The sad news today of the great Nelson Mandela’s passing brought back vivid memories of when I had a chance encounter with him back in 1998.
Nelson in Cardiff 1999
Nelson was a huge figure in my life since the first proper concert that I ever attended was the Mandela 70th birthday tribute concert in Wembley stadium in 1988 when I was a mere 16 years old. The impact of seeing some of my then favourite bands and comedians making tributes and the various films that were shown interspersed amongst the 12 hours of music had made lasting impression on me and had introduced the awful notion of apartheid to my naive young self. Nelson seemed to stand for true freedom more than anyone else and the joy I felt at his subsequent release from prison in 1990 after 27 years was immense. It was astonishing to see him then become the president of that very same country that had incarcerated for so long. His speeches around that time were beautiful, full of wisdom and positivity with a remarkable lack of vitriol or anger aimed at his former captors. He gave true definition to the word hero.
A t shirt from the 1988 concert I attended as a fresh faced 16 year old.
Fast forward 8 years or so and I found myself having to attend a pesky back to work course that benefit claimants (as I was back then) were forced to do to keep receiving payments. These courses were generally to antagonise long term doleys into getting off their arses and into a mind numbing succession of CV writing and interview techniques for non existent jobs. I had been at a music festival all weekend but had to attend if I wanted to eat that week. I blearily wandered in at 9 am and sat through the tedium and blather of the course introduction and disengaged from the waffle spouting out from the advisors who frankly didn’t want to be there either. Finally at about 3pm, I was a free man, I could leave and hurried down the stairs only to run in to a bunch of other course attendees who were idly chatting near the entrance, everyone bade their farewells and headed off in different directions leaving me with the social dilemma of walking with someone from the course who I’d rather not socialise with or walk in a different direction from my house until safely out of sight then making my return. Being British of course I had to do the honourable thing and walk in that different direction, this was something that made me chuckle as I realised I was walking completely the wrong way than I needed to go!
How strange the gods of fate operate though, as I wondered down Cardiff’s Queen Street I saw a large gathering by Park Lane. Being naturally inquisitive, I squeezed through the throng whereby I saw a limousine pulling up outside a hotel. Someone exclaimed “It’s Nelson Mandela!” which I found hilarious as I saw an elderly African man clearly not Nelson step out of the car but then immediately behind him there he was! I had no idea he was visiting Cardiff and to make matters even more bizarre he had seemingly singled me out and was walking straight towards me hand out stretched and an enormous smile on his face. He moved with an elegance I’d never seen before, bolt upright and supremely dignified, there was an aura around him that felt genuinely spiritual. The next few moments seemed like a fairy tale or wonderful dream as he clasped my hand. He had beautiful soft hands and as I enthusiastically shook them he steadied me with his other hand as I blurted out “Nelson, so wonderful to meet you! On behalf of my fellow Welshmen, welcome to Wales!” He laughed so sweetly and jokingly pointed at my face and said “Thank you, thank you, by the way I like your nose ring!” Ha, my controversial nose ring that my family hated just had Madiba’s seal of approval! I was in shock, the whole episode so surreal, unexpected and infuriatingly without fellow friends to witness until I spotted Cardiff’s baffingly great and odd urban poet/bin drummer Ninjah who had been trying in vain to offer Nelson one of his cucumber sandwiches!
This is very close to the moment although I am not in this shot, grrr. Ninjah can be seen though on the left near the middle.
Nelson Mandela 1918 – 2013, you wonderful humanitarian, inspiration to so many, rest in your well earned peace.
4 responses to “The day I met Nelson Mandela”
Wonderful mate, you’ve captured that day perfectly….
Reading this brought tears to my eyes! I remember that day vividly! I was on my lunch break, I was working in Churchill way at the time. I saw the same crowd and went over and could not believe my eyes when I saw Nelson Mandela, I even got a little wave. I will never forget that moment. Thanks for sharing.
What an amazing story Gaz, you lucky .. 🙂 That must have made an impact ! Beautifully told. Loved that he liked your nose ring 🙂 So strange how sometimes banal things in live can turn out into something wonderful like meeting Nelson Mandela ! Btw, walking in the opposite direction of where you need to be … haha, sounds so familiar 🙂
Amazing story and beautifully told. My 11 yo daughter was deeply affected as we all were by his passing, that was the impact he had and will continue to have across generations.