Mandela and my son
By Mike Hutchings
Balancing the dual roles of photojournalist and parent can be challenging at times – unpredictable hours and long assignments can be disruptive to family life.
But being the son of a photojournalist has its perks. My son Daniel had the chance to meet former South African President Nelson Mandela three times while accompanying me on stories.
On the first occasion, he was only six weeks old. I had been waiting for Mandela to arrive at a function in Cape Town’s Waterfront district when my partner Shannon called and asked where I was.
“Waiting for Mandela at the Waterfront,” I replied.
Her response was fast. So fast in fact that I could almost hear the slamming of doors and the screeching of tires as she grabbed hold of Daniel and sped off to join me. In a flash they were standing next to me, moments before Mandela arrived.
Mandela’s love for children was well known, driven perhaps by the pain of separation from his own family during his incarceration and early political life. Invariably, when he appeared in public, he would immediately zoom in on any children present. And that engagement always made for good pictures.
Sure enough, he made a bee-line for Daniel and held him for a few moments as the assembled group of photographers fired away.
I had some doubts about whether to file the image, but I knew full well that the opposition would be putting out their versions of the picture, so I raised the issue with the desk. Their answer was simple – did the picture have merit, regardless of my relationship? I decided it did and filed it accordingly.
There was no space for such doubts on the second occasion some years later, which was also at the Waterfront, coincidently on Daniel’s sixth birthday. As his mother was in hospital that day, I was looking after him when I got the call. Mandela had just returned from a private visit to Robben Island, the penal colony where he spent most of his 27 years in apartheid prisons, and was in a tent set up by Robben Island staff at the harbor. I explained to Daniel that he would have to wait outside, while I worked in the tent.
We were standing around outside when one of the staff members sheepishly pulled me aside with a request to “borrow” Daniel. They had organized a group of children to sit on the stage with Madiba, but didn’t have a white one. I laughed and quickly agreed.
When they ushered in the photographers a few minutes later, they had seated Daniel right beside a beaming Mandela.
The third and final time Daniel met Mandela was a year later. Shannon was away on assignment at the time and I had to pick him up from school, before going to Mandela’s Cape Town home where he was due to meet the cast and director of the film Tsotsi, (a slang word for gangster) which had just won an Oscar. On the way I explained to Daniel that he should stand at the back and out of the way because it was really their moment and I didn’t want to diminish their achievement. To keep him occupied I handed him a spare camera and he was soon snapping away.
Mandela and the guests came out and began to speak to the reporters. At the end of the photoshoot Mandela suddenly looked up and said “I see a little Tsotsi over there. Come over here young man”.
After my initial warning, a slightly coy Daniel came forward and Mandela warmly put his arms around him and chatted away with him and a number of other children present.
Later, when I was filing my own pictures of the event, I pulled out the card from the spare camera I had given him and on it I found one image that somehow fascinated me. It was the kind of image that only a small child could take, shot through the vegetation in Mandela’s garden. Its naivety and simplicity both astounded and confused me at the time. In a sense there was something in there that defied the stereotypes that defined the deeply problematic society that I grew up in.
As a South African, despite the harshness of the dark days of apartheid, I and others of my generation were privileged to have lived through an important part of history. My world and my history were simply different from that of Daniel. At his school, he does not see the color of anyone’s skin and in time he will get the chance to vote as he chooses.
While I do not know exactly how much of an impact these meetings had on Daniel, now 14, I was glad for him to have experienced the presence of someone who had such a colossal impact on my life, and on so many others.
In many ways all South Africans are children of Mandela, but like all children, there is a time to let go of our parents and begin to form our own world.