South Africans called it the “Madiba magic” after his clan name — Nelson Mandela’s quirky mix of grandeur and simplicity, his ready quips, his ability to relate to the poor, his colourful custom-made shirts and his dancing prowess.
Mandela drew politicians from around the world, as well as ordinary children and adults keen to get a glimpse of the freedom icon who spent 27 years in prison.
Many remember his solemn inauguration as South Africa’s first black president on May 20, 1994 at the age of 75, when he shuffled a few steps in perfect time despite the wear and tear on his body, fists clenched, with a beaming smile. The now famous “Madiba jive” was born.
Entertainers parodied it, radio stations took up the beat, and every time Mandela made a public appearance someone would ask him to jive despite his increasing frailty over the years.
Parodied too, in many bars in South Africa, was his distinctive accent — a slow, punctuated growl.
Indissolubly associated with the Madiba magic were his loose shirts — riots of colour which stood out among the sober suits and ties of his associates.
They were inspired by the shirts worn by former president Suharto of Indonesia, and hand-made for him by a Burkina Faso national living in Ivory Coast.
The photographers loved them, even though they were forbidden to use flash when taking pictures of Mandela because his eyes had been weakened when working in the glare of a limestone quarry on Robben Island, off Cape Town, where he was imprisoned for 18 years.
Thabo Mbeki, his successor as president who wore elegantly tailored dark suits, once described the shirts as “bizarre.”
The Madiba magic drew politicians from around the world, eager to be photographed alongside him long after he retired in 1999.
But when US President George W Bush visited South Africa in 2003 he passed up the chance, after Mandela criticised the invasion of Iraq in stinging terms, describing Bush as “a president who can’t think properly”.
The children of South Africa adored Madiba, who had a special empathy with youngsters as he missed seeing his own grow up while in apartheid prisons.
In 2002, when he gave his annual Christmas party for children in his home village of Qunu in the impoverished southeast, more than 20,000 children turned up — some trekking for two or three days — and pandemonium erupted.
Thousands of children and adults stampeded, with three needing hospital treatment, and security men had to cut down fences to prevent children from being crushed.
American talk-show hostess Oprah Winfrey was present, carrying thousands of black dolls for the girls and soccer balls for the boys.
Her security detail swung into action and assisted in moving many of the children out of harm’s way.
Mandela’s empathy for individuals often came at the most unlikely moments.
He once interrupted a meeting to ask after the health of a heavily pregnant journalist, tapping her swollen belly gently with his big boxer’s hands and asking her when the baby was due.
He was also adept at poking fun at himself, saying in 2000: “My bosses always say that I have had 27 years in prison to loaf. It is now time to do some catching up”.
In 1998, he declared: “My greatest regret in life is that I never became the heavyweight boxing champion of the world”.
And when South Africa narrowly lost its bid for the 2006 World soccer cup he said: “At least we have the right to get drunk ... next time we will win”. He was right.
Roelf Meyer, one of the apartheid regime’s negotiators on the transition to democracy, said his eyes opened to Mandela’s charisma shortly after his liberation from jail in 1990 when dozens of young white soldiers queued up to shake the hand of the former “terrorist.”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved