“My hair used to look like that,” he laughed as he shook my hand.
We were in the living room of his sprawling ranch-style house in Maputo, capital of Mozambique where his wife Graca Machel was still an important political figure. He had crossed the room using her for balance.
“I styled it this way just for you, sir.” I was joking around with the greatest man on the planet?!? I’m a truck driver’s son from the San Fernando Valley.
Nelson Mandela had teased me and it felt only proper to tease back. His eyes teased, not just his words. It was impossible not to respond in kind. His ability to put one at ease was legend. I was feeling preternaturally at ease. That floaty kind of comfort where you are so out-of-body you say and do really stupid things with no awareness whatsoever of who’s around to witness. He was tall and grey and straight-backed and though I was probably an inch or two taller than he was at age 86, it felt like I was looking up.
We stood grinning and exchanging quips while the witnesses - his wife, two of his daughters, Leonardo DiCaprio, Djimon Hounsou and the African producer of Blood Diamond, Gillian Gorfil - were all waiting for him to sit down. All I knew was Madiba and I were having a good time. There were other people in the room?
After about five minutes of our bonding, he signaled Graca who helped him onto the sofa and propped his head with pillows, less for comfort than to keep him in an upright position. She took a chair near him. Leo and Djimon sat on either side of him. His daughters sat on the opposite side of the room staring at Leo.
DiCaprio was the reason we were all there. No slight on Djimon who was the biggest black African movie star of the decade, but it was because his step-daughters wanted to meet the star of Titanic that Gillian had been able to arrange this meeting with the former president of South Africa.
Gillian had invited me partly because she was a pal and partly – I’m guessing – because she didn’t want to be the only non-celebrity in the room. I pushed to have our photographer Jaap come along, maybe for the same reasons. Then, after she invited our director, my attendance became a prerequisite.
It had come to our attention that Mandela wasn’t happy about our movie. He had been a public booster of DeBeers – the diamond cartel that was one of monsters of our story (albeit with a name change) and that had already begun a multi-million dollar campaign to discredit the film. As keen as we were to meet him, we were all aware the father of the Rainbow Nation might take us to task for dramatizing the horrors of the diamond trade – a key part of South Africa’s export economy. Only our director, Edward Zwick, had the integrity not to put himself in that situation. But Ed gave his blessing to the other four of us provided I was there for damage control. Gillian and I convened the night prior to rehearse arguments in support of our position and graceful ways to neutralize any hot-button moments.
The controversy never came up. In fact, only once did politics come up.
Leo was unusually quiet at the beginning – perhaps out of respect, perhaps measuring his words as celebrities do. It was about a third of the way through the conversation that George Bush’s name was mentioned and DiCaprio launched into a candid assessment of what he thought about the American President. Madiba nodded thoughtfully.
“We got in a big fight the first time we met,” Mandela recalled his first encounter with Bush. “When we were going to meet again, Condoleezza (Rice) was in the Middle East on some important state business but she cut her trip short so could come back and stop Bush and I fighting again.
“It wasn’t necessary,” he laughed. “First you fight and then you have to make peace. You can’t always be fighting the most powerful country in the world. And the Americans think they are God anyway.”
He laughed again but his eyes narrowed, scanning the room. He was still the feisty freedom fighter and perhaps his last fight was to be liberated from the language of diplomacy. His middle name, Rolihlahla, means “trouble maker.”
We all got our chance to exchange words with our host. Djimon and Gillian talked about Africa, their hopes and fears. Mandela talked about the time when he toured the small villages after he was elected. “You have to talk to the people. They know what they want better than you do. You have to listen.”
I greedily leapt at any opportunity to fill conversation gaps.
I’d recently visited Robben Island, I told him, and saw the cell where he’d lived and the garden where he was able to surreptitiously plant notes for other prisoners to find.
“Did you have a good time?” he smiled. “I didn’t.”
That was not a memory lane down which he cared to stroll.
He quickly turned the questioning to me.
“Do you know Oprah?”
Not personally but I certainly know of her.
“What do you think of her?”
I gave what I thought was an admiring but not fawning response.
“Is she good?”
It took me a second: he was asking if I thought she was good politically.
The most famous man in the world was asking my opinion on the political righteousness of the world’s most famous woman. This was the point at which I knew I’d slipped down the rabbit hole. I took a stance in Oprah’s defense.
“I think she’s a solid liberal.” He mulled a moment. Then nodded. Why my opinion merited such consideration will always remain a mystery.
Finally, Graca told him it was time for their family lunch. Jaap took photos of all of us sitting on the sofa next to him, shaking hands. I took one of Jaap.
We were escorted out of the house by the daughters and a son-in-law. Cars and security personnel were waiting for us in the large driveway.
An hour later Jaap and I sat speechless at the local pizza joint.
“I can’t believe what just happened,” he finally said.
I was still in that floaty out-of-body realm where it didn’t seem all that odd.
Only after I returned to my hotel that afternoon and couldn’t quite focus on anything did it really hit me: I’d just spent an hour shooting the breeze with George Washington, Abe Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi…
Nkosi Sikelel iAfrika, Madiba.
Glad you liked my hair.