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S. African envoy recalls ‘Madiba’

Ahead of International Mandela Day, envoy remembers relationship with iconic leader

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Published : 2014-07-13 20:04
Updated : 2014-07-13 20:04

Nelson Mandela achieved almost universal respect around the world and across the political spectrum. Called “Madiba” by admirers, through his role in fighting apartheid ― including a 27-year prison sentence ― Mandela came to symbolize the struggle of oppressed people around the world.

Mandela’s legacy extends beyond national liberation, too. Mandela successfully steered South Africa in the 1990s through the crisis of the country’s rebirth. Those two feats together have earned him an international reputation of forgiveness and peace.

South Africa’s ambassador here knew Mandela firsthand. He worked with him. He even shared an office with South Africa’s iconic national hero. When the African National Congress was legalized and Hilton Dennis returned to South Africa from exile in Zambia’s capital city of Lusaka, the two men worked side by side.

“Mandela was not some dreamy figure to me,” Ambassador Dennis said in an interview with The Korea Herald at his office in Seoul on Tuesday ahead of International Mandela Day, which falls on July 18. “But sometimes you had the impression that you are in the presence of a saintly person.”

When Mandela came out of prison in 1990 he did not express bitterness toward his tormentors. Instead, he championed reconciliation and espoused the principles of nation-building and cooperative governance. That much is well known.

But what many admirers from afar might not know is that Mandela assumed the commanding physical presence of a heavyweight boxer, a solid 193 cm tall with an athletic frame, Dennis recalled about Mandela.

“Firstly, you have to take in regard this man’s size. He was a huge man. He was a sportsman all his life. Even in jail, these guys did morning exercises. They were religious about that. And he ate sparingly, too. He led a disciplined life,” Dennis said.
South African Ambassador to South Korea Hilton Dennis gestures during an interview with The Korea Herald at his office in Seoul. (Philip Iglauer/The Korea Herald)

When the ambasador was a young man he lived in exile, spending years in Lusaka. He dedicated his life to the anti-Apartheid movement, and recalled Mandela, the man, in explaining why celebrating International Mandela Day is important.

In November 2009, the United Nations General Assembly declared July 18, the day Nelson Mandela was born, “International Nelson Mandela Day,” which calls on people to devote 67 minutes of time to helping others, as a way to mark Mandela’s birth.

Nelson Mandela devoted 67 years of his life to the service of humanity ― as a human rights lawyer, a prisoner of conscience, an international peacemaker and the first democratically elected president of a free South Africa, the U.N. General Assembly said.

Dennis said about the man: “He was opposite of the caricature of an African politician that gets fat after he comes into office. He led a disciplined lifestyle. Even in his later years, he would take walks every morning.”

Another story Dennis related about Mandela was the African leader’s role as a fashion icon.

“Actually, he was a snazzy dresser,” Dennis recalled. “You know, he came out of this culture of the British missionary schools. In the first two or three years after he got out of prison, he was always wearing a suit and tie.”

He is not usually remembered for his role in helping to bring Indonesia’s trademark colorful batik shirts to a global audience but, after a state visit there, he adopted the shirt as part of his ensemble at formal gatherings early in his presidency.

But perhaps universal to politicians in any country, Mandela derived energy from people. “He had an ability to reach out to people. He could interact with high-level people and ordinary people equally. It is an important attribute and a truly human attribute,” the ambassador said.

When Dennis returned from exile, Mandela became the active president of the South African liberation movement after ANC President Oliver R. Tambo had had a stroke. He then worked with Mandela in a three-story building there. Dennis said Mandela had an office on the top floor, while he was working on the second floor.

“I was part of the first group who came back from exile from Lusaka, (Zambia),” Dennis said recalling Mandela’s first trip outside South Africa since his release from prison. It was to Zambia where the movement in exile was headquartered.

When Mandela disembarked from the airplane in Lusaka in February 1990, cries of “Viva, Mandela, Viva!” by hundreds of ANC supporters who gathered at the airport could be heard.

Dennis recalled the 71-year-old leader wading into the crowd to greet groups of school children and women as they sang songs praising him. “Can you imagine? These rows of high-level leaders and politicians waiting as he greeted every one of these school children. That was the kind of man he was. He loved people, and respected people, regardless of status.”

Mandela’s Zambia trip was the first stop on an 18-day tour that included Zimbabwe, Tanzania and faraway Sweden. During that triumphant visit, Mandela met in Zambia for the first time the ANC’s 35-member Executive Committee.

That was the beginning of Mandela’s journey to the presidency. He would be elected the first black president in South Africa’s first democratic election in 1994.

The embassy has two events planned to celebrate International Mandela Day. The embassy will honor the winners of an English-language essay contest on the topic of Nelson Mandela and how his life could serve as an example to people everywhere, and to raise awareness of the values of social justice that Mandela worked for.

Students from five high schools submitted essays to the embassy. A selection committee consisting of South African English teachers based in Korea determined the first prize winner and runners-up.

The award ceremony will take place on July 16. The essay contest was first introduced in 2013 as part of the embassy’s International Mandela Day program.

Dennis will volunteer 67 minutes of time at Soorak Old People’s House in Sanggye-dong in northern Seoul on July 17. The ambasador will also deliver a special lecture on Mandela in Gwangju on July 18.

By Philip Iglauer (ephilip2014@heraldcorp.com)

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