By Ali Bacher
I was at the FNB Stadium in Johannesburg on Tuesday. If I wanted, I could have made a couple of phone calls and got good seats for my family. But I preferred to be with the crowd. So my wife, my daughter and I took a bus to the stadium. Minutes after arriving at the venue, we were soaked. But there was no way I was going to miss Madiba’s (Nelson Mandela) memorial service. I was also privileged to hear Barack Obama speak. What an orator! And our president, Jacob Zuma, was ‘red-carded’. Thrice!
Madiba and I shared a very nice relationship. In fact, he wrote the foreword to my book. And on one occasion, he invited the whole family over to his Houghton home. After lunch, he took my grandchildren and placed them on his lap and started singing to them. He was a people’s man, an extraordinary man.
When he wanted to watch a game of cricket, he wouldn’t give me a heads up. His security officer would call me on match day and say, “The President will be there in 15 minutes!” I would then rush to get things ready. The first bunch of people he would meet was the catering staff.
On one occasion, I addressed him ‘Mr President’. And he said to me, “Ali, my name is Madiba.” I replied, “Sir, where I come from, we address people ‘Mister’ if we have enormous respect for them.” He retorted, “Ali, where I come from, if you don’t call me Madiba, you are not a good friend of mine.”
The year was 1995 and he came over to St George’s Park for a game. I was so happy to see him in cream-coloured flannels, a Protea blazer and a Protea cap. And just as I sat down next to him in the box, my daughter phoned me. “Ali, who are you talking to?” Madiba asked. I told him it was my daughter. “Let me speak to her,” he said and took my cellphone. A little later, his secretarial staff almost clobbered me. “You don’t let your daughter speak to the President just like that!” they said. They were right. But that was Madiba.
He was quite clearly the biggest fundraiser of our country. Every morning, he would read the financial papers and make a list of the firms making a lot of money. He would then phone their CEOs! “We have a rural village up in north and the conditions are so bad. It would be a nice gesture if you could donate two million rand,” he would request them. Nobody ever said no to Madiba. One CEO told me that whenever his personal assistant walked into his cabin saying the President was on the line, he would ask himself, ‘So how much is this phone call going to cost?’ For the record, even the South African cricket board donated a million rand to him! He had asked me, you see.
Madiba created a future for South African cricket. He got us into the 1992 World Cup. Mind you, we weren’t even a constitutional democracy then. And he wasn’t President. There were a lot of journalists present during a meeting and one of them asked Madiba about South Africa playing in the World Cup. “Of course, we must play.” The whole world heard that and we went to Australia.
— As told to Derek Abraham
(Dr Ali Bacher is a former South African Test cricketer who was their last captain before isolation. In 12 Tests, he scored 679 runs at an average of 32.33 with six fifties. Post retirement, Bacher became one of the most prominent administrators in the South African Board. He was their manager during their first tour after isolation in 1991 and was also at the helm when South Africa hosted the 2003 World Cup. The above article first appeared in DNA)
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