The day started with a South African Airforce Falcon jet touching down at the disused Bhisho Airport in the former Ciskei. What followed was one of those things that drove his security personnel into a frenzy. The jet taxied to right next to the black Mercedes. Madiba was supposed to simply get down the aircraft stairs, get into the car and his motorcade would speed off. Simple.
But then the tall man spotted us. We were hardly difficult to miss thanks to my regular photographer Carlie Norval’s unusually long ponytail. He walked straight past the waiting Mercedes towards us – we were lurking a good few meters away behind a barrier. “Hi, how are you?” he said extending his hand to greet us. And then he said something astonishing: “You are Peter, if I remember correctly. And wait,” he said while pointing to Carlie, “you, the one with the hair, you are Carl or Charl.” We had only met the president once before on one of his previous visits to the Eastern Cape when he inaugorated a new clinic in the Transkei. How did he remember our names? He could not have been briefed beforehand because we had gate-crashed his arrival at the airport, having only been tipped off of his arrival that same morning.
The Mercedes now followed the State President as we walked with him along the deserted airstrip. But our conversation is cut short by more security men: “We don’t have time, Sir!” and then they successfully herd him into the waiting car. It was a rollercoaster ride from the airport. We had no idea where they were taking the President, but we had to keep up. As Carlie wrestled the 1300 Corolla through its gears and revs we slipped into the motorcade, straight through King William’s Town’s red traffic lights, up past the Independence Stadium – the scene of the Bhisho massacre in 1992 – and then past the Eastern Cape’s legislative buildings towards Premier Raymond Mhlaba’s State House.
It was early summer. We have heard rumours that the President has come to tell a battling Premier that it is time for him to make way for younger, more experienced leadership. But we are not sure of the accuracy of our story and the doors to State House remained closed. We assumed Mhlaba was getting a briefing from his former Robben Island comrade and all we could do is wait. But the summer has no mercy on relentless hacks. By now there were about ten news hounds sitting on the State House lawn fantasising about cold beer in the hot sun. Then I spot Madiba shifting the curtains of the boardroom aside to take a glance at us squatting outside.
Minutes later, three waiters appear with silver serving trays. The trays were heaving under jugs of orange juice and massive slices of cake piled with the thickest layers of icing I have ever seen – to this day. “Madiba says sorry, but this is all we have. It’s from last night’s party,” the head waiter says.
I remember most of us diving into the cake until we were sweet to the belly. As the last crumbs were eaten we were invited in for a short media briefing. I can’t remember what I filed that afternoon for the morning newspaper, but I do remember one of the journalists thanking him for the cake. “Just don’t mention Marie Antoinette,” the old man said smiling. Three months later, on 4 February 1997, the heads did roll when President Nelson Mandela removed Raymond Mhlaba – and most of his executive council – and replaced them with a team led by Makhenkesi Stofile.”