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Firm handshake, a winning smile

- Nelson Mandela, in a league all his own

Three things stood out. In person, Nelson ‘Madiba’ Mandela was much taller than he looked in photographs, had a firm handshake and possessed a smile worth going miles to see.

Quite simply, Mandela had enormous presence.

That being so, I came away rather mesmerised each time I met Mandela. Twice in Johannesburg, on India’s history-carving 1992-93 tour; once in Cape Town, on the 1996-97 visit.

Mandela’s humility, too, stood out. He was on course to become South Africa’s first President in the post-apartheid era when I met him in November-December 1992. On the last occasion, he was in Office.

Yet, not for a moment did Mandela give the impression that he was the Nelson Mandela, adored by millions of compatriots and millions outside South Africa.

That he was a symbol of so many things.

In fact, at Newlands in Cape Town, Mandela remembered the interview in the VIP Lounge of the Jan Smuts Airport (now the Oliver Tambo International Airport) a little over four years earlier.

Nelson Mandela with The Telegraph’s writer, at the Johannesburg airport, on December 11, 1992. When the writer met him again, in Cape Town, Mandela took time off to autograph the old photograph, dating it on the day of the latest meeting — January 4, 1997

“How are you, my friend?” was the greeting Mandela extended, moments after he’d got off his Benz and before being ushered into an exclusive area by Dr Ali Bacher, his host for the afternoon.

Mandela wanted to make a quiet entry, but that just wasn’t possible. He was mobbed, with admirers screaming “Madiba, Madiba.” One also heard the odd “Mr President, Mr President.”

“Madiba, you’ve got to come in quickly,” Dr Bacher advised, after a prompt from Mandela’s security officers, who weren’t prepared for what was fast becoming a surge towards him.

To their relief, the turnstiles acted as a barrier.

Mandela’s handshake was firm, but he’d definitely aged in four years and didn’t walk as briskly as he used to. As for the smile, it could still bowl over anybody.

Absolutely anybody.

My first meeting with Mandela, in the Long Room at the Wanderers during the maiden India-South Africa Test there, had been rushed.

But it couldn’t have been otherwise as I had to ‘compete’ with such big guns as Lord Colin Cowdrey, Geoffrey Boycott and Sunil Gavaskar.

It takes a lot to leave Boycott (and his “mum”) speechless, but Mandela, I recall, did so without batting an eyelid.

When Boycott asked if he’d bat or bowl in his “younger days,” Mandela teasingly said: “Both, my friend.”

There was no follow-up from Boycott!

Given the tough time I had in the Long Room, a request was made to Dr Bacher to arrange a one-on-one with Mandela. Ever helpful, he spoke to Steve Tshwete, now no more, to do the needful.

Tshwete headed the African National Congress’ sports cell and was particularly close to Mandela. He promised to do “something” in a fortnight.

Sure enough, one evening, Dr Bacher called with instructions from Tshwete. I had to reach a particular gate at Jan Smuts by “5.30 am” the next day, head to the VIP Lounge area and wait.

It was an odd time, but who was I to complain?

There was something else: I wasn’t at liberty to “reveal anything to anybody,” for security reasons.

At 6.00 am, Mandela arrived, dressed in a grey suit, and smiling. He was accompanied by a posse of securitymen, all of whom were in black suits, and were to travel with him for a meeting of the Frontline States.

Mandela was headed for Harare.

As two other journalists were present for interviews, Mandela gave us an option: 30 minutes for all three together or 10 minutes for each.

We opted for exclusivity.

The Babri Masjid had been demolished only days earlier and Mandela expressed his anguish at the blood-letting in his “second home (India).”

Excerpts from what Mandela told this writer and what was published in The Telegraph on December 12, 1992...

“I’m grieved to learn of the violence and I would urge all Indians, who have been such friends of ours, to rally behind the political leadership...

“I didn’t expect it (the ferocity of the violence), though I should have. Differences of religion, caste and regionalism have spread trouble all over the world...

“The likes of Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel have done remarkable work in fighting for liberation. It’s a heritage which has inspired all of us and that is why we are pained...

“People should remember that freedom never comes easy. Once it does, everything must be done to preserve it. Whenever possible, and depending on the situation, non-violence must be invoked.”

That even Calcutta, which gave Mandela such an emotional welcome in 1990, had been hit by the post-demolition violence, hadn’t gone unnoticed by him.

Incidentally, Mandela passed away on the eve of the 21st anniversary of the Babri Masjid’s demolition.

Mandela’s views on incarceration (he was himself imprisoned for 26 years), freedom, politics and international relations are well documented, but he was so sports-oriented too.

That Mandela actually featured in South Africa’s delegation went a long way in that country clinching the rights to host the soccer World Cup in 2010.

Presence, after all.

So overwhelmed was Mandela after the announcement in Zurich, and on getting to hold the iconic Fifa trophy, that he declared: “I feel like a young man of 15.”

That was in 2004 when he was close to his 86th birthday.

Cricket, obviously, remained special and Mandela respected the role played by it in bringing South Africa out of isolation.

The International Cricket Council led the fraternity in condoling Mandela’s death, putting in perspective his connect with the sport.

Mandela didn’t meet Sir Donald Bradman, but did interact with Sachin Tendulkar, the modern-day Bradman. Sachin, who was the India captain on the 1996-97 tour of South Africa, tweeted a rich tribute.

But trust Usain Bolt to sprint to gold in this field as well: “One of the greatest human beings ever... The world’s greatest fighter.”

Sure, there have been many world leaders with a huge interest in sport, but Mandela came across differently. Clearly, in a league all his own.