Harborough MP Sir Edward Garnier paid his respects to Nelson Mandela as he recalled a 20-minute meeting he once enjoyed with the former South African president.
Sir Edward gave his speech in the House of Commons yesterday (Monday) during a session to pay tribute to Mr Mandela, who died on Thursday aged 95.
He told the House: “In September 1990, just a few months after Nelson Mandela had been released, I was in Johannesburg, in the offices of the Johannesburg Star, discussing as a newspaper lawyer with the editor of the newspaper issues to do with freedom of the press and wider freedom of expression.
“There came a time when our conversation came to an end and I said to the editor: “Just across the street are the offices of the ANC. Do you think if I went in there and asked to see Mr Mandela, they would let me?” Whereupon the editor said: “Of course they won’t, but you might as well have a go.”
“So I went across the street, pressed the button on the lift and went to the top floor of the building, and the girl behind the desk in the ANC offices said: “Hello, can I help?” and I said: “Yes, I have come to see Mr Mandela.” She said: “If you sit there, he will be with you in a moment.” So I sat there.
“After a few moments, Joe Slovo came out into the hall and said: “Hello. I gather you have come to see Mr Mandela.” I said: “Yes, I have.” He said: “Well, he will be with you in a minute.” He went back, and about 10 minutes later, Mr Mandela, Mr Slovo and a note taker came into the hall and ushered me into a boardroom, where Mr Mandela sat at the end of the table. Mr Slovo sat on his left, I sat on his right and the note taker sat opposite.
“Mr Mandela said to me: “Welcome to South Africa. Thank you for coming to see me.” I said: “On the contrary, thank you very much—” and he stopped me and said: “You are not Dutch.” I said: “No, I am English.” He said: “Whoever let you in should be taken out and shot.” Whereupon he roared with laughter, gripped me firmly by the hand and said: “Let’s talk. Who are you? What are you here for?”
“I was not a Member of Parliament, I was simply a jobbing lawyer across the road at the Johannesburg Star, who had taken an opportunity that Mr Mandela, as a former guerrilla, had thought quite witty.
“I had 20 minutes with Messrs Mandela and Slovo, and during the course of those 20 minutes I learned a lot about human nature and political forgiveness, and I learned a lot about that great man himself.
“During the course of our conversation, he told me that he now felt as much a prisoner of the expectations of the majority population of South Africa as he had of the apartheid regime while incarcerated.
“It had not occurred to me until he told me what a huge effort would be required by him to ensure that the new South Africa could be a peaceful and prosperous one. B
ut I think it is fair to say that the South Africa that we see today, with all its imperfections and economic difficulties, would be light years behind where it is now were it not for the example, conduct and character of that most extraordinary man.
“When I left that room, Nelson Mandela asked me what I was going to do in future years. I was not quite 39, so for him a youngish man, and I said I was hoping to become a Member of Parliament in the Conservative interest, and he sai:, “Well, make sure you send me your maiden speech.”
“I am afraid that I let him down; I did not send him the speech, but I think that if I had done so, he would have read it and probably written back to me — indirectly if not directly — to remind me of our discussion.
“Some years later in the mid to late 1990s, when I was a visiting fellow at St Antony’s college in Oxford, President Mandela came to open a seminar and lecture room there.
“I thrust myself forward from the crowd of hundreds and introduced myself to him, saying: “Of course you will not remember when we met in your offices some years ago.”
“He said: “You’re quite right. Of course I don’t remember you, but it is very nice to see you.” One of our sort of politicians would have lied and said that they did remember, but he did not.
“I am telling this story to illustrate the fact that even though he could expect nothing from me, I had nothing to give him and I was a waste of his time in that meeting room in 1990 — and I certainly was not the Dutch parliamentarian he was expecting —h e gave me his time and, more importantly, he gave me his hand.
“I shall never forget that. He shook my hand and I shall be eternally grateful for that hand of friendship that he gave to me, a stranger. That is the man that I remember.”