The Mandela magic, then and now

By Lennox Grant

 Nineteen years after that visit to South Africa, I feel no disappointment that I hadn’t met Nelson Mandela. I remain without any greater sense of under-achieving guilt than that shared with the hundreds of other journalists covering the first all-race elections. 

Only once in my twelve-day stay, did journalists, tagged and herded around by press agents, memorably occupy the same physical space as the Great One. At an African National Congress rally in a stadium three times the size of Hasely Crawford, we witnessed his version of a victory lap, and heard his denunciation of the party people responsible for celebratory gunfire. 

Yet Nelson Mandela was identifiably the star of the show to which we had been assigned. South Africa was then as notoriously blood-stained as are Iraq, Bangladesh and Egypt today. Unique history was, however, being made with the elections to end apartheid that had legally entrenched the rule of whites over blacks and browns. 

Untiringly, then general manager Shida Bolai had pursued the project of enabling exclusive Express coverage of that epoch-making big story half a world away. Her painstaking arrangements fell in place short days before the elections, when the assignment became a reality.

A big story, indeed, but it was a foreign story. As I was soon increasingly to appreciate, however, a sense of its importance was widely shared in T&T.  

Especially for travel, getting foreign exchange was still a tricky proposition. But invoking South Africa apparently had a special effect. With exemplary efficiency, First Citizens, to whom I applied for an international credit card, issued the plastic, with a then-breathtaking US dollar limit.

T&T then lacked diplomatic ties with South Africa. A journalist-visitor’s visa had to be sought and obtained in person from the apartheid state’s embassy in London.

The Mandela magic worked. I made it onto the 11-hour flight from London to Johannesburg, the “palpitating heart of South Africa”. That characterisation came from Fatima Meer, excerpts of whose Mandela biography I read over sleepless spells.

Outside T&T, the world throbs and stirs to diverse promptings, about which we here remain for the most part innocently unknowing. Through Fatima Meer’s and other writings, I hastened to make up for my own under-briefed condition about South Africa. 

Still, on landing at Jan Smuts International, a mental colonial throwback was occasioned by observing all the junior staff being black, and the senior, without exception, white. I hadn’t expected the race-based work breakdown to be so immediately clamorous.

“Trinidad and Tobago,” said the white immigration officer, inspecting my passport. “Never saw one of these before. But,” she added, stamping a page, “there’s always a first time, I suppose.” Her own world too was opening up.  

Official South Africa was trying, it seemed. That evening, I watched the TV news repeated in Afrikaans, Xhosa, Zulu and English, and remarked on the black presenters. 

The world was watching, and South Africans in positions of responsibility were concerned not unduly to serve up the story narratives the media were ever ready to report. That this is a dangerous place, everyone stressed, urging visitors to take no chances.

From the necks of each media person hung about eight separate identity badges. A metal-detecting station was staffed at each least building entrance. Every journalist was registered and issued an ANC “information and safety handbook”. The handbook’s message was in places chillingly blunt: “Do not cut into the security convoy. This can prove to be extremely dangerous.”

It was possible to work out what “extremely dangerous” meant. Memory was still fresh of a news photographer who had been shot dead by the new National Peacekeeping Force. So it wasn’t easy to get near to Mandela, nor advisable to try.

Soon, I discovered that the Express’ was the only Caribbean media representative there. In the lobby of the Johannesburg Hilton, I introduced myself to the Rev Al Sharpton, then still with shoulder-length straight hair and rotund bulk. “You must meet my executive assistant,” he said. “He is from Trinidad too.”

It was an authentic Trini sighting. In a city where even the famous Mandela shirts were versions of “Western” wear, Sharpton’s executive assistant, hailing from San Fernando, was singularly garbed in a floor-length “African” agbada.

Pulling Caribbean rank, I applied to interview Michael Manley, the former Jamaican prime minister who, as head of a Commonwealth delegation, commanded an operation occupying an entire floor of the Hilton. Ambassador Manley, as his staff called him, granted a 30-minute interview. 

For two thirds of the allotted time, however, Ambassador Manley could not be shifted off the topic of Brian Lara, as he discoursed on what the batsman’s then-recent 375 score portended for the future of T&T cricket, which he judged to have been in decline. 

My Johannesburg-based, or Mandela-inspired, reports and outtakes ran over weeks in the Express. From those days before the paper had gained a Web presence, yellowing clippings, betokening a career highlight, remain in a file folder. 

Reading international media coverage of Mandela’s death, what stays with me is a hopeful notion attributed to an elderly Soweto woman: “He really sacrificed his life for us; he showed us how to behave.”

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