December 17, 2013

Nelson Mandela, a personal memory

On July 17, 1997 the South African-Thai Chamber of Commerce hosted a lunch for the Joint Foreign Chambers of Commerce at the Napalai Ballroom of the Dusit Thani hotel, Bangkok – guest of honour, HE President Nelson Mandela.

President Mandela had had a busy schedule. Arriving in the early afternoon of Wednesday 16 he had met the Prime Minister and was then guest of honour at a State Dinner at Government House. On the Thursday morning he was granted an audience with HM the King of Thailand, an audience that went on much longer than planned – by all accounts the two had much to share. Then to Chulalongkorn University where the University conferred on him an Honorary Doctorate and finally he arrived at the Dusit Thani to address an audience of over 1,000. Then a brief press conference and off to the airport. Within less than 24 hours of arriving in the Kingdom – he had gone.

But this brief story starts several years earlier. In one of the many conversations that I had with Ambassador HE Roel Goris and the tireless Economic Counsellor, Gustav Meyer, about South African–Thailand business and trade, we discussed how we could arrange for President Nelson Mandela to visit Thailand. It seemed that he was visiting many Asian countries; China, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia – why could he not at least just stop over in Bangkok? Ambassador Goris plied Pretoria with his requests but with no result. Or so it seemed. He had clearly planted a seed.

By early July 1997 both HE Roel Goris and Gustav Meyer had returned to Pretoria when I found myself leading a Trade Mission to Pretoria, Johannesburg, and Cape Town. We had arranged a Thai stand at an exhibition and we had quite a high-level group visiting, including the Deputy Minister of Commerce. On Monday evening, July 7, at a cocktail party hosted by ABSA, Roel Goris invited me to meet him at his office in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs the next afternoon.

As soon as I arrived he announced, “It’s on! It has just been confirmed that the President has agreed to stopover in Bangkok on the night of Wednesday July 17. There are a few other meetings being arranged but he will be happy to attend a function hosted by the South Africa Thai Chamber of Commerce before he returns to South Africa. He can’t stay longer as the next day is his birthday and he needs to be home Thursday night.”

So, it is Tuesday afternoon in Pretoria, and we have less than nine days to prepare for what would be a landmark event for the South African Thai Chamber of Commerce!

I immediately called Khun Sivaporn Meadows, who was our very able Executive Director. First things first, we need to book a ballroom. Everything else can wait. For an occasion such as this we won’t have to worry about people not turning up – we just need to have a place they can come to!

The rest of the afternoon Roel and I polished the draft of the speech that had been prepared for him to deliver.

I continued on with the delegation and only arrived back in Bangkok at the end of the week to find Khun Sivaporn already well advanced with preparations. She had reserved the Dusit Thani’s Napalai Ballroom – the largest available in Bangkok as the lunch venue. I am not sure if any other function had previously been booked and I rather suspect that if there had been the Dusit Thani had discretely arranged for those functions to be moved so as to accommodate the President!

We then found ourselves in something of a protocol storm! Quite extraordinary just how many people felt that the South African Thai Chamber of Commerce should not be the host of a visit by the President of South Africa to Thailand! Others, who shall remain nameless, thought that they should at least be on the ‘masthead’ and allowed to sit at the ‘high table’.

But with the help of the South African Embassy and the new Ambassador, HE John Janse van Rensbug and his Counsellor, Johan Kellerman, we were advised of the proper protocol and the function was ‘jointly’ hosted by the SATCC with the Thai Chamber of Commerce and the Thailand Board of Trade (note, the President of the SATCC is automatically a Director of the Board of Trade of Thailand).

Around noon on the day, the President arrived and was duly met by the official greeting party shaking hands with each person in turn. As he turned to walk into the hotel he spied three youngsters and asked – who are they? I replied that they were my children. I had arranged for my three young children to be escorted by their nanny and to stand in a place where they could see him arrive – but be out of the way. Clearly my ‘out of the way’ was not out of Mandela’s eyesight! He walked over to them, much to the consternation of his security detachment! Shaking each by the hand the President asked their names, were they in school, and advised them to study hard – each remembers that day, the occasion etched in their memories.

Then we walked into the hotel. Every hotel employee along the walk was greeted. Security. Cleaners. All received the same smile and personal hello. Finally, into the hall where over 1,000 people, seated at tables for lunch, rose to applaud his entry. He greeted each VIP guest seated at the high table in turn.

During the lunch, despite the strenuous efforts of security to keep them away, there seemed to be a constant stream of people sneaking up to the high table to say hello or to ask for his autograph on his book or their menu. Each was graciously received and walked away clutching his signature.

In conversation over lunch President Mandela inquired about the origins of the SATCC, who our members were, what we were trying to achieve and he gave a brief but glowing description of his meeting with HM The King.

I rose to give a brief speech of introduction – one could not but provide some sort of introduction, as I was sure that many Thais would not really know much about his history. So brief and to the point my speech was – speaking over the background noise of plates were being cleared and coffee being served.

The great man rose to give his address. But before he opened the leather cover that contained the beautifully-typed speech, he turned towards the high table to thank me for the words of introduction and commenced speaking in direct response to something I had said – including that well-known story about being given his own coffee cup when he turned up for work – and then finding out why!

He must have spoken for about 10 minutes.

The room was silent.

Even the waiters and waitresses, who surely could not understand a word, not just because their English might not be up to scratch but even for the best of English speakers Mandela’s accent required us to listen carefully. Not a plate was moved. Not a cup placed on its saucer. Nor a coffee poured. Everyone was listening to the great man speak.

Finally, he turned to the prepared address and started to read .

At that point I noticed that the wait staff started to move once more. The great man was no longer speaking from the heart. No longer need they show respect. He was now just reading someone else’s words. They could now continue their job.

At last the occasion was over and we rose to leave. He had one more duty to attend to before leaving to return to Pretoria, a press conference in another room in the hotel. He was a little unsteady on his feet, still recovering from that knee operation, so he used my arm to brace himself as we walked from the lunch table through the ballroom and out to the press conference room.

Almost at once his security officers were struggling to clear a path. People were leaning over just to touch him, to greet him. To thank him.

Two young Thai women stepped into the pathway, camera in hand, to take his picture – but were gently pushed back by security. But as we neared them I felt my arm being pulled sideways. The great man stopped in front of them and put his hand out … “How are you?” I could see the consternation on the faces of the two; do we shake the hand or take the pictures? A handshake was accepted and we were again on our way.

I left him with his aides and the waiting media. Two hours with Mandela. A privilege. An honour. A memory. Will the world see his like again? Not soon enough, methinks.

Khun Sivaporn Meadows, Executive Director SATCC and Ronald Endley AInsbury, President SATCC, share a bit of humour with HE President Nelson Mandela.

Khun Sivaporn Meadows, Executive Director SATCC and Ronald Endley Ainsbury, President SATCC, share a bit of humour with HE President Nelson Mandela.