Gatecrashing Nelson Mandela

By Satur C. Ocampo
At Ground Level | The Philippine Star

Tomorrow the South African people, to whom he dedicated his lifetime struggle for freedom, justice, and peace ­— and his millions of supporter-admirers all over the world — will give Nelson Mandela a farewell salute as his body is laid to rest in Qunu, his boyhood village.

Earlier, tens of thousands of South Africans, international dignitaries including 91 heads of state and government, and world celebrities had eulogized the antiapartheid hero, first black President of his country, and peacemaker at the national memorial service in Soweto, where he began his revolutionary activism in 1960.

Worth quoting, more than the paeans delivered by the foreign leaders, was what Mandela’s long-time confidant, Jay Naidoo, said:

“This is a day for the people, not the powerful. What Nelson Mandela stood for most of all was solidarity with the downtrodden of the world, and for them he is a symbol of social justice and human rights. That is why I am saying my goodbye from the ranks of the people.”

Affectionately called Madiba (his clan name) by his people, Mandela quietly passed away on Dec. 5, surrounded by his family in his Johannesburg home. He had turned 95 on July 18.

In this column on July 6, I paid homage to Mandela’s “physical resilience versus the logic of the inevitable,” as he fought a recurrent lung illness plus complications for several months. I expressed hope that he would hold on at least until his 95th birthday. He did hold on for five months more.

His passage to eternity enshrined Mandela as one of the greatest men in recent history.

After his release in 1990 from 27 years of imprisonment, I sent Mandela a handwritten letter of congratulation from the Fort Bonifacio prison cell where my wife, Bobbie Malay, and I were held in isolated detention. I requested my visiting mother-in-law to see how the letter could get to him. However, I received no reply.

Yet my wife and I take pride in possessing a unique personal memento from Mandela: a comrade’s handwritten message of solidarity, signed by him and Graca Machel. It’s now framed and displayed in our living room.

Here is Bobbie’s narration, titled “Gatecrashing Nelson Mandela,” of how she acquired the memento:

“When Nelson Mandela made a state visit to the Philippines in 1997, the schedule arranged by the government was such that he appeared in public only a couple of times. One of these was a ceremony at the University of the Philippines Manila, where he was conferred an honorary doctorate in law.

“Faculty members, all wearing black academic gowns, filled the small lecture room of the UP College of Medicine. It was a Sunday morning (March 2) and very few people had been informed that Mandela was coming. Being a teacher at the College of Mass Communication, I was able to wangle an invitation.

“Mandela was a dignified but warm presence. In his speech, he thanked the Filipino nation for its government’s early and consistent support for the antiapartheid movement. His tone was calm, not insistent. The simple truths he stated, you felt, had been clarified through long years of struggle.

“I had resolved to meet him, for the sake of all the Filipino activists who seemed to have been left out of the official program. I learned that (at his request, apparently) some students had been allowed to meet him in another building after the conferment ceremony.

“Spotting a cluster of South African security personnel, I ran up in my toga to approach one of them. I introduced myself as a former political prisoner, having spent years in the underground movement against the Marcos dictatorship. ‘Let me meet President Mandela,’ I said, ‘for we have fought long and hard too. My husband also spent many years in prison.’

“Apparently understanding where I was coming from, the man directed me to a nondescript building nearby where, indeed, some Filipino dignitaries were standing around waiting. There were familiar faces.

“UP President Emil Javier led me inside and introduced me to Mandela as the daughter of my parents who had both been active in the antidictatorship movement. (Javier made no mention of my involvement, neither that of Satur.)

“Mandela smiled down at me and shook my hand, and being quite tall he appeared to be bowing as he said, “I am deeply honored…” Handing him my souvenir program, I asked him to write some words for all of us. And he uncapped his pen:

“‘For all the comrades committed to the protection of Human Rights in the Philippines & beyond. N Mandela 2.3.97’”

“I am a bit embarrassed to admit that through all this I had lost my poise. I was hyperventilating, so powerful was the impact of actually coming face-to-face with an authentic world hero who was greeting us as a comrade.

“Beneath Mandela’s signature there’s another, that of Graça Machel. She told me that she had visited the Philippines a few times already, in connection with her work as a children’s rights advocate. The short chat was nice and friendly.

“I don’t think I will ever again experience such an encounter as will leave me breathless!”

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December 14, 2013

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