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‘Nelson Mandela had extraordinary capacity to forgive, but never forget’

- EXCLUSIVE
- One comment changed so much for SA cricket: Dr Bacher
Dr Ali Bacher with Nelson Mandela at their first meeting, in August 1991. Also in the photograph are Mandela confidant Steve Tshwete (left) and Clive Lloyd. Like Mandela, Tshwete is no more. Picture courtesy: Ali, The Life Of Ali Bacher

Calcutta: Dr Ali Bacher, a former national captain and managing director of Cricket South Africa (then the United Cricket Board), shared an excellent rapport with the inspirational Nelson ‘Madiba’ Mandela, who passed away on Thursday night.

On Saturday afternoon, Dr Bacher spoke to The Telegraph for around 30 minutes, exclusively on Mandela, from his Johannesburg residence’s landline.

The interview was interrupted a couple of times owing to calls on Dr Bacher’s cellphone from media organisations such as the BBC. All wanting Mandela-related anecdotes.

Excerpts...

Q What were your impressions of Mandela during the 26 years that he was incarcerated on Robben Island?

A Actually, Mandela just disappeared from the newspapers in South Africa... So, one didn’t get any update about him... Owing to the policies of the government of the day, even his photographs couldn’t be published. Also, almost on a daily basis, the government unleashed propaganda labelling Mandela and the African National Congress (ANC) as terrorists and communists. One was told that Mandela and the ANC wanted to overthrow the government militarily.

Did you believe that Mandela was a terrorist?

No. But the propaganda was relentless... Look, I was clear about where I stood. My Jewish background and the fact that millions of Jews were victims of the Holocaust made me feel warmly towards the non-Whites... The oppressed had my sympathy.

When did you meet Mandela for the first time?

In August 1991.

How did that come about?

There’s a story... I’d invited Clive Lloyd to have a look at the Board’s development programme and to inspire the young Blacks... A month earlier, you’ll recall, South Africa had been re-admitted to the International Cricket Council (ICC)... While in South Africa, Clive requested a meeting with Mandela. As I didn’t have direct access, I got in touch with my good friend and Mandela confidant, Steve Tshwete. Steve did the needful and we were asked to go to Shell House, where the ANC had its office. On getting there, Clive and I saw dozens of mediapersons, waiting to interview Mandela... After a brief wait, out came Mandela and he spent five minutes with Clive, Steve and I. Seeing Clive, one of the journalists, a Swede, asked Mandela if it would be okay for South Africa’s cricketers to participate in the 1992 World Cup. Mandela said ‘of course, they must play’. That one comment changed so much.

Did you, then, quickly begin lobbying for South Africa to make their maiden World Cup appearance?

Mandela’s answer had such a massive impact... I got a call from Tyronne Fernando, who was then the head of Sri Lanka Cricket, and he felt the ICC should convene a special meeting with a view to granting South Africa entry into the 1992 World Cup, in Australia-New Zealand. That was taken forward and a meeting was held in Sharjah, in October.

Was there opposition to South Africa’s participation?

The West Indies abstained, arguing that South Africa was yet to have democracy, even though Mandela had been released from prison. Nobody else had objections at the meeting which lasted 45 minutes. At the end of it, South Africa was given a place in the World Cup.

[South Africa’s historic elections took place in 1994, after which Mandela became his country’s first Black President.]

Thanks to Mandela...

Absolutely... The power of the man made it possible... One comment did it.

What made you and Mandela get along so well?

There was chemistry, yes... Looking back, I can say Mandela gave me confidence, gave me whole-hearted support... In 2004, he graciously agreed to write the foreward to my biography. I was touched.

In the foreward Mandela called you ‘Mister Cricket in South Africa’...

(Laughs) Mandela was kind.

But, initially, was there any awkwardness given that you’d been organising Rebel Tours during the years of isolation?

No... Look, I made peace with the issue after a long chat with Steve... He’d conveyed my thoughts to Mandela and, so, I didn’t feel odd in any way. I remain grateful to Steve.

You have, in the past, said that Mandela was South Africa’s numero uno fund-raiser...

Mandela would read all the newspapers, particularly the financial ones, and make a note of the companies which were doing really well. He’d then call the CEOs of those companies and request assistance to upgrade the health and educational facilities in specific areas. He’d ask for Rands 1 million or Rands 2 million and nobody could say ‘no’. It came to such a stage that if the President’s Office called, the CEOs would wonder just how much they’d have to fork out!

Didn’t Mandela call you for funds?

Mandela did, once, in the late 1990s. He asked me to meet him at his residence in Houghton, in about 20 minutes. As I had visitors from overseas, I requested a couple of hours time. Mandela then asked me to join him for tea at 4.00 pm (the call had come at 1.40 pm). I presented myself and he spoke about on a lot of issues for around half-an-hour. I began to wonder just what was on Mandela’s mind. A few minutes on, he sought assistance for a really poor area, specifically in health and education. He requested Rands 1 million.

How exactly did Mandela put it?

Mandela candidly said that, in a “small way,” he’d helped in South Africa’s return to international cricket and that a contribution for a good cause would be in order. My reply was that, left to me, I’d sanction it straightaway. However, I needed a board meeting to approve Rands 1 million... A board meeting was scheduled a week later. At the meeting, I briefed the members on what transpired at Mandela’s residence. Many were up in arms, saying they didn’t run a charitable organisation and that a precedent would be set.

So, what was your counter?

I told the chairman, Ray White, that if the board didn’t want to make that donation then I wouldn’t be the one to tell Mandela that. I also asked for a show of hands to determine how many didn’t want to honour a request from Mandela. No hand was raised, as word would have got around that X or Y had opposed Mandela. The next day, cheque in hand and family in tow, I went to Mandela’s residence. You can’t imagine how nice Mandela was... He put the two youngest grandchildren on his lap and actually sang for them. It was an incredible experience for me and the family.

What struck you the most about Mandela?

The extraordinary capacity to forgive, but to never forget. Despite being in jail for 26 years, Mandela advocated reconciliation... I won’t forget his post-release speech in the Town Hall in Cape Town... He emphasised that South Africa was for all South Africans and that he was as opposed to domination by Blacks as he was to domination by Whites.

When did you last spend a reasonable period of time with Mandela?

In 2004, when I had spent an hour or so at his residence. I’d gone to present him a copy of my biography... I did meet him after that, but not for that long.

How should South African sportspersons remember Mandela?

Mandela should be idolised for paving the way for every South African to have a crack at realising his/ her dream.

Finally... Were you mentally prepared for the passing away of Mandela?

Not a question of being prepared, but coming from the medical profession, I knew the end was near. After the last illness, it was a matter of time.