Nelson Mandela rose from his sofa to greet me as I entered his suite in the Hilton Kuala Lumpur.
“Mr. Vines, you have some powerful friends in Malaysia,” he said. It wasn’t a compliment. He was explaining why he had reluctantly agreed to see me during a packed visit to Asia, when an ambulance followed his car between appointments.
He was 72 at the time and looked weary. It was November 1990, nine months after he had been released from 27 years in jail in South Africa. He was nearing the end of a two-week tour of six nations to raise funds for the African National Congress.
On the coffee table before him lay a card from an earlier visitor, a Japanese diplomat. A security man stood outside the door but there were just two aides with him, one of them Barbara Masekela. (The sister of Hugh, the jazz trumpeter, accompanied Mandela on the tour and later became ambassador to Washington.)
He moved slowly and I could see that rising to his feet required some effort. He was dressed in fawn trousers and a patterned batik shirt. He put on a pair of gold-rimmed glasses and studied the list of questions that I had been required to submit in advance. The room was on a high floor and the traffic was barely audible many floors below.
Mandela’s tone was business-like. He probably didn’t want to be there but he was to receive a $5 million pledge from the Malaysian government and had reason to meet official requests. I was foreign editor of the South China Morning Post and had interviewed Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad the previous day.
Mandela was difficult to reach even in those days, four years before he became president of South Africa. Some journalists were unsuccessful after many weeks trying for an interview.
In the preceding months, I’d got to know the Malaysian commissioner in Hong Kong and attended Malaysian Association gatherings. I’d also spent much time meeting ANC officials in the hope of getting this interview and even had dinner with members of the ANC Women’s League, friends of his then wife, Winnie.
What struck me was Mandela’s air of authority. He was quietly spoken and scrupulously polite. He smacked down one question he didn’t like about the Inkatha Freedom Party leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi but showed no sign of impatience or anger.
(“We don’t need any intermediaries, Mr. Vines,” he responded to my impertinent question about whether he had any message for Buthelezi, whom I was to interview that month.)
When he had reached the end of the list, Mandela stood up, shook my hand -- again calling me Mr. Vines -- and left the room. I was 36 at the time. The meeting had lasted 20 minutes. Mandela was a hero and he was a hero who didn’t disappoint in the flesh.
After my return to Hong Kong, I wrote up the interview, describing him as the most respected man on earth. Later, when I ran into a staff member from the South African Consulate, he teased me about what he considered an exaggerated claim.
In recent years, Mandela has widely come to be considered something of a saint. (It wasn’t always so: Apartheid South Africa had countless friends in politics, business, the media and sport.) It was through his lack of rancor, his ability to forgive and his capacity to unite that he became so revered.
He was the most respected man on earth and the earth will be poorer without him.
(Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)