The author of this post is Daniela Bertoglio, an Italian traveller, translator, and tour leader. In 1997, she visited South Africa where she had the chance to meet Nelson Mandela … I asked her to tell about this moving experience.
Enjoy your reading, and thanks to Daniela!
“My recollection of Mandela dates back to a special day of many years ago.
It was 1997, and I was in South Africa with a group of Viaggi nel Mondo, an Italian tour operator. We were 13 people, and many of us were activists of Amnesty International. On September 11th we arrived, after a long journey, to East London: we intended to go, the following day, to the Addo Elephant Park, even if we already had seen a lot of elephants. The walls of East London were covered by manifestos about the 20th anniversary of the death (or rather the assassination) of Steve Bantu Biko, and so we came to know that the following day there would be a ceremony for the unveiling of a Biko’s statue. My group immediately separated, among those who wanted to follow the original program and those who preferred to remain and take part to the ceremony. We had two vans, so it was not a problem. But the following morning we came to know that half South African government, included Mandela, would be in East London, so we all decided to remain. When we arrived in the main square, there was a stream of people, almost all black. I realized that we wouldn’t have the opportunity to see anything, so I took my courage into my hand, I pretended to be a journalist, and I approached the organizers’ office. I told them a lie: I said we were a group of Italians arrived in East London only for the ceremony, and the girl I spoke to, incredibly, believed me. “Unfortunately the first rows are occupied, but if you contend yourself with the fourth row…”. I couldn’t believe: there was a stand for the government authorities and a dozen rows of chairs for the local authorities and she was offering me 13 seats! Obviously I immediately accepted, thanked her and I went to call my friends. Close to our seats there was a little stand where musicians, dancers, church choirs performed.
We spent the first hours listening music and becoming familiar with the people sitting around us. There were all blacks, and very smartly-dressed. Unnecessary to tell that we were dressed like tramp. At a certain point a white man climbed on the stand and started to sing “Biko”: it was Peter Gabriel. This song, together with others, had been the soundtrack of our journey, we all knew it by heart, unlike the South Africans around us (during the apartheid the song had been banished), so we have been choristers of Peter Gabriel, who saw us, incited us to sing with him and later he recorded us with his video recorder (yes, I had been on Peter Gabriel’s holiday film!). After him many other musicians alternated on the stand, until the moment when the all square remained silent.
Mandela had arrived, and started to speak. I must confess that I don’t remember his speech, maybe I didn’t listened to him. There was such electricity in the air, we all hung upon his lips, with a great respect. He spoke in English, Xhosa, and other South Africans languages, but even if he had spoke in Chinese everybody would have listened to him. I remember his tone, so quiet, peaceful, the tone of a person who can control the multitude in front of him with the power of the word, without shouting. At the end of the speech we all sang the South African anthem. The words “Nkosi sikelele Africa” still now moved me like few other (surely more than “Fratelli d’Italia”!). Then the crowd started to dance, and we with them.