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Encounters with Nelson




As Mandela with Winnie alongside him take those final few steps to freedom, the world is witnessing a seminal moment in 20th century history and a seismic shift in South Africa’s political landscape and order. A change that, just a few years earlier, appeared highly improbable.

We applaud, and my father and mother are radiant with happiness. The struggle they both dedicated their lives to in their own way had born fruit. Mandela’s release represented the beginning of a new era in South Africa’s long, contentious, and painful history.

While we exult in the moment, the thought of what next hangs heavy in the air. The conversation turns to it. What does this mean for the family? My two sisters, Peta and Tessa, both have apprehensive looks on their faces. The reality of what it means sinks in without having to be said.

It’s a bitterly cold February evening, darkness has descended, and as I open the front door, I see my mother on the phone and hear her say with elation in her voice, “Oh Nicholas has just walked in from work, would you like to say hello?” and thrusts the phone into my hand. I put my hand over the mouthpiece and with a look of bewilderment, ask who it is. My mother mouths, “Nelson”. I feel my body freeze and I become extremely nervous, and I wonder whether I’ll be able to speak. I hear myself say hello, and ask Mandela how he is, which seems such a frivolous, idiotic, and banal thing to say to a person who has just been released from prison after serving 27 years.

He doesn’t respond, but says, “How are you? I remember you were very ill as a baby. You caused your mother many hours of anguish. Tell me what you’ve been up to.” As I’m telling him, I feel a sense of bewilderment and amazement. He’s interested only in hearing about me. After a few minutes, I say, “It was an honour talking to you,” but Mandela responds by saying, “The honour was all mine.”

I pass the phone back to my mother, and literally in a daze, go through to the kitchen where my father is standing. I say in a stunned tone, “I have just spoken to Nelson.” My mother follows a moment later, and we sit down to dinner as if nothing out of the ordinary has just happened.

At work the next morning, a colleague asks what I was up to the night before, to which I respond, “I spoke on the phone to my leader, Nelson Mandela.” There is silence for a moment, then one of my colleagues quirks back, “So did I, I spoke to President Bush.” They all laugh, and dismiss my comment as a joke.

Years later, when I’m well into running Liliesleaf, my cell phone rings when I’m in Cape Town. It’s Jakes Gerwel. He informs me that Mandela will be coming through to Liliesleaf to see the place and hear more about the Liliesleaf Legacy Project.

Mandela’s visit to Liliesleaf is going very well. We have spent the first hour or so along with Andrew Mlangeni sitting in the lounge of the main house, where I briefed him on the project and our plans for the site. He is extremely attentive and interested in what we are planning to do.

As we are heading up the path to the “museum room”, Mandela suddenly stops and in an excited and expectant voice, turns to me and asks if I have found his gun. I’m surprised and caught off guard by his statement.

Without thinking I say, “I’ve been meaning to ask you where you hid it.” He turns back to face the house and with both hands, gesticulates towards the back of the main house, saying, “Somewhere over there.” It’s obvious from the tone and enthusiasm in his voice that the gun has significant meaning. As we start to make our way up to the “museum room”, he turns to me and says I must find it, as if it were a command.

To date, the gun has yet to be discovered.

  • Nic Wolpe is the son of Harold Wolpe who, along with Nelson Mandela, was one of the leaders of uMkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the African National Congress, arrested at Liliesleaf farm in 1963. Nic is the chief executive of Liliesleaf farm.

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