There was a message on my answer machine: “Hugh Hudson has just seen your work at Sundance. He would you like to go and film Nelson Mandela with him, in a couple of weeks’ time?”
And so I found myself on a plane, heading south to Mozambique, surrounded by about twenty TBWA agency staff. It seemed the whole office had decamped to shake the great man’s hand.
Up in Business class, with his entourage, was big boss Trevor Beattie – the wunderkind of the British commercials industry and Ad man of the labour party, who had persuaded Nelson Mandela to front a UNICEF campaign.
Hugh Hudson, the legendary director of “Chariots of Fire” now in his mid sixties, flew in (a day later) from LA. His first words to me were: “This place is crawling with fucking agency; are they all Catholics? Are we seeing the Pope? Fucking waste of the budget”.
Nelson Mandela was unwell and so Hugh and I escaped and spent the first few days in Mozambique filming B roll in the slums of Maputo. The circus had requisitioned the hotel, seemingly oblivious to what lay beyond the pool bar.
The big day arrived – we set up in Graca Machel’s house, (Mandela’s third wife), aided by his bodyguards. They were a mix of blacks, mainly National Congress and whites that I would later discover were mainly from the police force – the very symbol of apartheid South Africa. The whites were speaking Afrikaans, traditionally the language of oppression.
As I speak Dutch fluently (and can be understood by Afrikaners), I asked one of them how he had come to be Mr. Mandela’s’ body guard?
He explained that his uncle had been one of the prison wardens on Robin Island. At Mr. Mandela’s insistence, he had helped to teach him Afrikaans – for he felt he must be able to speak the language of his persecutors. On his release, he had insisted this nephew become one of his bodyguards.
It struck me, that only Nelson Mandela would have the profound compassion and intelligence to embrace his enemy and make them his friend. Over many visits to South Africa the past twenty years, I have witnessed that incredible ‘sea-change’ transformation, lead with such inspiration by Madiba.
Half an hour later, with legendary punctuality, the great man arrived – frail and aided by the Afrikaner I had spoken to earlier. Before we started filming there ensued a discussion with Trevor Beattie. Mandela insisted with ironic humor, that a donation should be given to his charity – and that if Margaret Thatcher (who had done nothing to aid his release) could give him a sizable private donation, so too could Trevor Beattie, mate of the Tony Blair administration.
Then he turned to me, (snubbing Trevor), rose from his chair and said in fluent Afrikaans, “Forget about him, now I want to meet you – as you are the one who really makes these images” … shook my hand and winked at me.
We headed down to Johannesburg, were we hoped to be able to film him for another day. We waited for ten days, but never saw him again – somehow I wondered whether he had better things to do…