Madiba leaned on her cane, her PA Zelda la Grange at her side, and carefully made her way towards me. He was wearing a trademark gold Madiba T-shirt. We were backstage at the President’s Cup golf tournament at Fancourt in George in 2003. Security was swarming and major cable networks were installed all around us. I had been entrusted with the illustrious task of emceeing the opening and closing ceremonies of the event. More than 102 million households would be tuned in Africa, Europe and the US on NBC, Turner Cable and ESPN, among other channels. I was nervous!
“Ah, Robert, you work too much,” joked the former president.
My answer was: ‘No, Madiba, you are the one who works hard. Who am I to even go near him? ‘No no no no no no. You see, Zelda keeps telling me that I’ve been resting for 27 years, and now I work!
Those words stuck in my mind immediately. How could someone who has suffered and been punished and sacrificed so much in prison for years even call it ‘rest’?
That was one of the most humiliating comments I’ve ever heard from a person of that stature. He also motivated me and encouraged me that the journey he was on and the path he was walking was meant to be.
I am a soccer lover who wanted to do soccer on TV and now they ask me to host and MC the Presidents Cup. That puzzled me. It was the kind of tournament that anyone would want to have as a concert and have their names attached.
My father may have been a golf caddy, but I didn’t know anything about golf. Living on the farm in Fort Louis, I never saw the point of his golf clubs. He also didn’t spend enough time trying to convince me to pick up the sport because he too was busy trying to make ends meet for the family. But he really loved the sport.
I was scared because I didn’t know the terminology or punctuation and really had no interest in golf. I had to investigate and find out what the President’s Cup was all about. It was the place where the best in the world played against the United States of America, and they were going to be here. The elite of the world.
The best golfers in the world were there, from Tiger Woods to Ernie Els. I was able to visually identify some of the big name players. In addition, there was the former president of the United States, George Bush senior. He and President Thabo Mbeki entered wearing golden jackets.
I couldn’t believe this was happening. These guys were meters away from me. It was real. These were the best golfers in the world. There were the best American golfers. It was a prestigious event, like the World Cup of Golf. It’s once and it doesn’t happen often. There were world leaders. I had to introduce them all and officially open the event to the world. I was in command of this event.
There was no autocue, just a couple of cue cards, and I had to maintain the dignity and prestige of the event. I had to concentrate on work.
It was moments like that that I realized that maybe there is a purpose to what I’m doing. The initial call would take different forms but it was truly overwhelming. Everyone was watching and I think that’s what scared me more than anything, trying not to get bored in front of a global audience.
That was just one of the jobs I did for the presidency during my career. When Nelson Mandela was still President of South Africa, the initial request was received to host an event called the Premier and Presidential Awards which is held annually in Pretoria and is hosted by the sitting President.
I thought it was a hoax or someone was playing a prank on me when the application first came. I am a sports commentator. I am living my dream. I am an admirer of politicians like Madiba, as we all were at the time if what you were looking for was freedom and equality. In terms of my broadcast space, I was really getting down on my knees and doing what I was doing. So when a call came in from the Office of the President requesting and asking me for an email address so they could start a conversation about whether or not I could host that event, I had to believe it was happening. and I accepted.
It was a black-tie event packed with politicians and people from the entertainment industry. I barely got a chance to meet Madiba because introducing him to the podium and stepping aside doesn’t really count as meeting the man.
But it became an annual event and I was asked to organize it several more times, both under the Mandela and Thabo Mbeki presidencies. I wasn’t sure what earned me the right to be called up, but I took it as further confirmation that I was doing the right thing and moving on.
I eventually met Madiba at one of the award ceremonies. It was towards the end of his presidency, so he was more relaxed.
In true Madiba fashion, during soundcheck and rehearsals he came up to me and complimented me on the work I had done at these events over the years. I was grateful that he knew my name, but Madiba was meticulous in always wanting to greet people by his name. Here was the most revered man in the world showering me with praise. It’s something he really appreciated.
Through all of those events I formed a relationship with his assistant, Zelda. He was always sure to send birthday wishes and, with the events he had done, the relationship was always cordial.
In my mind I was thinking that I couldn’t pass up this opportunity. He wanted to get an interview with Madiba. He knew that many current affairs programs had failed to get him on his shows, whether on radio or television. Some of the world’s great hitters weren’t able to get heads up with him. Who am I to expect him to get it right? Also, he was doing a sports show, so that was an even bigger problem.
I presented the proposal to Zelda and it was not immediately rejected. They told me it could be a possibility. I was very direct with her and told her that I know that Madiba is a politician. People want to hear him talk about politics. I am not a politician. I don’t do current affairs and I don’t do a political show. But he also knew that Madiba was huge in sporting terms. He knew that Madiba was a former boxer and loved his boxing. He knew that Madiba was the first person Hansie Cronje called when he was caught in the match-fixing saga. I knew that SARFU president Louis Luyt was the first person after Madiba’s release to send Madiba back to court.
I thought, with just those three angles, I could pull it off and get her to agree to come on the show. I bought the book that chronicles the court case with Louis Luyt and read it cover to cover to understand the legal issues. He also had to understand what was going on with the cricket case and match-fixing because whatever Hansie had approached Mandela about might not have been public knowledge at the time. So it made sense to me to try to get it firsthand from Madiba. Why was Hansie approaching him and why?
Zelda talked to Madiba and he agreed, and the interview was arranged. They also decided to grant a few other interview requests that same day. Gareth Cliff and Noeleen Maholwana-Sangqu then mixed in with their own interviews. The nice thing was that they agreed to do it live, not a pre-registration. It was still something new for Metro to broadcast from the reception area and it was like a fishbowl with people gathered to watch you.
Normally, he was talking to millions of people he couldn’t see, so it was unnerving that people would physically look at him. I had to go through protocols. All SABC managers came to be there, to welcome and meet Madiba. There was quite a show and people gathered around. They wanted to see this man in the flesh. There was such a buzz that it was more than just a radio show; it became a show in Auckland Park.
Just his arrival was presidential. It was Madiba. They had to bring him in a little early because people were distracting him. He wanted to say hello and shake hands here and there. I have to spend some time with him in the waiting room. He was in a good mood. He was wearing a Madiba T-shirt and I had my own version of one too.
I did not write questions or send questions to him. I think there was enough trust between us before the interview that I wanted it to be a conversation. Then I saw the Mandela that I had seen on television. The smile was erased. The laughter was gone. He could now tell that there was this shield that had been developed in a short space of time. And was that going to work for me or against me? Was I going to get a Madiba that would give me one-word answers and send them back to you to try and navigate your way? I told myself that I am going to be confident. There is a unique opportunity for you to interview the one person the world wants to interview.
Was I going to fill it in? Absolutely not. Why must I do that? Had he done enough preparation? Definitely. This man was an intellectual. This was someone who, beyond being a politician or what they wanted to call an agitator back then, was actually a very intelligent and humane person. So, he needed to bring my A game.
The interview. Wow. It was 29 minutes without ads. I think he got to a stage where he also felt it was the kind of interview he needed, that it wasn’t about unions or politics. He opened up and I was not wrong to have judged him as a person who loves sports.
He really cared about the athletes. He cared for the late Baby Jake Matlala. He cared about ex-boxers. He cared about the role he had played in shaping and uniting sports in this country. His memory of the details of the Louis Luyt case was incredible because what triggered inside Mandela was his legal background. Then, veering off to Hansie Cronje’s side, he had a huge soft spot for the ex-captain. I think he had a soft spot for a lot of people.
Gqimm Shelele: The Robert Marawa Story by Mandy Wiener is published by Pan Macmillan South Africa, R348.00