The stories about Nelson Mandela’s great sense of humility chime with one Northern Ireland minister’s own encounters with him.
The Rev Chris Hudson, a former trade union leader, had been involved in the Irish anti-apartheid movement, and not long after his release from prison Mandela came to Dublin to receive the freedom of the city.
A ceremony was being held on the streets outside the Mansion House, and the Rev Hudson was one of those on the welcoming committee.
His wife Isabella was tasked with decorating the stage in the green, black and yellow of the ANC, while the band of his Communication Workers’ played Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika – the movement’s de facto anthem.
And when it came to the event itself, the Rev Hudson said: “It was quite emotional... The crowd there was about 10,000 to 15,000 people, packed into a little street. The corporation thought we’d only get a few hundred people.”
On the stage were “the great and the good” of the city, waiting to greet the man himself when he arrived. But what happened next was a testament to the type of man Mandela was, said the Rev Hudson.
“A few people shouted ‘Chris – we’ve got a kid in a wheelchair and he can’t see anything’.”
So he had the child and the chair hoisted over the barrier and onto the stage, with the help of the Garda.
Then others came forward and said the same, so by the time Mandela arrived there were perhaps five on the stage.
And when Mandela got out of the car, he made a point of meeting and talking to them before anyone else.
The visit happened to co-incide with the return of the Irish national football team, who had just been knocked out of Italia ’90.
At the time, the squad included a black star – Paul McGrath, and at the Mansion House, the crowd greeted Mandela with a chant: “Ooh, Aah, Paul McGrath’s Da.”
Far from being offended, the anti-racism icon joked: “I am Paul McGrath’s da.”
At an earlier meeting with Mandela in London, the Rev Hudson recalled that everyone at a reception in the Churchill Hotel had been waiting around for Mandela to arrive.
The minister recounted that when he did then appear it was through the doors of the kitchen – where he had been meeting and greeting the kitchen staff.
“I thought he was the most humble person I ever met,” said the Rev Hudson, adding that there were certain other top figures he has encountered who did not quite have the same quality.
“Of course, what was amazing about him was at that time he was just becoming a world statesman. Being honest with you, his humility really shone through.”
As well as warmth and charm, the Rev Hudson, who today ministers at All Souls’ Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church, said: “He was a human being, with all the failings human beings have. We know he made a number of mistakes; some bad political judgments.”
He was thinking especially of his relationships with unsavoury, supposedly-leftist leaders like Col Gaddafi, who stated their support for the anti-apartheid struggle.
While in prison, and largely cut off from the outside world, he said Mandela’s view were quite rigid regarding who his allies were.
But once freed, the Rev Hudson said he began to revise his position, broadening his views, and taking the country back into the British Commonwealth.
lThere will be a service for Mandela at 1pm today at St Anne’s Cathedral, Belfast.
Called Reflections on the life of Nelson Mandela – Lessons in Peace and Reconciliation, it is open to all.