similar projects in South Africa. Music is a great healer.’
I told Mandela I’d been one of the protestors arrested for running onto the rugby pitch at Twickenham in 1969 to stop the Springboks’ match.
‘Thank you,’ he said.
Nineteen years after this dinner party and my visit to South Africa, 19,000 homes in Soweto still have no access to drinking water and 72,000 don’t even have minimal sanitation. The water company has, of course, been privatised.
Jeremy Ratcliffe had to resign as President of the Children’s Fund after accepting, for ‘safe-keeping’, diamonds Liberia’s ex-President Charles Taylor had given to Naomi Campbell.1 Edmund Mhlongo is today at the centre of what I hope are unfair allegations of abuse of charity funds.2
When Nelson Mandela died, politicians fell over themselves to claim him as their hero. George W. Bush said, ‘Mandela was one of the great forces for freedom and equality of our time.’
Tony Blair claimed that Mandela ‘was one of those people who was absolutely as good as you hoped he would be.’
David Cameron said, ‘Mandela’s dignity and triumph inspired millions.’
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, ‘He will be remembered as a moral leader of the first order.’
As late as 2008, Mandela was on the US terrorism watch list. He said this of George W. Bush: ‘A president who has no foresight, who cannot think properly, is now wanting to plunge the world into a holocaust.’
Of Tony Blair he said, ‘He is the foreign minister of the United States. He is no longer Prime Minister of Britain.’
Did Cameron mention Mandela’s ‘dignity’ when he visited South Africa while Mandela was on Robben Island, there as a guest of a lobby group set up to oppose sanctions on apartheid South Africa?
And Netanyahu must have forgotten that Mandela said, ‘Palestinians are struggling for freedom, liberation and equality, just like we were struggling for freedom in South Africa.’
As we left Apsley House, I stood on the steps, watching the guests leave in their limousines. I remembered an old woman I’d met in Soweto and what she’d said to me. She’d been the organiser of a day centre for the elderly where they were given meals and encouraged to sing and play musical instruments as a way to ease the difficulties in their lives. She described herself as being religious because it was the only way to guarantee the work she did was for the good of the people and not to satisfy her own vanity. ‘God is a wall,’ she said, ‘and I have to throw the ball well to make sure I can catch it when He returns it to me.’
I asked her if she received any government funding. ‘Goodness no,’ she answered. ‘The politicians used to be a bunch of white clowns. Now they have been joined by the black clowns.’
Mandela was no clown. When he tapped me on the shoulder that night, I looked up at this tall man who, to the end of his long life, was a political and moral giant.
1 ‘Former Liberian president Charles Taylor is alleged to have gifted the diamonds to Campbell, who says she passed them on to Ratcliffe.’ David Smith, Guardian, August 5th, 2010. ‘Supermodel says she gave stones to charity boss to “do something good”, but Children’s Fund says it never had them. The man Naomi Campbell says she gave the bag of diamonds to refused to confirm if he still had the stones in his possession today. The British supermodel testified that she passed the “dirty-looking pebbles” on to Jeremy Ratcliffe, then chief executive of the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund, intending he use them for charity. She said she called Ratcliffe a year ago to ask what he had done with the stones, and he told her he still had them. Contacted by phone today, Ratcliffe did not deny receiving the diamonds, but claimed that legal restrictions bound him to silence. “The matter is sub judice and I’m not prepared to comment,” he said. The Children’s Fund today categorically denied ever having diamonds in its possession. Ratcliffe added only, “The fund is correct.” Now chairman of JET Education Services in South Africa, Ratcliffe declined to elaborate and his phone failed to respond for the rest of the day. Calls to his homes in Johannesburg and Plettenberg Bay also went unanswered. There was no sign of him at his luxury three-storey house in Atholl, an upmarket neighbourhood in Sandton, Johannesburg’s wealthiest suburb. Ratcliffe’s daughter, Claudia, answered an intercom to say that he was out and she did not wish to comment. The three-storey house is on a street behind a big security gate where guard dogs bark at the sight of intruders. It has whitewashed brick walls, brown shutters and window frames, a giant tree and neat row of bushes in its bricked forecourt. A sign warns that would-be burglars will be met with an “armed response”. In court today , Campbell stressed she did not know personally whether the stones in question came from Taylor, after a party hosted by Mandela in Cape Town in 1997. She said she handed them to Ratcliffe on boarding a luxury train the following day. Campbell told the court: “I gave the stones to Jeremy. Immediately, I got on the train I looked for him ... I said take them, do something good with them, make the children better, I don’t want to keep them. Once I gave them to Jeremy, they were out of my hands.” Oupa Ngwenya, a spokesman for the Children’s Fund, said it had been unable to locate Ratcliffe today, and he could not be reached by phone. Ngwenya confirmed that Ratcliffe is still a trustee of the charity. He added: “We have no record of diamonds being in our possession.” In a letter presented in court by the defence, the Children’s Fund said it had “never received a diamond or diamonds from Ms Campbell or from anyone else. It would have been improper and illegal to have done so.”’