Mandela was humble, kind but self assured and exuded power

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By Jenkins Kiwanuka

Posted  Wednesday, December 25  2013 at  02:00

As the world leaders converged in Pretoria to attend the funeral of Nelson Mandela, a young man asked me whether I had met the world’s anti-apartheid icon. Yes, I met Mandela and his former wife, Winnie, at Nile Mansions (now Serena Hotel) in Kampala in 1990. He had just been released from prison where he spent 27 years on the orders of the apartheid regime in that country, and he was on a world tour to thank the countries that had assisted South Africa in the struggle against apartheid.
My first impression of Mandela was his personality.

Even as a newly released prisoner, he was elegant, humble, kind and self-assured; a man who exuded power and on his shoulders the future of South Africa rested. He wore a natural smile that was to become his trademark throughout his life, and he spoke softly but firmly. His, indeed, was a personality that never ceased to fascinate, and it is that personality, I think, that endeared him to all people he interacted with, black and white, big and small, even little children.
To be exact, he was the opposite of most of his African counterparts who look gloomy most of the time and only smile at election campaign rallies to lure voters.

A few weeks before Mandela’s visit to Uganda, Fireblack Sserwabwe, an amateur artist and devout Seventh Day Adventist of Lubugumu village near Kyetume in Mukono District, came to my office at the Foreign Ministry where I headed the Information and Public Relations Department and asked for ‘permission’ to meet Mr Mandela during his visit.

When I asked Fireblack in which capacity he wished to meet Mr Mandela, he explained that it was in his personal capacity as an activist against apartheid and a Christian who cherished democracy and the rule of law and order. He was also an artist, he said, and he intended to paint a portrait of Mr Mandela which, subject to approval by the government, he would present to him during their meeting.

I discussed Fireblack’s request with the Chief of Protocol, and we decided that it would be considered after he had painted the portrait and presented it to the Ministry for approval. Tears of joy rolled down Fireblack’s cheeks when I told him of our decision, and within a week, the painting was on my desk. It was, understandably, a romantic rather than a classic piece. He had worked from a recent photograph that precisely represented a greying 70-year-old Mandela, handsome and humble. Fireblack was overwhelmed with joy when I named the day and venue of his meeting with the world’s anti-apartheid icon.

On July 5, 1990, soft-spoken Fireblack reported early at my office. He donned a ‘Kanzu’ (traditional full length dress for men mainly in Buganda), navy blue jacket and black shoes. After exchanging greetings, I led him to Nile Mansions venue of the meeting, and asked him to wait in the corridor outside Mr Mandela’s suite while we worked out the final details.

With Mr Amama Mbabazi who headed one of the Intelligence agencies at the time and was acting as Mr Mandela’s aide, we entered the suite and chatted with Mr and Mrs. Mandela while we waited for Foreign Minister Paul Ssemogerere to join us. Several telephone calls were received by Mr Mandela and his wife, but it was not after Mr Ssemogerere had come that Mr
Mandela sadly informed us that four of his political comrades had died the previous night, victims of the violence that continued in South Africa until Mandela eventually took power.
When an excited Fireblack came face to face with Mandela and his wife, he gave a long speech that contained quotes from the bible and praises of Mandela for ‘leading and winning’ the war against apartheid. Mandela thereafter proceeded to Namboole to commission the stadium that is known by his name, and Fireblack headed back to Lubugumu as a ‘celebrity’ who had shaken hands with Africa’s greatest modern hero.

Mr Kiwanuka is a journalist and retired foreign service