Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 17 June 2019

Remembering Mandela: South Africa president’s 1995 state visit to UAE

Former South African ambassador to the UAE reminisces about how Nelson Mandela touched the hearts of the working class people he met on his visit to Abu Dhabi.
Nelson Mandela meets with the late Sheikh Zayed on a state visit in 1995. Courtesy of Al Ittihad
Nelson Mandela meets with the late Sheikh Zayed on a state visit in 1995. Courtesy of Al Ittihad

ABU DHABI // Rafique Gangat was posted to Abu Dhabi as the new South African ambassador to the UAE in early 1995.

The diplomat had barely landed when news arrived that his president, Nelson Mandela, would be paying a state visit to the UAE in March that same year.

In his book, Ye Shall Bowl on Grass, Mr Gangat describes how his first order of business was to ensure the military band learnt the new South African anthem.

“I learnt that during a prior visit to Bahrain, the local military band played only the old anthem and president Mandela was livid,” he said.

To many South Africans the old anthem, Die Stem, was a reminder of the apartheid regime they had suffered under since 1948.

In his trademark wisdom, Mandela did not abolish the song. Instead, he asked that it be rewritten to include verses of an African hymn, Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrica.

The move was a perfect example of his commitment to reconcile all South Africans, regardless of race, culture or past sins.

“I spent the better part of the previous night convincing the military band that they needed to learn to play half and half,” Mr Gangat said.

When the South African president stepped off the plane, he was greeted not only by Sheikh Zayed, but also by a rousing rendition of the new anthem.

After initial introductions, Mandela and his adviser, Ahmed Kathrada, who had shared a cell with him on Robben Island for many years, were whisked off to the Royal Guest Palace to prepare for the evening’s state dinner.

“I had the privilege of witnessing the stature and charm of the man from a vantage point and couldn’t help but marvel at his humility with all the attention fostered on him,” Mr Gangat said.

The following day, the ambassador was asked to be up at the crack of dawn to accompany Mandela on a morning walk along the Corniche.

The walkway was sealed off to traffic, save for a few gardeners and street cleaners who stopped their work when they recognised the president.

“When one of them loudly exclaimed, ‘Mandela!’, the president walked up to him and shook his hand inquiring, ‘Where are you from?’,” Mr Gangat said.

The cleaner said he was from Pakistan, to which Mandela responded: “I met prime minister Bhutto and she is a very beautiful woman.”

“The local security personnel were not accustomed to VIP guests fraternising with the working class,” Mr Gangat said. “I had to impress upon them that this was Nelson Mandela, the working-class hero.”

After returning to the palace, the president was preparing for another meeting with Sheikh Zayed when he noticed the fine job done by whoever had pressed his suit.

“Who ironed my suit?” Mandela asked Mr Gangat, who did not know the answer.

“He showed me the lines and cuffs, and how well it was ironed and insisted that he needed to thank the person. I told him, ‘I shall do that later, but now we have the president waiting and we need to go’,” Mr Gangat said.

“But Mandela insisted and I gave in to his resolute demand. I quickly instituted an inquiry to determine the whereabouts of the person who ironed the president’s suit, and we both walked to the laundry room, which was quite a distance away.

“We were met by a young Indian man busy ironing linen, and when he looked up, he simply exclaimed, ‘Mandela!’, at which the president took his hand and thanked him sincerely for the excellent job.

“To our surprise, the young man started to cry and when Mandela asked, ‘Why are you crying?’, he replied, ‘No one has ever thanked me, and I don’t believe that Mandela is thanking me’.

“They were tears of joy, and I must add that I was also touched by this sincere gesture and was a bit choked up, too.”

osalem@thenational.ae

Updated: December 6, 2013 04:00 AM

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