A month or so ago, I travelled to South Africa on behalf of African Business. This was my third visit in five years and I was eager to see what changes had taken place since my last visit a year ago.
President Nelson Mandela's now famous "Conquest of Europe" visit took place a week or so before I left for South Africa. I was in the happy position of being right in the middle of the mania that took over London during the Great Man's visit. On one occasion, I was invited, along with a fortunate few other journalists, to a press conference at South Africa House which dominates Trafalgar Square. President Mandela was scheduled to visit one of the so-called "inner city ghettos" - Brixton - before making a short speech from the balcony of the South African embassy.
His visit to Brixton, I learnt later was nothing short of sensational. While he was in Brixton, I was trying to make my way into South Africa House. It took me an hour to cut through the thousands of people who were surrounding the embassy before I could reach the sanctuary of the building itself.
Inside, an official told me that staff at the embassy were no strangers to being besieged by the public. Anti-apartheid groups laid a constant vigil outside this game building for years while Mr Mandela was in prison. The difference, the official told me, was that "in those days, they hated our guts, man. Today, they love us. Just look at the size of that crowd. And they love us!"
The man had lost all control. Tears of joy were running down his face. He was infecting everyone. I suspect that not much work was done at the embassy that afternoon. It was time to let emotion run its course and this was the rarest of all emotions - one of pure joy. Such indeed is the power to change of this man, Mandela.
But during the press conference which followed, we wanted to know how he intended to change the climate of violence and crime that has been sweeping South Africa. He immediately became the astute politician and quickly, efficiently and charmingly explained away everyone's misgivings. After all, the main purpose of his visit to Europe was to drum up investment.
Thus when I went to South Africa, I was full of a Mandela-inspired optimism. It was not a misplaced optimism I discovered. Great and good changes have taken place and there is a renewed, almost manic determination to succeed.
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