I was having breakfast when the phone rang. It was the UCT Vice-Chancellor’s secretary, who said the VC – Dr Mamphela Ramphele – wanted to speak to me. “Certainly,” I responded. When Dr Ramphele came onto the line, she said I should be at the university administration building at 9am the following morning, “for a meeting with the VIPs”. Being a post-grad student at UCT at the time, I didn’t argue.
And so the next day – if memory serves me it was a Thursday early in March of 1996 – I dutifully walked up the hill from my digs next to Rosebank station to the Bremner building on middle campus (in whose car park, incidentally, I had learned to ride a bike and drive a car). I wasn’t at all sure what to expect – who exactly would these “VIPs” be? I was ushered into the Vice-Chancellor’s office and after greeting me, she said: “The President wants to meet you; he has invited you to tea at Tuynhuys this morning.” You could have knocked me over with a feather, but fortunately no-one did.
A short while later, Dr Ramphele herself was driving me to the city centre. We arrived at Tuynhuys next to the Parliament buildings in good time, and were shown through to a lounge. We were introduced to a young woman from Gugulethu, who had won an international award for entrepreneurship, and her mentor (a certain Mr Tony Yengeni, I believe). After a minute or two an aide announced the arrival of the President, and we all rose to greet the great Nelson Mandela. The towering yet grandfatherly figure of Tata Madiba shook me warmly by the hand and said with a chuckle, “Oh, I thought you were tall!”
While reading the Cape Times newspaper a few days previously, the President had spotted a narrow column on the front page of the business section which was topped by a head-and-shoulders photograph of me. The article reported that I had won the Old Mutual/Nedbank Budget Speech Competition and that I had been awarded a scholarship to study at Cambridge University. This was a remarkable example of how President Mandela would notice trivial details while reconstructing a country, and use his magic to turn them into building blocks. He had invited the young business achiever and me to meet him both to encourage us in our endeavours, but more importantly to serve as positive examples to other young South Africans of how hard work and dedication can yield further opportunities for self-improvement.
After shaking hands, we all took our seats and proceeded to have a half-hour conversation. The President asked me about the prize-winning essay I had written. I said that it was about economic privatisation – which ran counter to the ANC’s pre-1994 nationalisation manifesto – and explained that in my view, there were sound economic reasons to privatise some state-owned enterprises in order to improve efficiencies, but that one had to counter-balance this theoretical position with political realities such as the need to ensure proper service delivery to previously disadvantaged people. (Since I was a diligent student of economics, it goes without saying that there were two ‘hands’ in my argument.) President Mandela explained to me the ANC’s stance on the issue, and asked me to send him a copy of my essay so that he could pass it on to colleagues in the trade union movement.
Madiba concluded our discussion by looking at the young woman and me and saying, “I am so honoured to meet you, I don’t want to wash my hand.” He then led us outside to the veranda to face a barrage of TV news cameras and journalists, whom he had invited specially. The President spoke about how the future of the country lay with its young people, and encouraged everyone to take hold of their destinies. My compatriot and I were each given a minute to address the reporters. I said how grateful I was to have had such fantastic educational opportunities, and that my goal was to acquire new knowledge and skills at Cambridge and to bring these back to help improve South Africa’s economy in service of its people.
This once-in-a-lifetime experience happened nearly 18 years ago and this is the first time I have written about it. But such was the power of Madiba’s magnanimity, warmth and humour, that I remember the event as if it occurred just a short while ago. What a precious gift he gave me – his true presence. He serves as an inspiration always to strive to be the best person I can be.
Written by Jeremy Wakeford on the Day of Reconciliation, 16 December 2013.
Dr Jeremy Wakeford was awarded his PhD earlier this year by Stellenbosch University. His Dissertation topic: “Socio-economic implications of global oil depletion for South Africa: vulnerabilities, impacts and transition to sustainability.”
He is also the Chairman of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil (ASPO) South Africa and writes a fortnightly column for Business Day on global and South African energy issues. Jeremy hails from an old and prominent Fish Hoek family and is the eldest son of the late Clive Wakeford and Lindsay Wakeford.