December 6, 2013

A Madiba sighting

A reporter on tour at the 2003 World Cup remembers seeing the great man up close

Writing about other World Cups, Sanjay Manjrekar said that Indian cricketers lived and moved in tunnels; in the 2003 World Cup, so did everyone attached to the tournament. Outside life filtered in like sunshine when least expected.

It happened very early and very quietly in the World Cup, and everyone who was there could hold on to it later when things got rough or intolerable. It was the figure of Nelson Mandela in the lobby of the Holiday Inn in Strand Street, Cape Town, arriving to meet the South Africa team on the morning of the first match of the World Cup.

It is said he takes a back seat in public life or else President Thabo Mbeki will forever come off looking like second fiddle. At the opening ceremony the night before, he was seen on the giant screen as one of the seated guests, a blurred, distant figure. When he waved and smiled, it set the crowd off, much as when Mandoza's "Nkalakatha" played over the speakers as South Africa's team walked into the stadium after all the rest at the formal march past.

I wondered whether Mandela would be doing any events around the World Cup and whether we would be told. It would always be a story.

The front desk at the media centre has no information of that kind. Pity. No story, no chance of seeing Mandela at work, close up.

Before I leave the venue, a local reporter I had got to know comes over and says, "Madiba's going to meet the South African team tomorrow at their hotel. In the morning. Not an event, no statements, a private meeting. Very quiet. If you want to see him, go." Jermaine Craig, I will always be grateful.

The next morning, the hotel lobby is humdrum, a few scatterings of people, a tinkling piano, buffet breakfast. No stirrings of anything about to happen. The hotel security frowns at the sight of the bright yellow media World Cup accreditation hanging from my neck. The best you can do is raise your palms, like people do to police to show they are not armed. "And?" the guard asks. Only looking. From a distance. Nothing else. "Nothing else," he says. No names are being taken but something is happening. A lurking Reuters photographer smiles good morning. Yes. Only looking. Nothing else.

A car drives up to the porch, followed by another, not giant government automobiles screaming bulletproof importance, just regular. Then an ambulance follows. That's it. He's here.

Mandela gets out of the car, escorted by his staff. He is wearing a South African team t-shirt. He is tall but looks frail and walks with the help of a stick, slowly and haltingly. Slowly also because he is ready to say hello and shake the hand of everyone in the lobby who is reaching out to him. The frail old man becomes the public figure, not of authority but stature, not the weight of history but of a larger humanity.

The pianist in the lobby changes his tune from something Richard Clayderman-esque to the South African national anthem. The German tourists waffling down their waffles, retired hotel executives who have been roped in to help during the World Cup, bell boys, receptionists, all melt into a state of charmed babyhood as the man with "Madiba" on the back of his shirt greets them like he knew them from earlier. Excitement here becomes a hush. No one is talking. The only voice that can be heard is Mandela's.

Only after he has gone from sight to do what he has come to do, meet the South African team, do people turn to each other and speak. After a short while, Mandela returns with his party grown larger. He is on the arm of Shaun Pollock, who is red in the face and wears a four-year-old's grin. Gerald Majola is on the other side. Mandela is shaking everyone's hand. The Reuters photographer is taking pictures. South Africa's cricket World Cup 2003 can now begin.

Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo. A version of this article was first published in the print version of Wisden Asia Cricket Magazine in 2003