NELSON Mandela’s hallmark sense of humour has not been forgotten amidst the sadness following his death on Thursday night.
Yesterday, CNN journalist Robyn Curnow, a former SABC television reporter, recalled Mandela’s “dry wit and his remarkable ability to render someone speechless with a well-placed one-liner”.
“More often than not, he would poke fun at himself with classic comic timing,” she said. “He would often start off a speech by thanking everyone for coming to listen to ‘such an old man.’”
Curnow said that after Mandela stood down after one term as president, she heard him win over a group of white South African businessmen by telling them, ‘Nowadays, I am just a poor pensioner. I am jobless. Maybe you could hire me?’”
Curnow also pinpointed Mandela’s special rapport with children. One of Mandela’s favourite anecdotes — often told in public — was of a conversation he had with a four-year-old girl who asked him how old he was. Mandela replied, “I can’t remember, but I was born long, long ago.”
“She then asked him why he went to jail. Mandela replied, ‘I didn’t go there because I liked it. Some people sent me there.’ She asked how long he had been in jail. Mandela again replied, ‘I can’t remember, but it was a long, long time.’ Mandela then relays to his audience that after a thoughtful pause the little girl said, ‘You are a stupid old man, aren’t you?’”
Curnow also made reference to an example of Mandela’s sometimes impish humour that came during multi-party negotiations before the 1994 democratic election. “He would often gently tease the leader of a rightwing Afrikaner party, General Constant Viljoen, by saying, ‘We have to let the white man talk; after all, he is from the supreme race.’
“A slightly naughty, cheeky grin would subsequently appear, by which time the chilly, racially-charged atmosphere would have been warmed up by nervous laughter.”
Mandela had no qualms about being familiar with Britain’s stiff-upper-lip queen “whom he called ‘Elizabeth’ and not ‘Your Majesty’.”
“‘Well, she calls me Nelson,’” was his riposte, when one of his grandchildren asked if it was not perhaps bad form to call the queen by her first name.”
Mandela’s humour was also highlighted during a parliamentary debate in celebration of his 90th birthday when the Democratic Alliance’s Tony Leon recalled an exchange in Parliament in 1998 when Mandela referred to the DA as a Mickey Mouse party. Leon hit back, calling the ANC “a Goofy party”.
The verbal fencing had a sequel a few weeks later when Leon was in hospital for open heart surgery. There was a knock on his hospital room door “then I heard the world-famous voice call out: ‘Hello, Mickey Mouse, this is Goofy, can I come in?’”