The Presidential Years

Between the decisions of government and the deliberations that lead to them; between the public arena of negotiations and what happens behind closed doors, there is a balance to be maintained which calls upon the skills of leadership.

Fashioning and maintaining with integrity a public persona that embodied the needs of an epoch, required many years of immense and strategic self-control that was deliberately nurtured and seldom shaken.

But beyond all that there was the challenge of drawing a line between private life and the consuming desire of public and media to partake in everything about the life of an icon. Mandela’s evident delight in engaging with both might have seemed to invite their curiosity.

Some constraints of office Mandela found irksome because they limited the privacy he wanted.

Being so well-known, he couldn’t do many of the simple things of everyday life. There were times when he would want to go into a shop and decide in a leisurely way what to buy but, he would say, ‘The problem is that I can’t go into a shop without creating a jam!’

A stroll alone in the morning required cunning to evade security guards. Early in the morning, he might tell the security people, ‘Wait for me at the front door, I’m coming out for a walk,’ and then go out the back door to walk alone. Once he had gone a certain distance the police would recognise him and call security and say, ‘Here’s your president.’ When asked about it he would laugh it off and sometimes boast, ‘I dodged those chaps’.776 His official residence in Pretoria, he told a journalist, ‘is good because there are lots of escape routes. But they soon realise you are gone and within 10 or 15 minutes they are with you again. ... I have almost given up.’777

It was a habit he already had before entering government.

One day I got a call [from his ANC security]: Where is Tata? I said, why are you asking me? You are supposed to be looking after him. The security fellow said, we were walking, and he disappeared. So I said have you phoned Barbara. He said we are phoning all of you. I phoned Barbara, I phoned Jessie. None of us knew where he was. A little later he comes into what was then Shell House, comes in and says, ‘Look I had to take a taxi, I didn’t have any money, and the chap said it was okay.’ There was a young girl called Audrey and he said, ‘Will you please pay this taxi when it comes.’ What had happened was that he had seen a taxi, he had just jumped on it.…

When he got in he found Barbara on the phone and he just walked into his office while she was pulling her hair out – she asked, ‘Where have you been? What’s going on?’ and he told her, that he was late for a meeting: ‘I couldn’t wait for those fellows.’778

Frene Ginwala