The Presidential Years

Oh yes, and he was a very good student, very good, because for instance for all the press briefings that he did, which were long press briefings, we worked for weeks on them, Gill and them, depending on the subject matter. They would get a team together and those people would brief him for a good ten days, they would go, spend six hours with him. That is the most excellent thing about him – he was a very good student and he had the gift of internalising what he was told and to make it is own, which is wonderful because when people work with leaders they make fools of them by letting them babble about things that they don’t understand. But Madiba insisted on knowing and understanding and he would study, he would have his little notebook at home and study. So when it came out it was perfect.

But also he would be critical, even with his speeches, he always changed things, not big things, he would change subtleties and say I want this like this and this word. So if you gave him a draft speech he would read it, he wouldn’t make long annotations, but the ones he made were such that by the time he made the speech it was his own.

He worked very hard at being a president. He knew that being President was playing a role – and he was determined to play it well.

For me the single thing that I remember most sharply about him was his inclusiveness. And when I say inclusiveness I don’t mean in the big picture thing of the politics, the races and all that, but to everybody around him, even in his office so nobody was so important.

What we used to do in the early times, I said that everybody who received and dealt with the letters to him, had to write a précis of each letter, who it is from, et cetera. We had a little form, to say who it was from, when they want to see him, what they want. That was a wonderful thing because it made everybody feel that they were involved, precisely because that would be part of his briefing when he came in, in the morning, because I said to him, ‘You must know everything that is happening in your office.’ So he would go through that.

He had a routine, but he also had silly things like he didn’t want us to work after hours, he didn’t want us to come in to the office before hours. He just had no clue about how much work was involved, that it was not a nine-to-five thing, you had to work all the time to keep up. I think that perhaps even during that period we were burned out, I mean completely burned out by the time of the election. But I think the great thing is that at that time neither Jessie nor I were eyeing any big jobs, we were just watching all these people running around. And I think it was a blessing that we didn’t. It does make a difference.

Barbara Masekela