Growing up in the shadow of the world's greatest leader

WHAT'S a "free Mandela", I asked my mum when I was about eight. This sign "Free Mandela" was popping up as the preferred graffiti on more and more walls across Cape Town, where I was growing up.

I'd never heard of, let alone seen a "Mandela" before.

At that time in my country of birth he was, to the ruling party, little more than a locked-away "terrorist" the white public needn't worry about.

Mum explained Mr Mandela was a man the government had imprisoned because he had been fighting for what he believed in.

I consider myself lucky to have grown up in a family that saw apartheid as wrong.

Slightly more than a decade later my entire university campus paused to watch this Mr Mandela triumphantly walk free from prison.

It was the first time many people like me, who grew up during his imprisonment, actually saw his face.

Most people were joyous when he became South Africa's first "black" president.

It was a defining moment and, at that time, my country was filled with hope and enthusiasm.

A few years later, I was given the rare opportunity to meet the man who had quickly and deservedly charmed the world.

I was sent to a small school in the Eastern Cape - the poor province where Mr Mandela grew up - to report on his opening a school.

Security was tight and, between shacks and squalor, high-tech screens had been installed.

When the President finally arrived, everyone wanted to touch him, to have a moment of his attention.

Instead of talking to the high-profile journalists or dignitaries vying for his attention, I saw Mr Mandela walk towards an elderly, Afrikaans, white woman.

This woman would have undoubtedly been part of the hierarchy that took away his freedom, his rights.

But he went up to her, held her hand and said in Afrikaans - the language of his oppressors - something along the lines of "Hoe gaan dit tannie". Which means "How are you aunty?"

Little wonder, to me at least, Nelson Mandela has become the world's greatest president ever.

Three words from my youth resonate as he lies critical in a hospital bed.

"Viva, Nelson Mandela".

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