Mandela 'could handle a toaster'

Nelson Mandela. Photo by Reuters
Nelson Mandela. Photo by Reuters
Nelson Mandela "could handle a toaster" according to a South African now living in Christchurch.

Barend Marais was a young policeman who was part of the security detail assigned to Mr Mandela's Cape Town base during the 1990s.

Mr Marais spent 18 months helping guard Mr Mandela at his home in the Groote Schuur estate after he was elected President in 1994.

His work gave him a unique insight into the day-to-day life of a man revered globally for his work in ending apartheid, but who still enjoyed a piece of toast in the morning.

"He was a nice man, he had a personal cook, but at 5am he would make something like a toasted sandwich with Marmite," he said

"He had his own little lounge and kitchen. We sat in the passage between it, just outside his room. He would come out and greet you and go into the kitchen and make himself breakfast and bring you something to eat as well."

The food was always welcome, and despite having his own cook, the influential world leader "could handle a toaster", Mr Marais said.

The young policeman's job included guarding the four corners of Mr Mandela's house and being posted to his bedroom door overnight.

"He was an early waker, he was a driven man. It was 5 o'clock every morning, and never an alarm clock."

Mr Mandela wasn't comfortable about some formalities around his post, including the need for regular salutes by the guards, Mr Marais said.

"He'd come out in the morning and you would salute him and he would say, 'okay, good morning', and he would greet you. He'd always stop at the gate and have a few words with the guards.

"Then he would go off for his walk and he would come back and you would salute him again and he would get upset. He'd say 'when I walked out here, I greeted you, why did you greet me again? It's not a new day, I haven't gone that far'.

"You couldn't talk back to him, because you were just a police officer, so we would just say 'yes' and feel like an idiot and tomorrow we would do it again."

Other parts of Mr Marais' duties included walking with Mr Mandela some mornings, giving him a rare opportunity to talk with the leader.

"He would pull your life story out of you, he was more a listener, that's how he learnt, he loved to learn from people.

"He was extremely sharp. His mind was so sharp, he could pick up the smallest detail, like what annoyed people and he could change people's minds, it was just unbelievable."

Mr Marais said Mr Mandela seemed lonely during the time he worked on the estate.

"He was on his own which was sad because, although he had a massive amount of functions, when he came home it would just be him."

Mr Marais left South Africa with his wife and three children five years ago, following his mother-in-law to New Zealand.

He was sad to leave, but said the hopes of Mr Mandela were yet to be realised in the country.

"He believed the only way the country could go forward is if we stand together as one, which is what hasn't happened.

"I'm sad for him, sad for myself, sad for the country."

- By Fiona Thomas of The Star

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