Returning to South Africa in 1991, from periods working in both Australia and in the UK, I joined the largest catering company in the country at that time. Soon thereafter, I launched an event-catering division that won the exclusive rights to provide hospitality catering services to the then newly-built Johannesburg stadium, and secured rights to provide box catering to the leading cricket and rugby stadia in both Johannesburg and Pretoria. Because I also ran the catering contract at the South African Broadcasting Corporation (South Africa’s equivalent of the BBC), my team and I ran many banquets and awards dinners for politicians and media celebrities. This led to us providing event catering to Nelson Mandela at his Johannesburg residence (now The Saxon Hotel & Spa), where he regularly entertained embassy delegations and foreign dignitaries. We also looked after what was soon to become the future ANC government, both at their official Johannesburg city centre headquarters at Shell House, and for parties and dinners in many of their palatial homes in the upmarket suburbs of the city.
Nelson Mandela (affectionately and respectfully referred to as Madiba) inspired awe amongst us all. My team and I were always elated when we were offered opportunities to cater events for him.
These events were held around the historic 1994 elections and sadly smart phones with cameras were far off in the future. I think I was using the Nokia 6110 in those years. Not only did we not have ready access to a camera to record these events, but the protocol that surrounded Madiba, as the future President, would have prevented us from using them anyway. So, sadly, I have no pictures to support my recollections.
For me, one of the most memorable events that we catered for Madiba was an intimate luncheon held at a farmhouse called Lilliesleaf, in the residential suburb of Rivonia. Madiba had lived there disguised as a cook and gardener.
“Liliesleaf was an old house that needed work and no one lived there. I moved in under the pretext that I was a houseboy or caretaker that would live there until my master took possession. I had taken the alias David Motsamayi, the name of one of my former clients. At the farm, I wore the simple blue overalls that were the uniform of the black male servant.”
Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom
It was here that the top leadership of the ANC were famously arrested on 11 July 1963. This luncheon brought together the surviving members of that infamous ’64 Rivonia Trial; all of whom were now in positions of great influence and who were soon to take up leading roles in the new government.
As you can imagine, the then current owners of Lilliesleaf were ecstatic that this reunion luncheon was to take place in the dining room of their home. In preparation, they redecorated and upon our arrival everything from the paintwork to the furnishings looked fresh and new.
I arrived at Lilliesleaf with a small team. Two banqueting Chefs accompanied, by my Executive Head Chef; and two waiters, accompanied by my banqueting manager. We were a close knit team, we knew what we had to do and we swiftly set about our preparations.
There is a short back-story to this. Whilst we were only catering for 5 at the luncheon, we were actually providing meals to well over one hundred and fifty personnel. Each of the guests had their own large security detail and an entourage of flunkies; the roads leading to Lilliesleaf had been cordoned off and were secured by a huge number of police and there was a large contingent of media, PR and protocol personnel also in attendance. We were responsible for feeding and watering them all.
It is a little known fact that Madiba never ate the cooked food prepared for the events he attended. He carefully nurtured his health after the extreme hardship of his incarceration on Robben Island and irrespective of what was on the menu, Madiba would only eat a selection of freshly cut fruit. If my memory serves me correctly Chef used to prepare paw paw, pineapple, oranges and melon. Though the portion size would always be modest, by design, even this would be beautifully presented; fit for a President.
A lingering memory of all our interactions with Madiba was that without fail, upon his arrival at an event, he would come through to the kitchen and would take an unhurried moment to chat with us all. If he had seen us before, he would remember everyone’s name. My staff loved him for this, as did I, and our spirits would soar.
On this occasion Madiba’s arrival was heralded by the whump of helicopter rotors as a police chopper hovered overhead and as he walked in he was greeted by the owners who were positively beaming. Soon after, he ambled into the kitchen and chatted with us for a short while but instead of returning to join the other guests he passed through the kitchen to where the staff quarters were and he soon disappeared inside the room of the housekeeper who was at home at that time.
The colour drained from the owners’ confused faces. Though they had gone to great lengths and expense to spruce up the main house, which looked as good as any five star hotel, the staff quarters obviously hadn’t seen a lick of paint in over a decade and I can only imagine what the state of repair, the fixtures and the fittings looked like on the inside!
After about 10 minutes, which really did seem like an age, Madiba emerged from the room, hand in hand with the housekeeper. He walked back across the yard with her supporting him, as was his wont, to the kitchen entrance, where he bade her goodbye and returned to the dining area. As ever, his face betrayed no indication of his thoughts but, of course, when he lived there he certainly never lived in the house and his fellow activists weren’t arrested in the house either, they were arrested in the staff quarters. I could only imagine the cringing embarrassment the owners suffered but deep down inside I remember having a little chuckle at their discomfort and thinking it served them right.
The lunch went off without incident and though I do not remember the menu I do remember that the Chefs outdid themselves and that food was presented like art on a plate.
The luncheon seemed to be over before it had begun. Madiba generously spoke with us again upon his departure, to thank us for our efforts and, after a quick breakdown, we too were soon on our way.
Despite his humble demeanour I always felt I was in the presence of a giant when I was in Madiba’s orbit. It was, of course, only once events had been recorded and were in the near past that we came to fully understand the magnitude of his achievements and the esteem to which he was held amongst the great and good throughout the world.
As for me, I am proud to have served Nelson Mandela at the zenith of his influence. I treasure my memories and I am grateful to have been amongst the few to have met him in person. Of all the famous celebrities, music stars, business leaders, sporting icons, royalty and politicians I have met in my time running prestigious events around the world, Madiba stands at the pinnacle, in a class of his own.
It is one of the many reasons why though my body lives here in the UK my heart still lives in South Africa.
Mark Perl – Author, speaker, trainer and expert in the skills of Planning and Hosting events professionally.
You can get a free chapter of his book over at his website.