December 05, 2013

RIP Nelson Mandela. The day I made Nelson Mandela laugh

It's not every day you bump into Nelson Mandela. I had arrived from London via Athens and Nairobi on an epic Olympic Airways flight. I was exhausted, hungover and wondering how to safely get to my hotel in Hillbrow. All of a sudden there was a commotion and a group of six men with AK47 guns surrounding a small figure were moving swiftly out of the airport. It was the recently released Nelson Mandela, who was returning from his first overseas trip to Windhoek in Namibia. Everyone else in the airport seemed to be ignoring them, and there was no rush of journalists or photographers ready to greet them.

I ran up to the group, which in hindsight might have been unwise. With pro apartheid groups issuing death threats, the entourage with their AK 47's might have been a bit trigger happy seeing a white bloke run up to them. As I pulled my camera from the bottom of the bag, they realised I was a bit over excited, but harmless, and let me through to the man himself.

Grabbing my hand firmly, Nelson asked me how I was, where was I from and what was I doing here. As I explained how I was on my first trip to Africa, and what I hoped to see in this beautiful country, I readied my camera to take a picture. It was an old camera. Not digital, and not quick to charge and take a photo. Nelson and his team stood there, waiting patiently for a minute, and then waiting some more. They were not used to waiting around for professional photographers, let alone a lone tourist.

One bodyguard started to crack up with laughter, soon they were all laughing, and then Nelson joined in too. This was a welcome relief for them, they had been under a huge amount of pressure escorting their new charge around. An embarrassed tourist apologising profusely for his dodgy camera to warm up while making one of the most important people on earth wait, was just what was required.

I got the shot, which was greeted with applause and more laughter, and handshakes and hugs all round from the bodyguards and Nelson. Walking quickly now to get to the car, Nelson turned and wished me a "wonderful time in my country", and then he was gone.

Nelson Mandela (18 July 1918 − 5 December 2013)

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