Calm in eye of a storm
In Dublin in 2000, he made an impact without even speaking a word, writes Martina Devlin
HE was the calm in the eye of the storm. Even when the industrious crackle of an entourage surrounded him, Nelson Mandela was a self-contained figure who remained impervious to the impact his appearance provoked.
The great and the good jostled and gaped when he walked across the cobblestones at Trinity College. But Mandela disregarded the flurry and fanfare, neither responding to questions called out from the crowd, nor allowing himself to be hurried by his minders.
Instead, he stood for a few moments and took stock; his steady gaze travelling round the Front Square to absorb the classical architecture of his surroundings.
It was almost as though those 27 years in prison on anti-state charges, during which the world was forcibly kept at a distance, had left him inclined occasionally to continue taking an arm's length view.
Initially, I remember thinking it was a half-Nelson who had arrived in Dublin on that occasion in April 2000: an unexpectedly subdued version of the charismatic South African leader who seemed to be more of a symbol than human to the international community.
But I soon reconsidered. It was easy to understand why he might be reserved sometimes. Ever since his release from prison in 1990, Mandela was box office. The trajectory of his life story captured the world's imagination and guaranteed him star billing. Invitations flooded in and public scrutiny was intense. And while the platform was useful, no doubt there were times when he might have preferred not to be on parade – especially as he aged.
That occasion at Trinity, when he arrived to deliver the annual Independent Newspapers lecture, may well have been one of them. For although he had an enduring quality, he was already 81 at that time. I spoke to him briefly before he took to the stage in the Examination Hall to deliver his address, and was struck by two observations. The first: that his default expression was a mixture of gravity and stoicism. Unless he smiled, the former South African president was difficult to read.
The second thing I noticed was a slight anxiety in his demeanour – pre-performance nerves, perhaps, or maybe just jet lag. However, his mood shifted and became more upbeat as soon as he faced his audience.
He had a playful side, but it was not particularly apparent right then. Unless it was hinted at in the colourful batik shirt he was wearing – his signature look.
A sea of grey suits waited to hear his thoughts on world peace.
Meanwhile, the man preparing to share them was setting a significantly less formal tone. That silk shirt was his signal that Pretoria had landed in Ireland. Just before he went into the Examination Hall, his face reconfigured into one of his characteristic, wide-open smiles.
I referred to him as an elder statesman and he made a humorous correction: "A very new elder statesman." It was a reference to the fact he had only recently retired as South Africa's first black leader, stepping down the previous year.
And with that, in he went to face his audience.
The invitation to Mandela had come from Tony O'Reilly, who had business interests in South Africa.
Looking round that packed hall, there was a palpable sense of 'who's minding the store?'.
There was not enough space for everyone who wanted to hear Mandela speak, and those who couldn't be accommodated were obliged to tune in to the lecture by video link-up.
That address encapsulated Mandela's lifelong message: peace is what counts.
It was a moral with specific resonance for Ireland – two years after the Good Friday Agreement was signed, the institutions were still feeling their way.
"Whatever the depth of the problem it can be resolved through talking," Mandela told his audience. A deceptively simple pitch, but powerful.
After all, his unique selling point gave him unparalleled political credibility. He didn't just talk the talk.
Here was a man who had been imprisoned on the notorious Robben Island – a place of banishment and isolation. A man who had done hard labour. A man who had missed out on his children's lives, and a significant proportion of his own.
But he forgave his captors, and worked to foster democracy by peaceful means.
He was a humble man, of course. The panoply surrounding him for public appearances was unlikely to have been his choice.
His tastes were relatively modest, and Giorgio Armani is said to have complained that he never wore the handmade suits he gave him.
What remains influential, civilising and regenerative about Mandela's legacy was his capacity to forgive, and to be inclusive and constructive.
He grew up in a system of repressive racial discrimination and segregation, enforced through legislation by a ruling party of white supremacists.
But he wound up as the head of a democratic government, with FW de Klerk – the last apartheid-era president – as his deputy.
Celebrity has become a debased term, but Mandela's fame was the genuine article. He never needed any retinue, any team of speechwriters, any publicists to cause a stir.
On that night in April 2000 in Dublin, even in a reflective mood, disinclined to play the charisma card, he was able to make a huge impact even without speaking a word. Just by standing there, looking round Trinity's Front Square.