The “Nelson Mandela flower” is in season at the moment. It was only a few weeks ago that I found out that it is actually called a Primula. But for me it is the Nelson Mandela flower because I always associate them with him and the day he and Graca Machel got married.
I had been sent to his house to confirm reports that he had got married. I had spent the morning in the office banging away at the phone trying to get something because the rumours had been wild the whole week. I even interviewed his spokesman Parks Mankahlana on the morning of July 18, and he famously lied to me and said there was no wedding and I wrote the story, with the quote.
The day before my boss at the time Russell Norton told me that I must go to Mandela’s house because there was a meeting with ministers, priests, rabbis, representatives of many of the religions practised in South Africa and see if I could find anything out.
I got there and it was just me and a reporter from 702, Donald Chauke who is now known as Njanje Chauke and the security guard asked me what I was doing there. I told him I had come for the meeting. Maybe the security guard was new, maybe it’s because I still wore proper office clothes in those days – a neat longish skirt, a nice top, heels. But he asked to see my ID book, made a call into the house and said “come with me”. Just me. He led me to a garden and there was a semi circle of people on chairs under a tree in various religious clothes, with Mandela in the middle. I remember it feeling very peaceful and the grass was that lovely thick dark green grass that is nice to walk barefoot on.
Mr Mandela rose and said: “Ah! Are you coming to join us?” and I can tell you I did not see that coming. Walking with the policeman and being directed right to Mr Mandela. Caught completely off guard I replied: “I hope so” and started over the lawn towards the semi circle with my notebook in one hand, getting ready to greet.
The words had probably not even reached his ears yet, and a man came out of nowhere, took me by the elbow and led me firmly, but politely, away, and before I could blink I was on the pavement again with Njanje.
I had not blagged my way in at all. I didn’t think anything was wrong when I went in and I definitely did not expect to be led into the semi circle of religious leaders and up to Mr Mandela himself. When I think about it now it was probably a massive breach of security and the policeman probably got some stick. But I didn’t do it on purpose. But it still wasn’t enough for a story. It was all just speculation and I had walked into a private meeting by mistake. Mandela was known to keep close ties with religious leaders from all faiths.
On Saturday July 18, 1998, after speaking to his spokesman Parks Mankahlana and writing my “he is definitely not getting married story”, the radio kept carrying on about him getting married. It was very exciting. It was also his birthday remember, so I said I was going to over and have a look and got into the company car and went over to his house in Houghton to see for myself.
People were arriving in their droves, the public, neighbours, media, everybody was just stopping and getting out and walking towards the house, leaving car doors open, the radio bulletin that he was married could be heard in the background through the open car windows. We were all standing outside wondering how we could find out absolutely one way or another. One neighbour came up to me and said, “You’re too late, it’s over, he’s married”. I asked how he knew, hoping of course that he had been a guest and had seen it himself, but he said no, he had heard it on 702. So I didn’t know what to file and started working on a colour piece to file describing what was happening outside the house.
And then they arrived. Domestic workers from the leafy wealthy neighbourhood, still in their pinnies in lovely pastels – pinks and lavenders – with neat white aprons, and they all carried little posies of primulas and they didn’t walk, they swayed, they sang, there were walls of them, swaying and harmonising beautiful songs, all holding bunches of primulas that looked like bright pink and mauve Guy Fawkes sparklers.
They gave the flowers to the gate guards and sang hymns and beautiful songs, and word started getting stronger that Mandela had actually married Graca, on his birthday.
It was a lovely story. She finding love again after her husband the late Samora Machel died in a controversial plane crash. She was going to be married to a president again too. We suddenly had to find out more about her at short notice – Google wasn’t around yet and Yahoo was in its early days so it wasn’t easy like it is now. And him – he was finding love again after his marriage to Winnie very sadly collapsed after his release from prison. There was big serious stuff going on – Truth and Reconcilation Commission stuff, high politics, and in all this, a little window of beauty – a late love story for two people who had endured so much, with people singing songs of celebration and carrying flowers for them picked from their garden.
The office let me know that Parks had confirmed that they were married and that he admitted that he had lied about it to protect Mandela and Machel’s privacy on the day. Parks spent a lot of his life defending himself over that. Sadly he died a few years later at a young age.
Leaders from various religions had blessed the marriage – I remember mention of the Methodists, a Rabbi, and the Friday meeting I accidentally gate crashed fell into place. And no wonder I was removed so swiftly.
Every year I see these flowers popping up around this time of year, bringing colour to our bleak Johannesburg winter gardens and getting bigger and bigger as the weather improves, finally dying off late in spring and early summer to give other beauties time to shine. My neighbour plants them en masse every year and they are beautiful and for the last two years I have started buying a few trays and popping them in here and there and they give me great happiness because they are so unfussy and pretty and easy going. It was at a nursery a few weeks ago that I paid attention to, and remembered their proper name.
I googled them and found out that the one I am talking about is the Primula sieboldii and it seems to come from Japan.
But for me these tall spiky pink, mauve and white flowers will always just be “the Nelson Mandela flower”.