MEETING MANDELA: Veteran journalist Tony Cozier shakes hands with Nelson Mandela during a meeting with the famed former South African president and freedom fighter in June 1991. Mandela passed away on Thursday at the age of 95. —Photo courtesy TONY COZIER

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A chance encounter with the great Madiba

By BY Tony Cozier

IT was pure good luck, the coincidence of being in the right place at the right time.

The place was the lounge at the Wanderers Club in Johannesburg, the time was June 30, 1991. Our group was Sir Garry Sobers, Austin Sealy, head of the Barbados Olympic Committee, Tony Becca, the respected cricket writer of the Jamaica Gleaner and myself; we had been flown out along with global cross-section of international cricketing celebrities to witness the amalgamation of the all-white South Africa Cricket Union (SACU) and the non-racial South African Cricket Board (SACB) into the United Cricket Board of South Africa (UCBSA) that would lead to the sports-mad nation’s entry into the International Cricket Council (ICC).

Nelson Mandela had been freed after 27 years imprisonment on Robben Island the previous February; the first democratic, multi-racial elections that would inevitably bring him to South Africa’s presidency were almost two years in the future.

Within a day of our arrival, Steve Tshwete, sports coordinator of the African National Congress (ANC), later to be sports minister under the elected ANC government, had called to tell Austin Sealy that Mandela would like to meet Sir Garry, “that great cricketer”.

The problem was that each date that was set coincided with some other engagement for Mandela; it seemed everyone was seeking a meeting with the most iconic figure in rapidly changing South Africa.

It seemed the chance was lost until Tshwete, with our hosts Ayub Hussain and Khaya Majola of the UCBSA in tow, rushed into the Wanderers lounge and announced that there was a window of opportunity for the meeting with “Madiba” at his residence in Soweto. He would interrupt his usual afternoon rest for the occasion.

Sir Garry and Sealy were quickly escorted to the waiting vehicles. When Sir Garry suggested that myself and Tony Becca come along too, we needed no second invitation even though we were all casually and, we thought, inappropriately dressed.

Hearts beating a little faster in anticipation, we arrived at the Mandela residence and were escorted to the dining room, seated around a polished mahogany table to await his arrival. After a quarter an hour or so, he appeared in his dressing grown. 

And we were worried that we were too casual!

It was immediate confirmation that here was an icon with no airs and graces, no pomposity. For half hour, he chatted with us as he would to old friends. It has been a universal comment from the host of others who met him through the years--presidents, prime ministers, pop stars, paupers.

That day, he showed us some of the gifts he had received from world leaders on his release from jail, spoke of his gratitude, and that of the ANC, for West Indian governments for maintaining pressure on the apartheid regime, and asked to be remembered to Dame Nita Barrow, then Barbados’ Governor-General, who had met him at Robben Island while was part of the United Nations group to South Africa, monitoring the changes that would lead to democratic elections. 

And, of course, he wanted to hear of some of the exploits of “the greatest cricketer on earth or Mars”.

What immediately struck me, as they sat next to each other, each clearly savouring the moment, was how much they looked alike – the same colouring, the same expressive faces, the same infectious smiles. They could have been father and son.

It was quite a moment in time, a moving and unforgettable occasion. The only one of us with a camera was Tony Becca. 

Mandela cheerfully posed for a shot with each of us; mine was the only one to print perfectly. It hangs proudly in my office but I still feel a twinge of guilt that his camera let Tony down for his shot.

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