Here's what happened in the wings as Mandela took to the global stage

As a reporter following Nelson Mandela during the early years of his presidency, Patrick Bulger had many occasions to witness him deviate from his sanitised political script. He recalls some of the most memorable

15 July 2018 - 00:00 By Patrick Bulger
Former president Nelson Mandela during welcoming ceremonies at the Clinton White House in 1994.
Former president Nelson Mandela during welcoming ceremonies at the Clinton White House in 1994.
Image: Gallo/Getty Images

"Ah, Mr Nzo! How very nice to meet you - again." Nelson Mandela, towering over Alfred Nzo, extended a hand to his sheepish-looking foreign minister. He was enjoying having to "meet" Nzo - for the third time in less than half an hour.

Mandela and his entourage, with a few South African journalists in tow, were in New York City. It was October 1994. Next stop would be Washington DC, and Bill Clinton at the White House, where Mandela would be wined and dined and treated to a Whitney Houston command mini-performance. He was less than six months into the job as South Africa's first black president.

We were at Gracie Mansion, residence of the mayor of NYC, at that time Rudy Giuliani. Mandela had taken up his position as a cause célèbre at the main entrance to the 18th-century house overlooking New York's East River, and Nzo was running what seemed to be diplomatic errands that required him to enter and exit the house several times. Problem for him, though, was each time he returned, another queue of the good and great had lined up to meet Mandela and shake the great hand, and Nzo would dutifully take his place in the line, shuffling forward while waiting to "meet'' Mandela, to get past him and get on with his work.

This vignette of political vaudeville neatly captures the spirit of Mandela - his sense of fun, his ability to make it up as he went along, all the while governed by a steely inner sense that he, and sometimes he alone, was right. This was politics being performed by amateurs at the form and protocol, but professionals at whatever may be necessary in the pursuit and capture and exercise of power.

It was the era of the struggle generation, an age in South African history and politics that has all but passed, an interlude of spring preceding the age in which we live now, that of the professional political predator.


As a reporter following Mandela, I had many occasions to witness him in action at close hand, especially when he would depart from his sanitised script, putting aside the neutered speeches prepared for him in gloomy offices in the West Wing of the Union Buildings. Then he would remove his spectacles, which he wore uncomfortably, as if he had just chosen them off the shelf at Clicks, and the "real", off-the-cuff Mandela would emerge.

He took off his glasses to tell farmers at a South African Agricultural Union banquet in Sea Point (go figure) in 1994: "Over my dead body will there not be a truth commission in South Africa," and he lectured them sternly about past and present.

On another occasion, after a speech to medical students at the Castle in Cape Town, Mandela removed his glasses to wipe his eyes, which watered excessively, even after a recent eye procedure, because they had been damaged by the blinding light of a quarry where he laboured on Robben Island, and said: "Excuse me - I've just been operated on by a quack.''

The following year I was to learn, in somewhat spectacular, and even unsettling, fashion that Mandela crafted his words very carefully, and chose his targets strategically even, and sometimes especially, when he spoke off the cuff. Or seemed to.


Days after the New York stop of the US visit, we were at the White House. There was no end of flags and bugles and marines poncing about trying to look menacing. There was a banquet, of course, and we met Bill, who apparently has a photographic memory when it suits him, and wore shoes so large and shiny you'd have thought he was auditioning for chief clown of the free world.

Anyway, at some point after all this pomp and pantomime, Clinton and Mandela were to give a press conference. They were standing at separate lecterns on the South Lawn of the White House, and Mandela, one hand on his hip, the other gesticulating, a thumb jutting at the building behind him, was saying: "It makes no difference to us who is staying in this house." Mandela's point was that, Republican or Democrat, they would invariably be a friend, but it was as if he almost enjoyed shocking his host.

South Africa's first democratically elected president, Nelson Mandela, during welcoming ceremonies at the Clinton White House.
South Africa's first democratically elected president, Nelson Mandela, during welcoming ceremonies at the Clinton White House.
Image: Gallo/Getty Images

I've got a photograph of this moment, taken by the late great Alf Kumalo, with Clinton looking on as Mandela spoke, with something between awe and disbelief. Mandela continued that when he was released from prison, the first foreign leader to call him had been George HW Bush, the single-term Republican president who Clinton beat in 1992. In later years, Mandela would question whether HW's son, the second Bush president, George W, could think at all, but for the old man himself he was all praise. And Clinton just had to hear him out - own house or not. When Mandela died in 2013, Clinton would describe him as "the only free man I ever knew".


The following year, 1995, I followed Mandela to Japan, and then on to South Korea. This time, Mandela's spokesman, the enigmatic late Parks Mankahlana, arranged for me and a colleague from Sapa to fly with Mandela on his jet from Tokyo to Seoul, about two hours. We'd be the only reporters on board, and we'd share whatever we got with the rest of the pool. Or that was the idea.

On the day, we were taken to the plane at Tokyo's Narita airport, a modest private jet by today's standards, no doubt, but nonetheless leather and walnut and all agreeably plush. Mandela sat with a light-brown blanket covering his knees, and we were brought a tray of nuts and droëwors. He had the quality of being completely his own man, unruffled by his surroundings, and for all the serenity that enveloped him he may have been a missionary, in his best suit, making a bus trip from Mt Fletcher to Mthatha.

President Nelson Mandela and Patrick Bulger on route from Tokyo to Seoul, South Korea.
President Nelson Mandela and Patrick Bulger on route from Tokyo to Seoul, South Korea.
Image: Supplied

I asked him to sign his autobiography, to my late daughter, Rebecca Owen, and he wrote her a beautiful message, quite spontaneously.

He told little anecdotes - well, anecdotes of the sort a president might tell. South Africa, he said apropos of nothing at all, would always recognise Taiwan, the renegade Chinese republic off the coast of mainland China, which according to him was a great friend of ours.

He continued, to say that Chinese government people had written him a cheque for $1-million in exchange for diplomatic recognition, and he had said no, he told me, as we sat in the little jet and waited for take-off.

(Just months later, and while Mandela was still president, South Africa switched to recognising the People's Republic, dumping Taiwan, which indicated how, even then, Mandela's grip on government was slipping, if it was ever even that tight in the five short years he held the job.)

I, of course, had my little list of questions ready for the asking, and was hoping that I might do so once we'd taken off, but I needn't have bothered, because he had a question for me. Or rather an opening statement, in the form of a question. Did we know, he asked, who was in charge of the Third Force, the not-so-mysterious death and mayhem machine housed loosely across the old security forces hierarchy?

I didn't know the answer - but Mandela did. What followed was an astonishing tirade against the recently retired commissioner of police, Johan van der Merwe. He'd been head of the Security Police in his time, so it was a big deal when Mandela gave him the top sensitive police job after April 1994.

As we jetted over the sea headed to Seoul, the sky leaden with menace outside the little windows, Mandela vented visible anger against Van der Merwe.

The gist of his attack was that Van der Merwe, as head of police, had promised, but failed, he said, to have roadblocks erected on the outskirts of Johannesburg on the day of what came to be known as the Shell House massacre, March 28 1994.

In June, I had been present in parliament when Mandela said that he had personally given the order for guards at Shell House to shoot to kill, and 19 mostly Zulu marchers died. Mandela was always clearly stung by the Shell House incident and its fallout, and he took a lot of flak for it.

He related: "I said to Van der Merwe afterwards, where were the roadblocks? And he just looked down."

Dozens of people died in the city that day, beyond the 19 killed at Shell House. Nonetheless, an inquiry headed by Judge Robert Nugent found that the shooting from the ANC headquarters had been unprovoked, prompting lingering claims of a massacre, for which nobody has yet been called to answer.

Our flight was coming to an end, and soon we'd be on another airport apron, the Asian heat bearing down, more bugles and saluting and tropical fanfare and 21-gun salutes.


To say that I was a taken aback by my mile-high interview would be an understatement. And when we got to the hotel, it soon became clear I wasn't the only one. The Star newspaper was on the line: it was about 1pm South Africa time and they'd been called by the Union Buildings about something Mandela had said in an interview, away from his minders. The late edition was waiting.

His office was concerned at the criticism that might follow publication of the interview, and feared he would be lambasted for pursuing ANC problems while on a state visit abroad.

Other commentators, like the Democratic Alliance's Douglas Gibson, questioned whether Van der Merwe could sue for defamation, but for my part, uncomfortable as I was, I hardly felt I could "censor" the president and tell him what he could or couldn't say. He spoke, I wrote.

I hardly felt I could 'censor' the president and tell him what he could or couldn't say. He spoke, I wrote

Now, when you're in such a situation as a journalist, there is one thing you know for sure: if someone in power can plead and stop a story, and not succeed, they can still ruin it, or even try to get ahead of the curve and discredit the bad news before it even comes out. The result: I had to write the story, there and then - there was no way it could hold for another 12 hours.

Still, I was a bit nervous, because you'd hardly want the president to say to you the next day that he merely said this or that as an aside, not as the main point of the interview. I needn't have worried, though. Mandela was an old pro, at politics and the media, and when he saw me he greeted me, and introduced me to South Korean president Kim Young-sam as "one of our finest writers", which he tended to do, much to my embarrassment.

Everything was going to be OK, I thought, with huge relief. I realised that he had decided, long before our little flight over the Sea of Japan, that he would say what he had said. It hadn't been so off-the-cuff after all.

President Nelson Mandela, Japanese Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko welcome Japanese prime minister Tomiichi Murayama at a reception at Akasaka Guest House in Tokyo in 1995.
President Nelson Mandela, Japanese Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko welcome Japanese prime minister Tomiichi Murayama at a reception at Akasaka Guest House in Tokyo in 1995.
Image: Gallo/Getty Images

Whether Mandela's midair rant against his ex-police chief served any broader purpose, I don't know. Perhaps he was just settling a personal score. For my part, I was just grateful to have had a walk-on part in history in the making. Of course, you wonder whether you may have been used, and you decide that when it comes to news, it's better to be used than never to be used at all.

It's all in the past now. All I'm left with are my cuttings and my memories, a tiny fragment of the past that may or may not fit into the jigsaw of history that will shape and colour our memory of Mandela. A new edition awaits: the dogs bark, and the caravan moves on.