As the helicopter landed in the front of Londolozi Game Reserve in South Africa and outstepped Nelson Mandela, I knew that this would be a defining moment in my life. Madiba had been sent by an old friend, Enos Mabuza, to spend a few quiet days relaxing at Londolozi after weeks of hectic media exposure following his release from prison earlier that year.
Incredibly, I had been given the rare privilege to spend a few unstructured days alone in the presence of this great icon. Together we enjoyed many hours of relaxed game drives as we sojourned in complete privacy along the meandering bush track of Londolozi. During this amazing time I was able to show Madiba, for the first time in his life, Africa’s Big Five, including some spectacular moments of wildlife theatre that only Africa can deliver. Theatre that, until this moment, Madiba had never before experienced. These first hand experiences highlighted for Madiba the potential that wildlife has. He realized that it was an economic driver that could offer opportunities to rural people and it could also be the catalyst for showcasing to an international audience, the country that he was about to govern.
During our time together, Madiba came to understand the power of the eco tourism safari industry as a development tool for creating opportunity, careers, social upliftment, jobs and education for those who had been caught in the disaster of the apartheid trap. Madibas intellect, humbleness and absolute willingness to listen, meant that he quickly grasped the importance of protecting biodiversity and river catchments and the possibilities of advancing the green frontiers of our country. During his stay at Londolozi and following many hours of inspiring dialogue, Madiba promised that under an ANC government, river catchments would be protected as would all land under wildlife.
He made good on his promise and today South Africa has some of the most advanced water regulation legislation of any country in the world. And it was on his watch as President that the Great Transfrontier peace parks were conceived and endorsed by Madiba and three other presidents from our neighboring countries. The concept of Transfrontier peace parks stands today as a shining beacon for conservation and restoration, yet another enduring legacy of the huge contribution that Madiba has made to humanity.
On a more personal note, and in hindsight, I have come to realize that spending relaxed mornings together in a Landover, roaming the landscapes of Londolozi, eating breakfast in the quiet shade of a thousand year old Ebony tree was an unparalleled privilege that will remain with me for the rest of my days. Madiba was good company, always warm and engaging with a humanness that permeated his whole being. On two separate occasions, however, I witnessed Madiba, the statesman, in action:
The first of these occasions was when ten people had been murdered in Alexander Township and the reports of these atrocities had reached us at Londolozi. Using a very rudimentary radio field telephone I was able to connect Madiba with de Klerk and I listened to a telephone conversation as the future President warned the departing President of the consequence if the third force, that was perpetuating these atrocities, was not reined. We watched in awe as continued negotiations hung in the balance and our country strayed into the abyss.
On another occasion when Madiba was staying with us, the right wing political party drove the armored car through the front door of the building where CODESA talks about a new South African constitution were taking place. When the news reached us Madiba went into a rage and instructed that I locate a helicopter to take him immediately to the scene were the news coming in suggested that the civil war had just begun. I had my work cut out to convince Madiba not to fly by helicopter to the scene but rather to arrange for him to be met by his security personal at Lanseria airport.
It seems strange now, as I think back on that moment, the boy from the bush confronting the future President of South Africa in a heated argument about whether I would “allow” him to go by helicopter into harms way, arguing that he should rather take my advice and travel by fixed wing aircraft to a more safe location at Lanseria airport. Typical of the man, following our rather robust conversation, he apologized to me for his hot headedness and confirmed that my advice had been in his best interest and accordingly he flew to Lanseria to attend the pending crisis, which he once again averted.
On many occasions when we were together, the humility of this great servant leader became apparent. He greeted all whom he met from back of house staff member to front of house celebrity guest in the same warm and engaging manner. His public endorsement of Londolozi in 1992 remains one of the most significant events in Londolozi’s forty-year history. At the centenary celebrations of the Natal Parks attended by a very prestigious audience Mandela said that:
“During my long walk to freedom, I had the rare privilege to visit Londolozi. There I saw people of all races living in harmony amidst the beauty that Mother Nature offers. Londolozi represents a model of the dream I cherish for the future of nature preservation in our country”
What is for certain is that Madiba is one of the great gifts to humanity and his effort in preserving six million acres of wild lands, which was once a war zone, now a peace park, is yet another of his legacies to humanity and one which will endure long after we have all passed.
At Londolozi we have created a path called Freedoms Way, which is a tribute in memory of his many visits to the reserve. Freedoms Way, a winding path dotted with land art works and inspirations, leads our guests on from their luxury Londolozi camp to our staff village where for years, in accordance with Madiba’s dream of 1992, we have created a spirit of harmony and co-operation across the cultures.
It is therefore with great nostalgic pride and affection that I, on behalf of the Londolozi Family, wish Madiba all the peace and grace he so richly deserves from his 95 years on this planet.