Some 16 years ago, I had the rare opportunity to meet one of the greatest political leaders of our time, certainly one of my own personal heroes, Nobel Peace Prize winner Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela.

It was on March 1, 1997, just three years after his inauguration as the first black President of South Africa, that Mandela arrived in Manila for a state visit, the first ever between the two countries.

Using a French Mystere Falcon 900 jet of the South African Air Force, with an all-white flight crew, the presidential party flew from Waterkloof airbase just outside Pretoria, capital of South Africa, all the way to the Maldives for a re-fueling stop. Because of a strong tailwind, the presidential pilot, Lt. Col. Potgeiter, had to zigzag his way during the remaining leg to Manila just to make the right arrival time otherwise he would have hit Villamor airbase ahead of schedule.

At the reception in Malacañang Palace hosted by President and Mrs. Fidel V. Ramos, Mandela and his lady companion, Graça Machel, widow of Samora Machel, the first president of independent Mozambique, greeted the guests as they entered the ceremonial hall. The 78-year-old chief executive wore dark pants with a “Madiba” shirt, the equivalent of our barong. Mandela comes from the Madiba clan and is often addressed as Madiba, a term of respect; the same name has been adopted for their national dress.

Machel is an accomplished personality in her own right. The former first lady of Mozambique also served as minister of education and culture in her late husband’s cabinet. (Mandela was divorced from his second wife, Winnie, a year before.)

In his remarks before dinner, President Mandela noted that “the Philippines is a unique country of over 7,000 islands. I know something about islands; I spent over 20 years of my life on one. [Mandela spent 27 years in prison, 20 of which were on Robben Island, off Cape Town.] The island which was my home for those years was a symbol of repression while the Philippines is a free and vibrant country.”

Mandela paid tribute to the leadership of President Ramos, citing the “amazing development of your beautiful country” and also to President Cory Aquino “who has been an inspiration not only to her own people but to the world.” He reported that “South Africa is free at last and our country is now engaged in the difficult but exciting process of building one nation based on equality and justice. For your solidarity over the years, we say thank you from the bottom of our hearts.”  In his autobiography “Long Walk to Freedom,” which he started writing while still a prisoner on Robben Island, Mandela explains the origins of his names.

“Apart from life, a strong constitution and an abiding connection to the Thembu royal house, the only thing my father bestowed upon me at birth was a name, Rolihlahla. Literally it meant ‘pulling the branch of a  tree’ but its colloquial meaning was ‘troublemaker.’” He continues, “I do not believe that names are destiny or that my father divined my future but in later years, friends and relatives would ascribe to my birth name, the many storms I have both caused and weathered.” A schoolteacher would give him his English name, Nelson, possibly after the great British sea captain Lord Nelson. He explains “Africans of my generation—and even today—generally have both an English and an African name.”  On May 10, 1994, just two weeks after the first free and fully democratic elections were held in South Africa, Nelson Mandela was installed as the first black South African president. His party, the African National Congress, had won 62.6 percent of the national vote, giving them 252 out of 400 seats in the National Assembly.

Thabo Mbeki was sworn in as First Deputy President while the former white president, F.W. De Klerk, became Second Deputy President. De Klerk was the fellow who released Mandela from jail in February 1990 and was also the cowinner with Mandela of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.

At his inauguration, Mandela recalled that “the highest generals of the South Africa defense force and police, their chests bedecked with ribbons and medals from days gone by, saluted me and pledged their loyalty. I was not unmindful of the fact that not so many years before, they would not have saluted but arrested me. . . I was overwhelmed by a sense of history.”

In dedicating his autobiography to his six children, 26 grandchildren and three  great-grandchildren, as well as his fellow South Africans, Mandela noted that “my country is rich in the minerals and gems that lie beneath its soil but I have always known that its greatest wealth is its people, finer and truer than the purest diamonds.” He ends his story saying, “I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. . . but I can rest only for a moment, for with freedom comes responsibilities and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not yet ended.”  On July 18 Mandela marks his 95th birthday. The world continues to pray for his recovery but there is a growing sense of acceptance that the end is near for the longest-serving political prisoner in history whose sacrifices and self-discipline brought an end to apartheid and led his people to freedom. –Philippine Daily Inquirer