My Moment with Madiba

It was almost 20 years ago. The year was 1996, and South Africa was only two years into democracy. I was 36 and had just been nominated for the Greek Chamber of Commerce Young Achiever of the Year award and for the Greek community in South Africa, this is the Oscars. The World Trade Centre in Johannesburg was packed with high flying Greek and South African business moguls and media personalities. When the proceedings were about to start, I remember feeling a presence and at that moment, I knew we were in the midst of greatness. Nelson Mandela had just walked into the building and the entire house plunged into a solemnness; a silence I can only associate with reverence, utmost respect and dignity.

My first personal encounter with Madiba was on this night. It is one of those things that get etched in your memory and does not escape you. It is not a haunting or anything esoteric like that, but rather a lingering inspiration. At the event, Madiba was seated a table away from ours, with high profile luminaries from the business and political fraternities. I was conscious of being a little out my league with such high profile people: a stone’s throw from me was the then state President, the Greek Ambassador and diplomats and right across me at my table was Greek musician of note, George Dalaras.

Madiba and Oresti

Madiba and I

Unexpectedly enough, I won the award for the 1996 Greek Chamber of Commerce Young Achiever of the Year. It was a pleasant surprise as I thought I stood no chance against all the other incredible entrepreneurs. I went up on stage to accept the trophy and on my way down, I walked past Madiba’s table. A few steps away from my seat, the people at my table shouted that Madiba was calling me. I stopped and turned around, and there he was, walking towards me. Only a few strides and he stood right in front of me.

This towering figure, in stature and aura, with salt and pepper hair, a deep stare and a hearty smile stretched out his hand for what was a firm congratulatory handshake. He said to me, that he was pleased I won the award and that entrepreneurs were good because they grow economies. Then he urged me to stay in the country and join in on the efforts to build the economy. This was at a time when many white people were either leaving the country or considering leaving the country. I was stunned. I mumbled a thank you, he smiled and then walked back to his table.

This all happened too quickly. I had just had a chat with not just the president of the country but the ultimate human being, Nelson Mandela! I remember feeling really honoured, more for the impromptu and very brief chat with him, than the award. Everything from then was a blur. I do not remember the rest of the night, not even a photograph being taken of him and I. A few days later, my mother fished it out from the journalist that took the shot and I can’t help but feel like I do not deserve bragging rights for meeting Madiba.

I will never forget the overwhelming sense of greatness in Mandela’s aura. Even when he was getting older at George Bizos’ 80th birthday party about ten years later, his aura was that of a greatness mammoth in size. At that time, he was getting frail and needed a walking stick, but the Madiba magic was still present.

I will also never forget the humility in the man. He walked over to people, he did not wait for people to come to him. He was kind-hearted, and gave children attention all the time, playing with them whenever he could. And he cared for people. For everyone he spoke to, Madiba always asked how they were, always encouraged them to keep doing their best at what they were good at. He was a man of the people. His legacy will continue to live on, and inspire us all, so we can emulate him and build a better world.