Harry, you were Nelson Mandela’s priest at some point. How did that come to be?
It must have been in about 1964. There was an old priest, Alan Hughes, and he used to go across to Robben Island to do his work visiting the political prisoners. He was getting old, they felt he needed an assistant to go and look after him. I used to go across on the Izzie – it was a tug. It used to go across every day. We’d go on a Saturday and then lodge at the guesthouse on the island. It was a big performance to get into the security prison, one had to go through a lot of security checks. I remember the political prisoners were housed in quite a big area. There were a lot of them, I didn’t know who I was meeting then. I wasn’t aware of the intensity of this, you know. It was just political prisoners. Cape Town being where it is, one wasn’t so up to date on all that was going on in the north. I just knew they were there. So I met Nelson Mandela there and Walter Sisulu and Raymond Mhlaba. One soon got to know these chaps more by sight than anything. I do remember there was this one guy who stood out. He was gentle, he just stood out above everyone else, it was this Mandela fellow. He was quite unmistakable. I also learned the tricks of the trade there like how to pass messages.
How did you do that?
Well, you would ask someone to read a passage of scripture and you would have a photograph of the guy’s god-child or something marking your bible. He would know exactly that all is well and he sends messages to so-and-so. I’d say, “Do you like this passage, it’s not too difficult for you?” The wardens didn’t pick that up at all. Looking back, it was quite fun working out what we were going to say and who we were going to communicate to. It was quite innocent really. I did that for a number of years until 1969. I only met them at mass, so I wasn’t seeing individuals.
What were your duties as a priest?
I just went to help this old fellow (who eventually passed away). I did half the readings and asked people if they would like to read. It was very formal. In 1984, some 20 years later, I was in Bergvliet. I got a phone call from Brigadier Munro, who was the head of the prison at the time. I had read in the Cape Times that morning that some of the political prisoners had been moved across from Robben Island to Pollsmoor. This chap said, “I see way back in the 60’s you were going to Robben Island. Would you mind looking after the six I’ve got here?” I just snapped at it and said yes. What was interesting was that I was in Bergvliet and Pollsmoor was part of the Bergvliet parish. I applied for a prison worker’s license to go into the prison, just under ordinary circumstances and I was granted it. The license was absolutely specific. It was only for white, Anglican, male, English speaking prisoners. I’ve still got the license today. Those were the only people I could see and with great difficulty because the Engelse Kerk was seen to be part of the gevaar in those days.
Danger. We were part of the political danger, the Anglican Church with Desmond Tutu and co. were always ranting and raving. I wasn’t welcome and things were made difficult every time. In fact, on one Christmas Eve, they wanted me to do my service in the latrine. It surprised me that I should get a call from Brigadier Munro to ask me to minister to the African, black, political prisoners. I naturally said yes and I trundled along. It was then that I really got to know Nelson. But again, it was made absolutely clear to me that there was to be no personal contact. I was limited to doing services and Bible study. The first day I arrived, I went into a tiny cell with a table and six chairs. A warder had to sit with me, Christo Brand. He sat there and listened to everything that I said.
He was the one that became good friends with Mandela?
That’s right. Little Christo. He used to just sit there, he had to hear everything they said to me in case we were communicating or passing messages. I walked in that first morning and immediately Nelson came straight up to me, shook my hand. He said, “It’s so lovely to see you again. How are Jean, Michael and David (wife and children)?” I wasn’t married when I saw them on the island! I don’t know how he knew that. These guys knew everything. They knew what was going on all over the show. I was absolutely astonished!
I remember, I was doing a communion service and I’d set everything out. Halfway through this communion service, Nelson Mandela stopped me. He said, “Just wait a minute there, Father Harry”. He said to Brand, who was obviously Dutch Reformed, “Brand, are you a Christian?” And old Brand said, “Ja Meneer, ja.” He said, “Well then, you must take off your cap and you must come and join us. You can’t sit there on your own if you’re a Christian. This is a Christian communion service.” As a priest, I didn’t think of doing that, but the political prisoner released the warder! Now Brand took off his cap and I gave him communion along with everyone else. I think that’s one of the biggest lessons I’ve ever learned.
Did you ever see any other interaction between them?
No. Over the course of 3 years while I was there, yet I had realized that there was a great bond. They lived with these people. They knew the quality of people they were. Nelson didn’t have to come to my services, he never had to receive communion. He always did. The fascinating thing is that none of his biographers, absolutely none of them, make anything of his spirituality.
In an interview, he said he went to all services outside of his denomination. The mosque, the synagogue, The Dutch Reformed Church, Christian church, he went to all of them. Did you ever have any interaction between those other religions?
No, we had no contact with anyone. There was no interaction at that stage like there is now. There was a chaplain general whom we were responsible for, I would go on a monthly basis. I used to go from Bergvliet to Fish Hoek. One Sunday morning, I had a very heavy morning. I got home, the family were coming for lunch. It was Jean’s birthday or mine, I can’t remember. As I walked through the front door the telephone rang. Our telephones had been tapped because of my contact with the political prisoners. It was the Archbishop of Cape Town, my boss, Philip Russell. He asked if I had read the Sunday Times, which was silly because I work on a Sunday. There was a report of how Jerry Falwell and Cal Thomas visited Mandela in prison and they quoted him as saying he is a communist and is sold on the violent overthrow of the state. We were in a state of emergency.
What did you think? Did you think he was a violent terrorist or freedom fighter?
No, I wasn’t thinking in those terms at all. I knew about the Rivonia Trial. But people grow, people move, people develop. It was 20 years before. Here was a man who was filled with compassion, wanting to include the Dutch Reformed warder in my communion service. This was not an out-and-out Communist. What was he doing at my Communion service every month? The Archbishop told me to go to Bishopscourt straight away. I went up to Bishopscourt and he asked me if the article was true. I told him that it was the biggest load of rubbish. I told him that wasn’t the man I knew. It might have been 20 years before, but certainly, that’s a cooked up article that had been devised and put in by the state just to create, you know, the usual…
Fear. He asked if I would refute it and I said no, I wasn’t allowed to by law. I had signed that under no circumstances would I divulge anything concerning a prisoner or their family or anything, at any time. I said I’d rather join them in prison then let that go unchallenged. There’s no question about it. I couldn’t give a fig whether I was breaking the law or not. This was a moral issue. He said that he wanted me to write a response to the Sunday Times. And so I wrote my response…what I was doing with Mandela in prison. The next Sunday, it was in the Sunday Times. The ink was still wet on the page when I got a phone call from Colonel Bosman, the chaplain general. “Report to Pollsmoor tomorrow morning at 9 o’clock in my office.” It was a state of emergency and a lot of our priests had been locked up at that time. I kissed Jean goodbye and kissed Michael and David goodbye. I told them that if I didn’t come home they would know where I was.
I went off to Pollsmoor and there was the chaplain general, my brother in Christ, in his office. I knocked on the door. “Kom binne!” I went in and… “Sit!” I sat like one of Barbara Woodhouse’s dogs. He was puce with rage. He asked if I had written the article to which I responded that I had. “Don’t you realise you’ve contravened this and you’ve contravened that…” I said, “No, I’ve contravened absolutely nothing.” He said, “But you have.” I said, “It’s public knowledge that I come to Pollsmoor, it’s public knowledge that Mandela’s here. I’ve divulged nothing.” He said that I had had no right to see him anyway as I wasn’t licensed to do so. He was quite a rough old fellow, he told me that I would be hearing from Pretoria and dismissed me.
So you lost your job?
No. I thought I would be locked up next. Meanwhile, I’m getting calls from priests’ wives. “Do you know where my husband is? Do you know if he’s in Pollsmoor?” I said, “I don’t know, but I’d go along.” I could just go and say, “Could I see Sid Luckett.” They’d think I know and if he isn’t there they would say he wasn’t there. I saw quite a lot of them through various means. During the state of emergency I was going in and that was peculiar too because I wanted to see an Anglican priest. I had to come from Fish Hoek to Caledon Square, see the guy in charge of Caledon Square. If he said, “Yes, I think you can go see that priest in Pollsmoor. Now you have to go back to your home because we have to give you permission there to do that.” They all come out to Fish Hoek to give me permission. Then I’d go all the way back. It was a pickle and a performance. I don’t know how they contained it. But eight weeks later, into the state of emergency and going backwards and forwards I get a call from Brigadier Munro. He said, “Is that Father Wiggett?” and I said yes. He said, “I’ve phoned to give you the good news. Your suspension has been lifted.” I said “Lifted? What suspension?” He said, “Oh God, they’ve forgotten to tell you.” I’d been suspended as my punishment. And so he said, “You’d just better get on with it.” And I did. One morning, I opened the Cape Times and PW Botha had, had a meeting, or so it reported, with Nelson Mandela. He offered him terms of release and he, I think, rejected the terms. I wish I had cut the article out at the time, I didn’t cut anything out.
Not even your Sunday Times?
I didn’t keep a diary. People were being ransacked. The less you had in writing, the better. That was the awful part of the emergency. We were all subject to house arrest and search, particularly if we had contact with these folk. But anyway, I read this article and I thought that’s interesting. The very day, I go to Pollsmoor and old Brand was always there listening. As soon as I walked in, Nelson said to me, “Have you read the Cape Times?” I said, “Yes, I had nothing to do with that.” Brand picked it up and my ministering at the prison was cancelled from that minute onwards. I never went back. I was told that my assistance was no longer required.
What was your overall view of Apartheid?
Working in an Anglican Church, we were a multiracial church regardless. We disobeyed the rules left, right and centre. We had multiracial congregations. I had always worked with multiracial congregations throughout the Apartheid era. We always lived on the border between the group areas. Our kids had multiracial friends, multiracial parties all through our lives.
What happened before Apartheid? What was it like?
I don’t know. In 1947/8 the Nats came in. In 1948 I would have been in standard 5 or 6. Cape Town was very laid back because District 6 was right next door. It wasn’t the Transvaal or the OFS. We were quite an integrated community. There was Bokaap, District 6. We weren’t as aware of it, I think, apart from going into the post office and sitting on a bus when the laws came in. I only became aware of it all once I started working as a priest. Then I got the backlash of it, you know.
What place did religion play in Apartheid?
People of the NG Kerk thought they were obeying God’s law and will. There were differences that were ordained of God. Therefore, it was good to keep people separate, according to who they were. Give them areas to live in. They worked this all out theologically from Stellenbosch. It was all very kosher as far as they were concerned. Dr. Malan, who was their first prime minister, was a domainer himself. Most of them, I think, went to theological college. This was rooted in their theology and understanding. They were doing the right thing, according to the will of God. We can’t conceive of this. That’s why they were so rigorous about it.
What was the appeal to become a priest?
There was no appeal, other than I felt a calling. I was working for BP when I left school. I had no idea what I wanted to do. I was mediocre. I was a 50 to 60 percenter, which was a very happy state to be in. No one pushed you to get better marks or anything. I got to matric and I had no idea what I wanted to do. My mother said that I had to go into the bank and learn about money. You either went into the bank or into the Old Mutual in those days if you left school and you didn’t know what you wanted to do. I went into Barclay’s Bank and that nearly killed me. In those days, we didn’t have these sorts of machines (Macbooks, etc.), so you had to balance every day. Every transaction was written in a ledger which had to be balanced. It was quite hair-raising. You didn’t go home until the days work was done. It wasn’t 9 to 5. It was pretty tense work and it didn’t suit my temperament at all. After a year and a half of that, they nearly killed me. I went to BP and I started doing market research there. They paid for me to go to UCT, part-time in the evenings to do a BCom. I loved BP. It was a wonderful company to work for. It was happy, friendly and the work was nice. It was all round very good.
When I Ieft school, I lived at home for about 3 months. That nearly killed me too. I moved out and I went to live in Gardens. I rented a little room. For some unknown rhyme or reason, one lonely Sunday, when there was nothing to do, I suddenly thought that I’ve never been to St.George’s Cathedral. It’s right down the road in the middle of Cape Town. A young Irish priest was preaching, Ronnie McFadden. And I don’t remember many sermons I can tell you, most of them I’ve forgotten. He preached and I didn’t think much more of it. A little while later I had a duodenal ulcer, so I was laying off work. I thought I must get some paperbacks. In those days, paperbacks were three shillings and three pence.
3 shillings and 3 pence. It was what a paperback cost in the old currency. We still had the old currency before Rands. It was British currency. This was one of the paperbacks I bought, The Diary of a Country Priest. I read it. It’s a superb book. The guy dies of a stomach ailment. It sort of rang a bell. That must have sent my mind going. I started going to the cathedral, I was very happy at BP. I was doing well. There was a career ahead for me, but I slowly felt that I had to be doing something else. It was something I developed, a calling. I resisted it at first because I felt that it was stupid and that I couldn’t do it. I’d never thought of that sort of thing. I thought I’ll speak to the bishop, who I’d never met. I got the dean to make an appointment. I went to see him. I told them that I wasn’t sure but that not I thought I might have a calling, a vocation to the priesthood.” He must have done his homework because he asked me if I had told my mother. When I said no, he said he would not consider unless I had told her. He must have had problems before with young men. I thought, “Oh golly, how do I tell my mother this lot?” She had married my stepfather. They were living in Gardens. I usually had to make an appointment to see my mother. You didn’t just drop in. They weren’t those sort of people. You had to say, “Can I come and visit? When will it be convenient?” Which was just how they were. Very private sort of thing that way.
I made an appointment to see them on Saturday morning at 10 o’clock. So I trundled down. We talked about the weather and everything. Eventually, she said that I had to go because it was near lunch time. I told her that I planned on offering myself for the priesthood.” And all heck erupted. She went absolutely berserk, shouting and screamed. She said that I was a disgrace I that I was bringing shame on the family and asked what she going to tell all her friends. I was disowned. I went to see the archbishop, Joost de Blanc. This archbishop looked me up and down and told me to go back to my office and give a fortnight’s notice and to then report to theological college. I didn’t expect that. I thought I would at least have a year or two to mull it over. I think he was testing me. I went back to my office and typed out my resignation, gave it to my boss. He thought it was one of my practical jokes. He told me to get back to your desk. It was true.
This archbishop defied the government and the Apartheid regime. He said that he was going to open a theological college in the heart of District 6 and that it will be multiracial. I went to Zonnebloem College at the top of Hanover Street. It was known as Bishop Gray Theological College. There were only 10 of us – white, African and coloured. For three years I studied there and got my theology degree in the heart of District 6. Then I started off in Sea Point. This old fellow was getting older and older. Because I was a junior clergyman, they wanted me to look after him. That’s how I came to get involved. I’ve never been a career clergyman, I’ve been a parish priest. Never wanting any titles or anything, no point in them anyway.
When I came to do this work with the political prisoners, they thought I would be harmless because I was just one of those ordinary every day people with no axe to grind. I’ve never had a political axe to grind. I’ve always thought that I’ve got to live in the circumstances, which I find myself and get on with it by ministering to people where they are, as they are. But obviously apply Christian principles. I encountered an awful lot. I didn’t want to miss out on the fact that one had the privilege of working in a multiracial congregations while this legal system was prevailing. And so one was living in denial of the law and against the law. What impressed me with Nelson Mandela – here’s this political giant and me, me, this little shrimp going in and giving them Bible studies. He always came. On the day he was released, he spent the night at Bishopscourt with Archbishop Tutu.
I’ve seen photos of you with him. What is he like?
A remarkable man, absolutely remarkable. A character in a million, a man of huge compassion. Nelson went to spend the first night with him. He asked Tutu to call all his bishops together because he wanted to thank us for what we had done, over the years for the political prisoners. So Desmond called all the bishops together. After that meeting, Desmond called all his clergy together. I was still treated like a leper because I had ties to the government and had a license to do this work. Many of them weren’t aware of the fact that I was actually looking after Nelson Mandela. When Desmond called this meeting together of all the clergy. He said, “I’ve had a meeting with the bishops. Nelson Mandela wanted the meeting and he expressed his gratitude and in particular he mentioned Father Wigget. He even repeated one of my Bible studies word for word and how it had helped him get over certain spiritual hurdles that he was grappling with.” By teatime, these guys were all falling over themselves to give me tea. Suddenly I was no longer a leper when they realized what I had been doing. He was willing to learn, listen and take seriously what one said. I thought it was pretty humble for a man of that stature.
After I retired, a friend of mine prevailed on me to write a book, “A Time to Speak.” Now that the political situation had changed, I no longer felt restrained or restricted. I wrote what is in this book to share much of what I’ve told you. The day I went to Bishopscourt to refute the article in the Sunday Times, the archbishop, Philip Russell, after I had written my reply said, “I realize what you were doing by doing this, sticking your neck out. I want to give you a reward.” He gave me a photostatted copy of a letter Nelson Mandela had written to him. In it he said how much the church services meant to him and meant to so many others – a radiant Christian letter in his own hand. In about 2010 a friend of mine, Chris Chivers, who financed and published my poetry and these books, invited me to Mill Hill in London to do Holy Week in his church. Chris is an amazing person. The day before I was due to leave London he phoned me and said, “By the way, Harry, I’ve got Peter Hain…” He was a rabid anti-Apartheid activist way back in the 50’s, 60’s and he did all sorts of things. I think he got banned and eventually left the country. Now he’s a member of British parliament. He had just written a biography on Nelson Mandela. Chris said, “I’ve got Peter Hain coming to my parish tomorrow, the day after you arrive. I wonder if you would be on the same platform with him. He’s coming to speak about his book on Mandela.” I said, “Chris, please, I don’t want to be on stage, on a platform with any politician. I’ll come and I’ll clap and I’ll listen, but I’m not sitting on the stage with Peter Hain, I’m not into that.” He said I wouldn’t be embarrassed and that it would be nice, and that I would be the guest speaker for Holy Week.
So, I arrived in Mill Hill in London. That afternoon we were in his church in Mill Hill. Peter Hain arrives and I meet him. Then we sit on the platform together. Peter Hain talks all about his biography on Nelson Mandela, eventually, it’s question time. I’m there not saying a word. I knew this guy would do it. He said, “Father Harry, isn’t there something you would like to add to this?” Giving me the option of saying no. I knew what he was getting at. “Yes, there is actually something I would like to say. Why is it that you, and all of Nelson Mandela’s biographers, make no reference to his spirituality at all? Without it, he wouldn’t have been who he became in prison and who he was.” The guy looked at me astonished. I added that it was because of his spirituality that he was able to do what he did. That was his empowering force. The man looked at me dumbstruck. I told him he never missed my services, always participating in them.
One of the reasons why he himself didn’t highlight it was because religion in today’s world is so divisive. It’s become a political football that gets kicked around. People use terms like Christians, Democrats and all the rest of it with very little Christianity attached to it. He therefore never made a public spectacle of his beliefs because they are so divisive. He wanted to be a unifying factor and he lived what he believed instead of spoke about it. He was a man of deep prayer and meditation with God. He was alive to God – alive to God’s will for him. This was where his greatness really lay. Peter Hain said that he was going to go back to the House of Commons and tell them what I had said as he believed that it might change a lot of politician’s ways of thinking. I had the privilege of seeing this man actually living it – that inclusiveness of this Dutch Reformed, Nationalist, Afrikaner warder being totally accepted and included. That’s how he lived.
Family must have been important to all the prisoners. When did they actually see them?
I think once every six months they were allowed to see them for an hour or two in the prison. I remember encountering Albertina Sisulu waiting to see Walter when I came in, I think they were only allowed to see them once every six months. I don’t know if it was relaxed, later on, it was pretty rare.
Why do you think he was so well liked?
Because he was an inclusive person. For all his stature, he was a very humble man. I think he appreciated, as Desmond Tutu does, the humanity and uniqueness of each human being and never underrated anyone for being who they were. He didn’t just mix with the high and mighty. I still remember seeing a shot on the television when he went to London. He was going to the same function as the Queen. They arrived together. She got out of her wagon with her handbag and he got out. They were on the red carpet leading up to this building and the crowd were all whooping, cheering and shouting. The Queen was just making her way sedately up and he went and got her by the arm. He said, “Hey, these people are calling us. Come, we must say hello to them.” He took her by the arm and she went with him. They went and started shaking hands with people. Who else would do that? But he got away with it. He could.
I still remember those early days going to Robben Island where we saw them all at Mass. But this guy stood out. Some people have that. Desmond is like that too. You can never be anywhere he is without knowing he’s there, he’s a remarkable man, absolutely remarkable. Desmond included some of my poems in his book, An African Prayer Book. We were in Fish Hoek when Desmond was made archbishop. I had to go to the election where we elect a new archbishop for our church. I told to Jean that I was going to the election. I wanted the bishop of Natal to be our archbishop, a chap called Michael Nuttall, a lovely fellow. I thought he was the ideal man for archbishop. And I told her that If I was to come home with a smile on my face, she’ll know that Michael Nuttel is our archbishop.
So off I went to vote in this elective assembly. When I got to this assembly, I saw Desmond for the very first time in the flesh. Halfway through voting, we vote until someone has a two-thirds majority, Desmond got up to speak. I knew that he was the guy and I voted for Desmond Tutu. I drove home and as I came down the driveway, Jean was looking through the kitchen window. I knew she would be looking. I was smiling. She came to the door and asked what I was smiling for as she had seen on TV that it was Desmond Tutu. I told her that I had voted for him. But those were the days when Desmond was very active politically in calling for sanctions against South Africa. And this parish, Fish Hoek, was full of Zimbabweans. They were as mad as snakes with Desmond Tutu because it was affecting them. The morning after he had been elected, the Cape Times phoned me and asked how I felt about our new archbishop, Desmond Tutu?” I told them that I was thrilled to pieces as he is just the man for the job – not realizing that, that would be on the front page of the Cape Times the very next day.
I went down into town the next day and they assaulted me asking who I thought I was voting for that man? I asked them if they had actually met him and told them that I didn’t want to hear a word from them until they had met him. I silenced them all.
His first engagement as Archbishop, was to come to St. Margaret’s Fish Hoek to preach. The church was packed, absolutely packed. He came in and within five seconds he had won them all over, totally. He was just so pastoral and so loving, so understanding and so compassionate. I still remember a dreadful old lady, who was really very angry with Mr Tutu, came up to me at the end and said that she rather liked “that little black man.”
Desmond knew that I wrote poetry. He came up to me and told me that he was preparing an African Prayer Book and said that I was an African.” He was the first person to call me an African, not a colonial western white. He didn’t see me in those terms at all. He told me that I am an African and I that he wanted to include some of my poetry in his African Prayer Book. I said yes.
Desmond never got his secretary to reply for him. He always wrote in his own hand. He is a remarkable man, remarkable. When he called us all in, all 150 clergy diocesan of Cape Town, he said, “He told us that we had elected him as our Archbishop. He wanted to know that every one of us was taking a day off every single week, he said we couldn’t do this job without a rest.
I still take Thursday as my day off. He also said that if we have a problem and don’t share it with him, he is no good to help. We always knew we could pick up the phone and Desmond would see us on the same day. He didn’t waste time, he spends it, which is quite a big difference. Three times I’ve had an occasion to phone to see him and he would see me immediately – therefore, he gets a lot of pastoral work done. He is an amazing creature.
That’s how our David came to go to Bishops. One night, David who was in standard eight at Fish Hoek at the time, asked to see me in the study. I thought, oh my word, someone’s pregnant. That’s what I thought at a co-ed school. When we got into the study, he burst into tears. I thought two people must be pregnant. It was nothing of the sort. I said asked him what was going on. He told me that he wanted to move from Fish Hoek and go to an all-boys school. As the girls were too distracting. He wanted to go to Bishops. I said, “You must be mad. You must be out of your head. You can’t possibly go to Bishops.” The next morning I told him I would phone Uncle Des, Desmond, and see if I can see him. The next morning I was in his office. He asked me to be quiet for a minute or two first, in which time he prayed. He then asked what I was there about. He didn’t ask about the cat or the dog or the weather. I told him our little story, as I’ve told you. He was quiet and then told me to go to the headmaster at Bishops immediately and to sign David up for the next year, for standard nine and standard ten. He said that David was to go as a boarder, he insisted on that, and that he would pay for him out of his Peace Prize money.”
What did you think when he won the Nobel Peace Prize?
Well, he deserved the Peace Prize. Oh, yes. He’s an international person. He has a gift of bringing people together and working towards that, as divisive as he can be. Usually, he causes a division, like with the Dalai Lama not being allowed to visit the country. He caused a great stink about that. He speaks the truth in love, or he tries to. When our David went to Bishops. John Gardiner was the principal at the time, he saw the difference between being taught and being educated.
When David was 28, he became deputy head of Milnerton High, he’s been headmaster of one of the Curro schools in Johannesburg. Next year he has accepted the post at another private school, Thomas Moore College in Johannesburg – all the result of Desmond.
Being the sort of person Desmond is, we keep regular contact with him. When David got married he sent him an invitation, but he couldn’t come to the wedding because he was somewhere else. A week later, he phoned and said he was coming to see them. Now he’s in Bishopscourt and we’re in Fish Hoek. He’s a busy man. Yet he drove himself out from Bishopscourt to Fish Hoek on that Saturday afternoon. He wanted to give them a present. It was a cheque. He could have put it in the post. But no, he wanted to see them personally to do that. He’s that sort of chap. He’s a remarkable man. This is the thing about people like Mandela and Tutu, that for all their seeming greatness they’re like little children.
In their humility and their simplicity and in all the complexity of what they’re handling, they have a freshness about them and an approachability. There’s no fear at all, when you’re with them, no sense of how you have got to be on your best behaviour. With other important people, you know you’re with them and you keep your distance. But with these two, you just have to be you. It’s a funny feeling that. That’s something deeply, deeply, essentially human. They are essentially human. They are what humans are meant to be like.
Do you think that’s what contributed to his successful leadership?
I do. Yes, because it’s an all-embracing humanity. It’s an inclusive one. It’s a spiritual dimension that’s real and works. They’re not fools. I don’t think they suffer fools gladly, but they love fools for being such. And they don’t throw them out. They are able to embrace. This is what is so great. They’re not fooled, but that doesn’t mean that they should just discard people. They don’t.
The 20th anniversary of the ‘95 World Cup has recently passed. Do you remember where you were? What were you thinking or feeling at that time?
I think I must have been feeling pretty happy. I couldn’t care about sport. It leaves me so cold. I’m totally unsporting, totally disinterested. I can’t wait to watch Wimbledon. Ha! I’ve never had much interest, but that was such a kairos moment, a moment in time that made a huge international impact. An impact, I think, on all South Africans. It was one of those rare, incredible moments when Mandela put on the Springbok jersey. I couldn’t tell you where I was yet it was one of the moments I will remember as a highlight moment.
Did you see a change in Mandela over the years?
When I first met him on Robben Island it was at mass, so I couldn’t tell. I just knew that he was something different, someone outstanding. But it was when I got to Pollsmoor, which was 20 years later. He’d been incarcerated for 20 years. And here is this man who has an obviously spiritual perceptive, inclusiveness. He must have gone through tremendous growth during that time and there must have been others that worked with him in the gap between my Robben Island days and my Pollsmoor days. He had the liberty, I think, of attending other people’s services. I was just one the many, I would like to think. On Anglican Day, he never missed, as a Methodist. A very nice thing happened towards the end. Our son, David, took hockey teams to South America. The travel agent was a chap called Alan Falck. He used to arrange these trips for the school’s hockey teams to go across. David gave one of those books, A Time to Speak, to Alan Falck to say thank you for arranging these trips.
One day Alan was telling David that he got to meet Mandela’s granddaughter or daughter, I can’t remember exactly which one, at a party. She was ambassador or on ambassadorial staff in Buenos Aires. He had my book in his pocket in case he met her, so if he got stuck for a conversation he could ask her if she’s read it because his friend’s father ministered to her father in Robben Island and in Pollsmoor. He thought that would be a nice conversation piece. So he does go off to this party and lo and behold, he meets the daughter or granddaughter. He produces my book and she asks if she can take it and return it when they meet again. A couple of weeks later, Alan Falck is the Oliver Tambo Airport when they bump again. She told him that she had lent the book to Graca who was busy reading it her father while he was lying in bed in his Houghton home.” That was about two or three weeks before he died.