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Nelson Mandela may have saved a nation, but he nearly ruined my treasured photograph!

Paddy Upton’s treasured photo with Nelson Mandela and autographed by the great man. Photo courtesy: Paddy Upton
Paddy Upton’s treasured photo with Nelson Mandela and autographed by the great man. Photo courtesy: Paddy Upton


Nelson Mandela in a private moment, out of the public eye, nearly ruined a treasured photograph of mine, writes Paddy Upton


When an athlete goes onto the field, in front of a camera or to a public function, they generally put their best foot forward. So do we when we meet our new boss, start a new relationship or meet our significant other’s parents for the first time. Politicians do it all the time when making public appearances, they don their public persona and try to create an impression that they care for the people and are the right candidate to vote for.


It’s easy to put a best foot forward and look good. This does not impress me much. What interests me is who we are when we’re not playing the part that is written on our curriculum vitae (CV). Who are we being in our private moments when away from scrutinising eyes — when our true character gets to shine through? There are few more telling moments than how we treat the ‘little’ people when no one is watching; people like the restaurant or hotel breakfast waiter, the team bus driver, the not-so-good-looking supermarket teller or the 51st autograph hunter of the day. What would the tea lady, receptionist and janitor at your office say about you?


During an Indian Premier League (IPL) tournament, I watched Shane Watson and Rahul Dravid thank the bus driver for each journey between the hotel and practice ground. Coach Eric Simons takes it to another level, always asking the bus driver’s name and then daily greeting and thanking him by name. Other players, after a six-week cricket tour, wouldn’t even know what the driver looked like. I watched Sachin Tendulkar helping a nervous mother take a photo of himself and her son, knowingly making himself late for the bus but also making the child’s day and possibly a dream come true. This happened in New Zealand and when nobody was watching, other than me waiting for him in the lift. This was Sachin when not acting out his CV, but being himself. There are other cricketers I have had the privilege to work with who have shown this soundness of character in private moments — they know who they are and are secure within themselves that they do not need me to mention them here.


And then the day came, I had the opportunity to meet Nelson Mandela in one of these private moments, out of the public eye and he nearly ruined a treasured photograph of mine!


It began a while earlier, in 1996 when I first got to meet Madiba [Nelson Mandela] as a member of the South African Cricket team management. I had planned to ask him two questions… and then as he moved into my space… I became enveloped by an indescribable presence and a powerful stillness overcame me. Video footage showed that we spoke for a brief few moments — but to this day I still have no recollection of the experience, I have no idea what he said to me or what I said to him. I don’t think I asked my planned questions.


The team then posed for a photo with Madiba, with him still in the outfit he was wearing when he attended the Cape Carnival earlier in the day. This was a treasured photo, the one that Madiba himself was to nearly ruin.


A year later we got to meet him again at Newlands Cricket Ground before playing an international match. This time I had another question, one that I would not forget to ask. I wanted him to please sign the treasured photo from our last meeting. Due to a tight schedule he told his security officer (Rory Steyn) to have me meet him at his presidential car on his way out of the stadium. I waited; equipped with excitement, my photo and a pen.


Due to the crowds he was ushered hastily past me and into his car. They were about to pull off when he saw me and beckoned the driver to stop. He opened the car door and invited me to sit next to him.  As he began to sign the inkless nib only managed to scratch the photograph. It was one of those gold tip pens that you need to put pressure on the nib so that it retracts into the pen and releases ink form the cartridge. I mentioned he should put pressure on the nib, which when he did, resulted in the whole cartridge of gold ink splattering all over the photo. Damn! I should have tested the pen. Damn, my photo was ruined!


Without a moment’s thought, the president of our country immediately wiped the photo clean with his trademark Madiba shirt sleeve. He wiped before any ink could dry, cleaning the photo and ruining his shirt with a permanent gold stain. I thought, “Oh no, his shirt is ruined.” He said, “Thank goodness, your photo is not ruined!”


He asked for another pen, signed it, and apologised for nearly ruining my photo.


It was just us in his car, the president of a country and a lowly fitness trainer; in private and no cameras. In those few moments I witnessed why Nelson Mandela will be remembered in a thousand years’ time as one of the greatest men to have walked the planet.


To honour you, Tata Madiba, would be to live the lesson you taught me that day. I accept that I’ll never be as great as you, but I’m embarrassed to acknowledge a deep fear that I’ll not be as humble as you.


I promise to try.

(Paddy Upton, who played for Western Province, is the Performance Director of the South African cricket team. After his playing career, he began coaching at the provincial and national cricket levels, and also worked as a Leadership coach in business. Between 1994 to 1998, he served as the physical fitness trainer for the South African cricket team. He was also a key strategist for the then South African team coach and captain, Bob Woolmer and Hansie Cronje respectively. An Indophile to the core, Upton was mental conditioning and assistant coach for Team India under coach Gary Kirsten. He can be followed on his website ( ), Twitter (@paddyupton1) or on LinkedIn )

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