5 December 2013 | Nelson Mandela (1918-2013)

The Valiant Nelson Mandela

I met him once, in February 1995. He'd not long been President of the new Republic of South Africa and a debate was on to write the new constitution. A Constitutional Committee was lobbying to ensure that it would be constitutionally illegal to discriminate on grounds of sexuality. The Committee invited me to raise funds for their work, with my solo show A Knight Out, which I performed in CapeTown, Durban and Johannesburg.

Then, out of the blue, a meeting was proposed with Nelson Mandela, in Johannesburg, where he worked one day per week. I was to accompany two young gay people, asking the President to support them and the aims of the Constitutional Committee: Phumzile Mtetwa, a lesbian law student at Wits University and openly-gay Simon Nkoli, who had been a fighter against apartheid. Both adored Mandela, Madiba, Tata, their granddaddy.

When our taxi picked up Simon he was waiting outside his digs, not in his habitual shorts and bare feet but in a borrowed dark suit and shoes. And he had a briefcase. "What's in the briefcase, Simon?" "Nothing. But it would be disrespectful to meet Madiba, without looking the business." The three of us arrived at ANC headquarters in Johannesburg, where we were invited to deposit our weapons and any live ammunition, before the lift to the top of the building. Simon realised he'd left the empty briefcase in the taxi. A young minder told us the President was tired but ready for us and showed us into an office sitting-room.

On the desk were piled copies of his autobiography. He sat on an upright upholstered chair, legs crossed so his striped socks showed. His eyes drooped, damaged by the hard labour in the Robben Island lime quarry. He spoke quietly, about the weather but then my reasons for being in RSA. That was my cue to introduce Phumzeli who made the case for protecting gay people from discrimination. The victim of apartheid quickly got the point. He then asked about Phumi's education. Perhaps it was that he wasn't at ease talking about gay issues, nervous even. I'd been warned that he might giggle.

The chatterbox Simon hadn't yet spoken when our 20 minutes was almost up. In a rush he told Madiba that he'd been on trial for his life and then released. He said, "My regret about not being found guilty is that I missed the chance to serve with you on Robben Island." Mandela looked right at Simon, shaking his head. "No. No you don't regret that."

I asked if we could tell the press that the President supported the Constitutional Committee. The president nodded "Yes" and it was time for the photograph – taken without flash because of his sight. Simon put a protective arm round Tata's shoulder. Phumzeli beamed. The constitution, explicitly prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation, came into effect two years later.

Before I left RSA, a hardback of The Long Walk to Freedom arrived, signed by the author; "For Ian McKellen with admiration Nelson Mandela." It's about my most treasured possession.

The recent authoritative exhibition at the British Museum, Staging the world, showed Shakespeare's influence over the centuries. The last exhibit was the "Robben Island Bible," the complete works of Shakespeare signed by the prisoners of apartheid who passed it around illicitly from cell to cell. On 16 December 1977, Nelson Mandela signed his name in biro next to Julius Caesar's words to his wife in Act 2 scene 2:

"Cowards die many times before their deaths,
The valiant never taste of death but once."

Ian McKellen, New York, 5 December 2013

Nelson Mandela 2008
Ian McKellen, Phumzile Mtetwa (General Secretary of ILGA), President Nelson Mandela, and the late gay rights leader Simon Tseko Nkoli at ANC Headquarters in Johannesburg, South Africa
Robben Island Bible signed by Nelson Mandela

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