The sad, but not unexpected, news of the passing of Nelson Mandela made me recall the time I had the honour of encountering The Great Man.
It was on an early morning flight from Johannesburg to Cape Town in the early 90s.
I was one of the last to board and to my amazement I saw Mr Mandela sitting there literally as large as life - he was a tall, distinguished man - in the middle of a row of seats half way down the aircraft’s cabin. He was involved in conversation with the folk around him, looking just like any other traveller. There was one small sign of his position as there were two rather tall, even when seated, young men in dark suits and open neck white shirts, sitting either side of him, presumably his body guards, while he talked across them. I tried desperately not to gawp as I filed past to find my seat further down the aircraft.
This scene in itself was remarkable as the leaders I had experienced elsewhere in Africa had a very different style around aircrafts - always last to board. vast numbers of hangers-on and lackies, sitting up front in a curtained off area - protected , isolated and elite. Mr Mandela seemed the exact opposite as he sat patiently almost discreetly, in amongst the rest of the passengers on what was a busy flight, that morning. No pomp, No circumstance.
In the arrivals hall at Cape Town I was caught short. I need to go. As the gap for me personally between needing to go and catastrophe can be quite short I made my way - very quickly - to the toilet only to have my entrance barred by one of his bodyguards I’d seen on the flight , who told me politely that I had to wait till Mr Mandela had finished. Normally I would have respected the wish but I was heading towards catastrophe. I started hopping from one leg to the other trying to retain my composure as I tried to explain my desperation. He relented and let me through.
There was Mr Mandela in front of one of the toilet’s two urinals, I rushed to the vacant one. There was me shoulder to shoulder with the great man - well almost - he was taller and there was a respectful space between us.
Then it all went wrong. I dried up. The urge left me. I couldn’t do it. I just looked up, stared ahead, directly, at the wall. By this time Mr Mandela had finished I went to speak - he smiled politely - I was speechless, I was gobsmacked. I just stared at the wall while he washed and dried his hands, I continued to stand before the urinal there all ready to to the business but failing completely!
It was just like that scene from the eighties TV satirical program Spitting Image which had Thatcher characterised as a man rushing into the men's room as two of her cabinet - Heseltine and Fowler - are noisily using facilities yet dry up in both speech and flow.
Thatcher noisily joins them, they go quite, as both their conversation and flow dry up in her presence. After she’s left the room Heseltine says to Fowler ‘I never seem to be able to go when she comes in’
I knew exactly how they felt!
Mr Mandela that day, for me, had a presence I could not understand yet I responded to his greatness with what can only be described as reverence such was his command of the space around him - a truly awesome yet engaging human being with grace and greatness in equal measure.
I feel humbled and honoured to have shared that brief, unlikely moment with The Great Man.