As we commemorate the Centenary of our former – and late – President Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela (fondly known to South Africans, and the world, as Madiba), we share an account of a time we were graced with his presence at Sabi Sabi Bush Lodge. This is an intimate memoir from our then Operations Manager – Michel Girardin – who was tasked with the honour of driving Madiba to and from the lodge. This memory will forever be etched in the history of Sabi Sabi and a proud one at that.
His legacy is timeless, as is the absolute respect that his mere name still commands. We thank you Madiba, for what you did for our South Africa. May your name echo forever in our history, that sparked the global consciousness of humility, equality, justice and peace….it is incumbent on us to ensure we perpetuate Madiba’s hope for all future generations.
It was with excitement and trepidation that the Sabi Sabi family learnt that the “newly retired” South African President – Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela – was to be guest of honour at a high level governmental conference at Sabi Sabi in mid- 1999. The conference was attended by many high powered economic and financial gurus, with all of South Africa’s political parties being represented.
Every staff member wanted to be his guide!!
And so this auspicious day arrived, with Nelson Mandela being flown in by helicopter, from where we met him from the hastily made “heliport”, on the southern side of the airstrip at Bush Lodge.
On arrival at the lodge, all our staff (from all our lodges) were waiting in the car park, and as we arrived everyone broke into song and dance to welcome him. Madiba promptly got out and started to do the Madiba shuffle, which sent everybody into raptures.
After a few hours – and which happened to be one of the most memorable events of Madiba’s visit – I was to transport him back to the helicopter. The time set for departure was at 2pm sharp and I was instructed by his security team (on the vehicle with us) that I had to use the exact same route we came on, which was the Bushpan road through the Msuthlu riverbed, to the chopper on the airstrip.
On descending into the dry riverbed, I saw a bull elephant coming down the track from the opposite side!!! This meant one of us had to give way….Madiba was really anxious that the departure time of 2pm was going to be delayed.
He asked me what we were going to do, to which I asked him why the departure time of 2pm was so critical (after all he was no longer President!). He replied, ” Graca’s son is going in for a knee operation and I want to see him to wish him well before he goes under anaesthetic”. What struck me was that this amazing man (with everyone wanting a piece of him) made the time to focus on the important things in life – family!
Getting back to the elephant……the mood was getting more anxious with time passing by. We now had a standoff, with the elephant slowly coming down the opposite side of the Msuthlu, with our vehicle in the riverbed. I suggested that we take another route, which the security personnel vigorously opposed (as this was the only route that had been swept for security purposes). So, a stalemate ensued and we just had to wait it out, with Madiba now very anxious about the time.
He asked me again, “What are we going to do??”. I responded to say that we had to sit tight, and see if the elephant would turn around and allow us to pass….at this time my mind was imagining all sorts of scenarios.
Madiba instructed his security detail to relax, turned to me and said, “I guess this elephant does not know my past history and that what will be will be”… To which I retorted ” Madiba, he probably does know but cannot tell you”.
The elephant eventually turned around and moved off…. And we got to the helicopter on time.
On arrival at the helicopter, (before departure), I asked if I could get a few photographs with him and he immediately agreed, and added that I should send a copy of the photograph to him. I remarked why would he want me to send him a copy, when he had photographs with Queen Elizabeth, Bill Clinton, Fidel Castro, to name but a few high profile individuals. However, he insisted and when the photos were processed I sent him 2 copies. A few days later an envelope arrived at our Head Office, addressed to me from Madiba…..he had returned 1 copy of my photo with a personal thank you note!!!
I relate this, as it was another example of just how much time Madiba had for everyone … his amazing empathy…. instantaneously dancing with the staff on arrival, his determination to get back to see Graca’s son and then taking the time to personally write a note to me for hosting him at Sabi Sabi.
Nelson Mandela is often referred to as “Tata” or more famously, Madiba. South Africans had (and still have) a penchant for referring to him as Madiba. This literally means Father (Tata) and the name Madiba is the Xhosa (tribe name) name of his clan. It originates from the name of a Thembu chief who ruled in the Transkei (where Madiba was born) in the 18th century. Nelson Mandela was also referred to as “father of the nation” due to his substantial influence globally, hence Tata Madiba.
Nelson Rohlihlahla was born on the 18th July 1918, in a small village – Mvezo – in the district of Qunu near Umtata, Transkei (now known as the Eastern Cape). He was laid to rest at his ancestral home in Qunu, on the 15th December 2013.
South Africa commemorates a day in his honour – the Nelson Mandela International Day – on the 18th July.