Posted by News Express | 8 December 2013 | 3,284 times
I met him at Tuynhuys. You might be wondering where that is. It is the office of the South African president in Cape Town. My appointment was for 7 O’Clock in the morning. And the day was February 15, 1995, just a few months to the first anniversary of his assuming office as the first Blackman to be president of South Africa. I was determined that year to start Africa Today. And I wanted the first edition to be headlined: One Year of Mandela. It was something I had planned and had been working hard to implement. I even had the cover picture ready which I took myself when I was covering him in South Africa before his election as president.
I knew the chances were very slim of making a success of putting a new pan-African news magazine into the global market if South Africa was not free and we could not take advantage of the huge market. Secondly, if we were going to launch the magazine and make a success of it internationally, I was determined to get an interview with no less a figure than Nelson Mandela. I knew it was going to be tough. The biggest news media around the world wanted him. Africa Today hadn’t even started publishing then. I thought therefore there was no chance of us getting an interview with Mr. Mandela.
I did not give up. And to the greatest surprise I have had in my eventful career, we got it! How? I could only hazard a guess that his minders paid me back for helping them to arrange Mandela's first press conference at his first appearance at the OAU Summit in Tunis, Tunisia, in 1994. How that came about is another long story, which I will tell another day.
On the day of the interview, I arrived at Tuynhuys exactly quarter-to-seven in the morning – the appointment was for 7. I was welcomed by his staff at the steps of the State House. After the exchange of pleasantries, they ushered me in. And as I was being led to my seat I just heard a low voice from my back saying: “I did not know Soyinka is here”. I suddenly looked back – it was President Mandela! And that was awesome! It says a whole lot about the character of the man. By the time we both took our seats, it was exactly 7 O’Clock.
There is a lot in this experience. You might want to ask yourself, if he was going to see me an ordinary newspaper reporter at 7 in the morning, when did he wake up? This was Nelson Mandela I came to see without being asked to wait or sit at a reception and for hours or a whole day, or, for weeks, like some local government chairmen or governors in Nigeria make people who want to see them go through. Don’t even talk of wanting to visit to see the President of Nigeria at Aso Rock.
I have many stories of that memorable encounter to tell but which for obvious reasons I cannot do here: It was at a very difficult time politically for Nigeria – what he told me about Mrs. Abacha (yes Mrs – not the General himself) and his candid view of Nigeria itself and his profound appreciation of Nigeria’s role in the global campaign against apartheid and the ultimate freedom of the former apartheid enclave.
The most nervy moment of the one hour interview was in my last question, which was on Winnie and their divorce. It was a very sensitive subject, which if raised with someone else my tape recorder would have been confiscated right there on the spot – if not smashed! And I deliberately left that question till the very last. But Mandela was Mandela – he paused, and then measuredly answered me. I won’t tell you what he said here – it will be in the next edition of Africa Today. We ended the interview on that note. I will be reflecting more on my encounter with the Great Madiba in the commemorative edition of Africa Today we will publish on him. We started work on it sometime ago. This, however, is just to join you all in saluting this remarkable man. May he sleep in perfect peace. God Bless his Soul.
•Kayode Soyinka, seen in photo with Nelson Mandela, originally published this piece on his Facebook wall.
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