Mandela in Manila was in love
It was during his historic visit to Manila 16 years ago that the world first confirmed talk going around that Nelson Mandela was in love.
For it was the first time that the former South African president took with him his special friend Graça Machel on a state visit as his “official companion.”
The romance with Machel nearly stole the show from the significance and euphoria of the visit by Mandela, the revered antiapartheid hero and the first South African president to visit the Philippines.
When Mandela arrived to a 21-gun salute in Malacañang on March 1, 1997, he introduced Machel to then President Fidel V. Ramos, his Cabinet and some diplomats as his official companion, eliciting smiles, if not teasing, from those in the reception line.
Since she was not yet officially Mrs. Mandela, Malacañang observed protocol by not having First Lady Amelita Ramos around for the occasion.
Machel, widow of Mozambique President Samora Machel, quietly stood by Mandela’s side as he signed the Malacañang guest book. More cameras clicked as the two emerged at the reception hall holding hands.
The public display of affection prompted journalists to pop the personal question—usually a no-no for visiting dignitaries.
In Mandela’s joint press conference with Ramos, Malaya reporter Ellen Tordesillas asked if wedding bells were to ring soon for Mandela.
Not hearing the question quite well at first, Mandela laughed when he realized that the question was not about affairs of the state. But Ramos clapped, appearing to have given his consent to the query.
“Well my cultural background does not permit me to answer this question with people young enough to be my children or grandchildren,” Mandela replied skillfully.
When Mandela was conferred an honorary degree of doctor of laws at the University of the Philippines the next day, journalists were more interested in asking him about details of his love life than finding out about trade prospects between the two countries and other aspects of Philippines-South African ties.
Mandela and Machel were married on July 18, 1998. His previous marriage to Winnie Madikizela, a South African politician, ended in a divorce in 1996.
Though Mandela’s love life titillated romantic Filipinos, it was for so much more than that his visit was highly anticipated.
For here in the flesh was one of the towering figures of the 20th century—a human rights lawyer and 1993 Nobel Peace Prize winner, jailed for 27 years during the years of white supremacy rule in South Africa, who steered his country out of apartheid to become its first black president in an all-race election in 1994.
Tall and dapper in a black suit he wore for his Malacañang visit (he donned the traditional Madiba shirt for other events), Mandela might have taught Filipino politicians a thing or two about humility in greatness.
“Leaders, no matter how exceptional, are not indispensable,” Mandela remarked.
It was a timely message for at that time, there were moves to amend the Philippine Constitution supposedly to lift the term limit on the President.
Mandela had even asked former President Corazon Aquino if she was going to run in the 1998 elections, to which she replied that she had no interest in doing so.
The self-effacing freedom icon said South Africa was never worried about who would replace him as president, adding he never thought he had “exceptional qualities.” At the time of his Manila visit, he was two years away from completing his one term in 1999.
“We had never been apprehensive about whether the stepping down of one man would lead to less delivery of whatever demands and needs of our people and our relations with the world are concerned,” he said, adding there were many others in his country who were “heads and shoulders above me in abilities.”
Ramos hailed Mandela’s visit as special and extraordinary.
“The struggle he led transformed not only his country but more importantly, the shape of racial relations throughout the world,” Ramos said.
Apart from holding talks with Ramos and a private meeting with Ramos’ predecessor, Aquino, Mandela went to UP to receive his honorary degree from then UP president Emil Javier and then Education Secretary Ricardo Gloria. There he met with former Huk Supremo Luis Taruc whose story supposedly inspired Mandela.
Mandela, 78 at the time of his visit, appeared strong although he was slightly limping from a knee injury that caused the postponement of his trip the year before. Manila was the first stop in his Asian tour which included Brunei, Singapore and Malaysia.
Among those who welcomed Mandela were then Vice President Joseph Estrada and Ramos’ Foreign Secretary Domingo Siazon, his Armed Forces chief of staff Arnulfo Acedera and Air Force chief William Hotchkiss, as well as then Senate President Ernesto Maceda and Speaker Jose de Venecia.
Maceda noted how simpatico (congenial) Mandela was, an observation shared by Palace reporters who covered the visit.
On his way to a closed-door meeting with Ramos in the Palace, Mandela approached our group and asked: “Good morning, how are you? Why are you not in school?” Ramos had to tell him that we were not high school students but reporters covering the Palace.“I’m honored to meet you,” Mandela told the surprised—and flattered reporters.
Though he had disarmed Filipinos with his charm and demeanor, Mandela, in fact paid homage to the Philippines.
Mandela told his hosts the Philippines held a special spot in his heart ever since he heard about the country’s consistent opposition to South African apartheid policy.
He said he came to know about this when the Southeast Asian Nations held a conference in Bandung, way before the Asean (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) was created.
Since then, he said, he had closely followed developments here, including the 1986 Edsa People Power Revolt.
“This is one of the countries that had been very successful in overcoming the legacy of colonialism, of poverty, of ignorance, and we stand to gain a great deal by associating with it,” Mandela said.
In the Malacañang guest book, Mandela wrote: “Visiting the Republic of the Philippines is the fulfillment of a long and cherished dream. An unforgettable experience.”
Nelson Mandela, 20th century colossus, dies at 95
Film on Mandela’s life premieres in South Africa
First posted 12:17 am | Saturday, December 7th, 2013
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.