Mandela, Mvezo and Nelson


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.”

Texting urgently.

“The Mandela Family has been called to an urgent meeting in Qunu now.”

“Hmmm mm!  Need focus off Nkandla”
“Oh F&#%.”
“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.

Mvezo Village

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.

Kitchen loading the bakkie again, and again@

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.

Lydia producing lemon meringue pies in the middle of nowhere!

Zaza doing everything

photo 1 (1) (960x1280)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!

    Flooded catering tent

Catering tent with the dome behind

None of this took away
from the beauty of the structure that was being erected right above us!

Dome in progress at night

And the final outcome.  A fitting tribute to a fantabulous leader.

Mandela dome

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.

Nelson rescue dog


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When Is It Not Ok?

I consider myself to be a pretty down to earth, somewhat forceful person and by general consensus of those who know me a downright bossy britches, or as my mother would say a bull at a gate.

So be it.

But tonight I’ve been accused of bringing my first world values and thinking to a third world situation and told that that’s just not on.

Let me explain. I run a school for disadvantaged kids in South Africa. Kids who would be classed as vulnerable and/or orphans by international standards. I have a very special relationship with three of these girls. I carried one of the girls around on my hip at work when she was a toddler – she is now 9 years old.

In 2005 I transported the women of the family to see Tabisa (one of the girl’s mother) in a crappy substandard TB hospital, and only after I dropped everyone off and they asked to see her they were told her she had died the night before.


Tabisa’s mother, aunts and grandmother arrived at the hospital to be told ‘Ach sorry Tabisa is late’. Now imagine this was you.

And I have seen the two of the girls’ behaviour deteriorate over time. And let’s be specific I’ve known these girls for over 8 years.

Through local information I’ve been reliably informed that that their mother (and in the case of the 2nd child their youngish grandmother) takes them to her sister’s shebeen (informal drinking place in their township) when she goes to drink – regularly. When I confronted the mother about this she said I was being lied to – by everyone.

In my experience everyone is not lying to me.

So tonight over dinner my very good friend (who I really do love and respect) said now I have changed the goal posts by telling the mother taking her child and her grandchild to an informal drinking hole, with unabated drinking, loud music, no responsible adult supervision – is actually bringing my first world thinking into a third class situation, and really this is just not fair.

Who thinks it’s not fair? The mother who is drunk, or the children who have to try and sleep with the loud music, drunk adults, no dinner, and long walk home at the end of the night (no street lights, no security, no tarred roads, no pavements – no hot meal or electric blanket – oops no electricity ) when they eventually get home.

And now I am cross. Not just a bit, but very cross and I ask ..

When is it ok to have 9 year old girls in a home made pub with very drunk men (and women) and a very drunk mother?

Why is it ok that these girls regularly go to bed later than 10pm and they have to get up at 5am to get the bus to school?

Would you be happy if this was your child?

Whilst it might be normal that many children in the township are left at home alone why is that ok for them because they live in the third world and I do not think it is ok because I am from the first?

Do we expect girls to fend for themselves in an adult situation?

Why is challenging this situation now not ok because I come from the first world and they live in the third?

Would you let your child be here? No? So why is it ok these children are? And why can I not be the boat rocker just because I was fortunate enough to grow up in the first not the third world?

When is it ok not to think of the child?

Letting the Outside In

Cape Town has been having a torrid time of weather this week – hail that blankets the city like snow, coupled with howling winds and freezing temperatures.  For those of us living in SA who still have a conscience, cosseted in our houses with heating, hot chocolate and hot showers, our feelings extend to those in the Mother City who are not so fortunate; living in leaky, windy shacks with no indoor plumbing, heating , barely enough to eat or wear, let alone hot chocolate, hot showers and jerseys.  So when a friend of mine living in Cape Town posted on Facebook this week she felt terrible. She felt terrible because a man called Arthur was at her front door begging to be let in out of the cold.  And when my friend, after trying to work out if she knew Arthur decided she did not, and told him she was very sorry and she could not let him into her house, he stayed wailing at her intercom, ‘keening’ as we call it in SA, exacerbating her guilt that another human being less fortunate than herself  was being denied the comforts many of us take for granted, and which she had refused to share.

And it got me thinking, when do you let the outside in?  Each of us have our own personal limits of all kinds, and safety is one limit I often think about being an Aussie living in South Africa.  I’ve been here 10 years this year and so like to say I’m not too fresh off the boat, but sometimes, like I do now I wonder why my friend would even consider letting a man she didn’t know into her house  …  because he asked.  Why would she even consider risking her personal safety?  Is the South African guilt so strong that it tried to override her basic sense of self protection?  Or is my conservative, overly safety conscious words of my mother embedded on my soul making me judge a simple act of human kindness for someone who says they are in need?

My friend didn’t let Arthur into her house, and felt so terrible about it she posted about it asking if she was a terrible person for not doing so.  I liked her friend’s response that said the mere fact she felt terrible meant she wasn’t and I concur.  But I still wonder.  I wonder why I remain true to my mother’s cautionary words.  Never pick up strangers – well true in Australia.  I never picked up strangers in Australia – never!  Yet I have done so very occasionally in South Africa feeling for some poor soul  standing on the side of the road in terrible weather, and each time felt uneasy and somehow compromised, even though it was my own decision to give them a lift.  It is ironic that I come from one of the safest countries in the world – one that thousands upon thousands of South Africans look to as the promised land,  and never ever picked up anyone, not one soul!  And yet I move to one of the ‘most violent’ countries in the world and do exactly the opposite.  Not all the time but sometimes.  So I think I face the same quandary as my friend.  Why do I sometimes give the Arthurs of the world a lift and other Arthurs are left standing on the side of the road with an apologetic wave as I speed by – one person in an empty bakkie? 

And I still come back to the same question – when is it ok to let the outside in?