On a chilly Easter Saturday in 1998, I received an urgent message from Nelson Mandela’s press aide to call a phone number in the Eastern Cape. I was a reporter for a Sunday newspaper in Johannesburg at the time, but was on vacation in Cape Town and had just stepped off a wind-swept beach. So I was ill prepared for the conversation that followed.
I called. A woman answered the phone and I gave my name. Soon, a familiar voice boomed down the line. “I’m happy to hear from you,” said President Nelson Mandela, as though a call from a reporter on a Saturday afternoon was a pleasant surprise. But he wasn’t well, he said. The reason for his indisposition was a swarm of honey bees that had attacked him in his bathroom, while he was getting out of the bath.
The first democratic President of South Africa said that he was particularly upset because he had defended the bees’ right to remain on the grounds of his rural home in Qunu, in the Eastern Cape. “When the police wanted to remove them, I said, No, they are perfectly entitled to select their own home,” he said. He also thought the means of removing a hive—with smoke—was “a bit crude.”
But that morning, he’d stepped out of the tub and was about to put on body lotion when he heard an aggressive buzzing outside the open bathroom window. He had grown up in the countryside surrounding Qunu and knew that, with snakes and bees, the best tactic is to keep still. But the bees seemed intent on attacking, so he reached for a fumigator spray.
“Then they launched a counterattack,” he said, stinging him in the soft area just below the pit of his stomach, a favorite place for attacking a boxer. “I had to flee.”
I asked a few questions, but I was so taken aback that I failed to ask the big one: Why was he telling me this? He knew me as a reporter, not as a confidante. His aides couldn’t or wouldn’t enlighten me, so I called my editor from the beach parking lot and filed a story over the phone. It ran the next day as a page-one anchor under the headline “STINGING ATTACK ON MANDELA HITS HIM BELOW THE BELT.”
It was picked up by the wire services and run around the world. At least one newspaper felt at liberty to change his quotes. He had told me that he was stung “four or five times in the stomach and in parts I am too embarrassed to mention to a young lady.” That became “…and in other parts that are privileged information.”
The story was deeply troubling for some. Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi, who was in Mandela’s cabinet at the time, said that her mother-in-law was concerned because the bees had stung himinside his house. A sangoma (a traditional healer) told Sapa, a South African newswire service, that this meant the ancestors were angry with him, and that his family should slaughter a goat to appease them, and brew traditional beer.
“Why should the ancestors be angry with such a man?” I asked an aide. “Because of Graça,” he said, meaning Graça Machel, Mandela’s then fiancé. She was not even South African, let alone Xhosa, and there had been some murmurings in Qunu about their relationship. “There is a belief in Xhosa tradition that bees are connected to ancestors, and if they show unkindness toward you it’s a message from the ancestors,” Peter Mtuze told me years later. Mtuze is a professor emeritus at Rhodes University in the Eastern Cape, a historian and an expert on Xhosa culture. “Sometimes, it”—a bee attack—“just indicates attention from the ancestor, if for some reason there is something you need to do.”
At the time, I was ignorant of this dimension. When I interviewed Mandela a few months after the bee incident, shortly before his eightieth birthday, I asked him why he had told me, particularly given that he had joked, soon after, that I had “exposed him to the world.” Better the story got out the way it did, he said, than having a flutter of gossip emanating from Qunu. He was kind enough not to say that he had chosen a reporter whose ignorance would serve his purpose. My rendering of the tale killed any deeper interpretation.
Mandela marked so many firsts in his brief five-year term as President. One of them was the charming, though sophisticated and tactical, way he dealt with the media. He got such good press not only because of who he was but because of how he treated reporters. He once fished a photographer from an Afrikaans newspaper out of a fountain on the grounds of Tuynhuys, his Cape Town offices. The photographer had been walking backward, taking pictures of him, when he tripped over a ledge and fell into the water. (He was thereafter known among the local cameramen as “the pool photographer.”) And he elevated the status of journalists more than any other politician has done, before or since.
When the Namibian President, Sam Nujoma, came on his first state visit to South Africa, in 1996, Mandela walked the surprised head of state out of a press conference, through the Tuynhuys gardens to the fence that borders Government Avenue, a tree-lined pedestrian thoroughfare in Cape Town. Delighted schoolchildren stopped to shake his hand through the railings. “Have you met the President of Namibia?” he asked one solemnly. And to another: “What would you like to be when you grow up? A doctor? Maybe even a news reporter?” He gestured at the reporters clustered around him.
There is an anthemic freedom song in Xhosa, Mandela’s mother tongue, in praise of the statesman. It was sung when Mandela was imprisoned, when he was freed in 1990, when he was President, and, afterward, in his retirement. Nelson Mandela / Akekh’ ofananaye—“Nelson Mandela, there is none other like him.” Today, for those of us fortunate enough to have reported on him, it rings in our heads.