5 December 2013
“The family has been called to an urgent meeting at Qunu right now.”
“Oh no you lie.”
“Why would I lie to you? It’s happening right now according to my people up there.”
“The Mandela Family has been called to an urgent meeting in Qunu now.”
“Hmmm mm! Need focus off Nkandla”
“Hi Lou it’s happened.”
And so my journey from the sleepy seaside village of Chintsa, to Mvezo and Qunu through to the rolling hills of the Transkei, South Africa began.
My journey started, and ended, with Nelson.
Rewinding to May 2013.
“Are you interested in doing a catering job in Qunu for around 80 people with no fixed date and no fixed venue?”
“No. I have already been called today by BBC. No. Mothers’ Day is in two weeks. No. Go away.”
“It is a very sensitive matter. There is a brief. Can I send it to you?”
“OK. Will you consider it?”
“No. I have an old vehicle and a restaurant to run. And it’s Mothers’ Day next week.”
“My colleagues need people on the ground with local knowledge. They need fixers.”
“I will call Mike and Sean and Dennis. Then I will get them to call you.”
Across the Chintsa river same day.
“Ach Lou this event has been planned for years. All the venues in the area have been booked. Why would they call you?”
“I have no idea but I have been called twice today. By different people. They need fixers. Are you interested?”
“Yes. Get them to call us. Why aren’t you going to cater?”
“I am running a restaurant and have an old bakkie and am one person.”
“You’re mad. I’ll help you. Get the brief.”
“No we can do it together. Get the brief.”
“OK. But only if you help me. I can’t do this myself.”
Fast Forwarding to 5 December 2013.
Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, the father of the nation,
died on December 5 2013 at the age of 95.
I don’t like to believe that the ruling party of South Africa could ‘schedule’ the death of perhaps the greatest leader of my lifetime. That’s a whole new conversation. All I know is that an Aussie girl who tripped over Chintsa on her travels around the world, managed to score the gig of a life time working before, during and after at the site of Nelson Mandela’s funeral in Qunu, and in the village of his birth, Mvezo.
My staff who work at the restaurant have always had my admiration, and the way they supported me before, during and after the Mandela gig as I’ll call it, blew me away. We had a few practice runs as I was really really convinced that Mr Mandela as going to die in July when he went to hospital. I ran around like a mad thing buying warm vests and pants for staff as it was winter and it was cold; I put suppliers on standby; I put vehicle hire on standby – and I did this for 6 months! My staff had packed and unpacked the restaurant so many times they just rolled their eyes when I said we must get ready again. It became a running joke. I became a joke. We never thought it would happen and we NEVER thought it would happen in December. But it did.
After I got ‘the call’, a wee bit fuzzy from the wine I consumed at the art exhibition I’d just attended I started rattling off emails to suppliers, with lists of food I’d need in five hours. For 15 days. For up to 120 men who needed feeding breakfast lunch and dinner, and snacks, at two different sites 26km apart.
Kitchen Masilakhe was our main bakkie stacker and packer, fitting food, pots and pans into every crevice of the bakkie – every lunch and dinner for over 2 weeks. It’s a minor miracle that we didn’t lose more stew, veggies and lemon meringue pie due to my haphazard driving and the Transkei roads as we zoomed up and down up and down from Mvezo to Qunu at least 4 times a day…if we didn’t forget something – umm like plates on day 9 when things were getting a bit ragged.
All credit to Kitchen who politely and calmly sailed his way through.
My staff mainly live in shacks in squatter camps, most without running water, electricity, or sanitation. They all have kids. In five hours, dead on time, they ALL arrived with their bags packed, at the restaurant ready to go with lives on hold for the next two weeks. The restaurant was picked over and packed by the team like a well oiled machine. We had no idea what was in store for us, but there was no doubt my staff were ready.
I however was a nervous wreck, handing over to my terribly brave and generous friend Gill, the two weddings the following week, and providing a list of things I was taking (everything), what she’d need to buy (mostly everything) and that she had to find staff ‘cos I was taking (most) of them. That’s another blog but the fact I could hand ball two of the most important events for two couples to her and that they went off without a hitch whilst receiving a handover that consisted mainly of hysterical babble from my side will leave me eternally in her debt and admiration.
Many have said that it is because it was Nelson Mandela’s funeral that my staff shone. I’ll argue that after 10 days of working 16 hours a day away from family with another five more to go as the dome now has to be dismantled; sleeping communally in cramped conditions; putting up with a sleep deprived grumpy boss and being sleep deprived yourself, you could be working for the Prince of England and it wouldn’t matter, each day just turns into a slog.
Sure there were magical moments like seeing the dome for the first time before the world did and being over awed by pungent scent of the thousands of lilies inside and coming face to face with 95 candles and a giant beaded Madiba face.
But it remained just hard work for 15 days. The fact that my staff smiled and worked their behinds off uncomplainingly every single day, and covered my behind on more than one occasion still blows my mind.
‘You are not going to be able to work at this pace for the next two weeks.’
‘What choice do I have?’
I don’t pretend to be the easiest person to work with, and when faced with pressure to ‘do well’ and support a crew putting up a structure for the biggest funeral in the world, well, I guess I could say it’s intense. I slept in the storeroom. My friends who put up the camp for the team slept in the caravan lovingly known as the ‘gazelle’. I paid the security guards basella (extra money) to get me up at 3.30am each morning, to make sure breakfast was ready for 5am leave, making sure coffee was on early. The guard’s look of horror every morning when I opened the door to confirm I was indeed up, reassured me that they had earned their basella. There is alot to be said for three hours sleep a night, turning you into a demon with two heads and not a drop of red wine in sight! I am very grateful for their diligence and on many early mornings the guys just kept banging on the door yelling ‘get up.’ I was indeed a walking zombie after ‘the gig’ but is largely thanks to them that I managed to get breakfast out on time every day.
‘It must be amazing to be part of such a special event.’
‘You are so lucky to be there.’
‘What a privilege.’
Yebo yes it was a privilege to be part of the inner workings for such an important event in modern South African history. But, there were times when really, we wished we were tucked up in bed, with dry clothes at home. If you were watching, it rained and rained and rained for a whole week as the team tried to get the dome up – and the dome seated 4 000 people. It was BIG! I started driving to our very sad catering tent below this beautiful dome structure in progress in 4×4 due to the rain. What started off in sunshine and light (and my taking not one warm piece of clothing) ended up in mud and slime! The poor construction team who also worked 16 hours a day in rain – ended up eating in mud!
None of this took away
from the beauty of the structure that was being erected right above us!
And the final outcome. A fitting tribute to a fantabulous leader.
We were and remain incredibly privileged, in retrospect to be part of such a momentous occasion. The team who designed, built and constructed the dome had ‘done’ every event for Mr Mandela since his inauguration. And as a director of the company said ‘And now we are burying him.’
A very personal event for these men.
‘The gig’ however remains personal to me,not just for the experience of driving to Nelson Mandela’s home several times a day; walking past our current President one afternoon on site; seeing Mr Mandela’s grand daughters walk down the mud road to the dome to see how things were going, or just being part of the South African machine that shows we can do as opposed to we cannot.
I left Mvezo with a unique souvenir.
I don’t profess to be an empathic or sympathetic person, but when a terribly small, mange, flea and tick ridden puppy turned up at our Mvezo camp, the birthplace of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, on the day of Madiba’s funeral, nearly starving and dead, I decided that he had to come home with me. In a sentimental move that is very unlike me, I called the puppy Nelson. If I was not an Aussie still struggling with the intricacies of the Xhosa language I would dearly loved to have called him Rolihlahla. However he is now Nelson and my permanent reminder of how an Aussie girl who tripped over Chintsa ended up working the gig of a lifetime in honour of a great leader and man.
And so, Mvezo started and ended for me with Nelson.