Nelson Mandela: the freedom fighter who embraced his enemies
John Carlin knew Mandela in the tumultuous years just after his release. Here he tells of the private meetings that proved he was a master at winning over even the most implacable opponents
Nelson Mandela arrived early for work on 11 May 1994, the day after his inauguration as the first black president of South Africa. As he walked down the deserted corridors, past framed watercolours celebrating the derring-do of white settlers at the time of the Great Trek, he paused outside a door and knocked.
A voice said "Come in" and Mandela, who was 6ft, found himself looking up at a vast, second-row forward of a man, an Afrikaner by the name of John Reinders, chief of presidential protocol during the tenure both of the last white president, FW de Klerk, and his predecessor, PW Botha.
"Good morning, how are you?" said Mandela, with a cheery grin.
"Very well, Mr President, and you?"
"Very well, ve-ry well …" Mandela replied. "But, ah … may I ask, what are you doing?"
Reinders, who was packing away his belongings into cardboard boxes, replied: "I am taking away my things, Mr President. I am moving to another job."
"Ah, very good. Where is it you are going?"
"Back to the prisons department. I served there as a major before coming to work here in the presidency."
"Ah, no," Mandela grinned. "No, no, no. I know that department ve-ry well. I would not recommend doing that."
Turning serious, Mandela proceeded to persuade Reinders to stay. "You see, we people, we are from the bush. We do not know how to administer a body as complex as the presidency of South Africa. We need the help of experienced people such as yourself. I would ask you, please, to stay at your post. I intend only to serve for one presidential term and then, of course, you would be free to do as you wish."
Reinders, as astonished as he was charmed, needed no further explanations. Slowly, shaking his head in wonder, he began to empty his boxes.
Reinders, whose eyes filled with tears as he recalled that story some time later, told me that during the five years he had served at Mandela's side, travelling far and wide with him, he had received nothing but courtesy and kindness. Mandela treated him with the same respect, he said, as he showed the president of the United States, the pope or Britain's Queen, who, incidentally, adored him.
Mandela must have been the only person in the world, with the possible exception of the Duke of Edinburgh, who always called her "Elizabeth" – or at least who was able to do so without drawing even a shadow of a rebuke. (A friend of mine who was having dinner with him once at his home in Johannesburg recalled how a servant came in with a portable phone. It was the Queen on the line. Smiling broadly, Mandela put the phone to his ear and exclaimed: "Ah, Elizabeth! How are you? How are the children?")