Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Qunu-Aug 6

We got up early yesterday for the day trip to Qunu, Mandela's home village in the Eastern Cape. Because Clinton was taking a small plane, there were only seats for two pool press people -- myself and the AP photographer. I was grateful to my colleagues for letting me take the print seat. I wanted to close the circle on Madiba since our time in South Africa, and the trip was wonderful

We drove back out to Waterkloof, the air base outside Pretoria where Clinton's plane had landed. There we got on a "G5" -- a sort of executive jet, with about 12 seats. This one had been brought down from the U.S. Africa Command in Frankfurt just for the trip. It felt pretty swanky ... nice big seats, wooden paneling, and big oval windows. On the flight out we flew over central Johannesburg and had a great view, and then down across Lesotho where you could see snow on the Drakensburg Mountains.

We arrived at Qunu airport, which is a pretty tiny operation. There was a short little motorcade awaiting us, and we set off for the hour's drive to Qunu. It looks pretty much the same as the last time I saw it: rolling, tawny hills, houses dotted around including some rondavels. No trees, big sky, and the foothills of the southern Drakensburg in the distance. It looks a lot like Montana, except there are sheep and goats wandering around.

We pulled into Mandela's house at around noon. It is fairly new, and looks like a big comfortable suburban house which sort of stands out amid all the much smaller houses of the village. There was a brick wall with a gatehouse, and we managed to get up to the entrance just in time to see Graca Machel, Mandela's wife, welcome Clinton inside.

We had been told not to expect anything newsy, and not to expect access, so we thought the next few hours might involve just sitting in the car outside. But Mandela's people let us in and we were put in a holding room, along with some of the Mandela staff, and given tea and coffee. I saw Zelda LaGrange, Mandela's personal assistant, and said hello and she was very welcoming and said it was nice to see me back, which felt good.

After about an hour, we were told that the photographer could take some pictures. We were brought into the room where Clinton and Mandela (and a select group of their various staffers) were meeting with Graca. It was an odd feeling -- Mandela (who is 94 and clearly in failing health) was in a wingback chair in one corner, his feet up on a stool and covered with a blanket. He looked almost entirely immobile, almost like a waxwork, and did not speak.

There was lots of conversation among the others and lots of loud and cheerful comment from Graca as Clinton posed with Mandela, who after lots of jolly coaxing, managed a smile. We were then led back out and Clinton and Graca went in for lunch, leaving Mandela in the living room with his medical people. We were given lunch in another back room (samp and beans, mutton, salad -- it was good!) and ended up chatting to a bunch of uniformed guys who turned out to be Mandela's military doctors. Strange to sit at a table in Qunu talking about blackberries and FOMO ("Fear of Missing Out" ..apparently the peril if our interconnected age) with the guys who are trying to keep this legend alive for as long as possible.

After another hour or so, the lunch wrapped up and Clinton went back into to have tea with Mandela and say goodbye. At this point everything became very relaxed: people were moving in and out of the living room, Graca, who was coming back to Johannesburg with us, was bustling around getting her bags ready, and more pictures were taken. Mandela seemed a little more animated and smiled for more pictures. The AP photographer had helped out taking pictures of some of the staff with Clinton, and so she got her photo taken with Mandela himself..he smiled and waved for the camera..really something to save for the grandkids. I didn't, but that's ok -- it was just a very warm feeling to be standing in the room, watching everybody so happy and relaxed. You really got the feeling it was a family house. Clinton finally said her goodbyes, and we got back in the motorcade for the airport.

It was a fantastic chance to see the legendary man one more time. And it also felt good: he seemed well cared for, and happy in his own house. If anyone deserves it, it's him.

We were back on the plane (here's a picture to give a sense of what it looks like) and back to Waterkloof and the drive back into Sandton. I went to our bureau to talk to some of the guys: it felt pretty much the same as when I was there, albeit with a few new faces. The whole trip to Joburg has been eerie -- it really feels so much like home, I keep (almost) thinking that I could just hop in my car and drive home to Parkview, and resume my old life here. Of course that's not possible, but it is great to have it all feel so familiar. Makes me want to come back for a longer visit.

Today Clinton has a day of meetings in Pretoria, and then a nighttime flight to Cape Town. More from there.