The location of the Pretoria Hilton is unique. On one side you have the interminable plains of the southern savannah, on the other the majestic range of the Transvaal and all around it, the luscious valley irrigated by the Olifants and the Krosolbal rivers. The hotel is indeed one of the finest in South Africa.The exquisite furnishings and appointments are matched by an excellent cuisine and impeccable service. Herr Aleck Van Michelsen runs a tight ship.There was a knock at the door of my suite on the 25th floor. Without waiting for me to invite whoever was at the door to come in, the door opened and in walked someone I did not expect to see:
"Jesus, Mandela" I exclaimed.
"No, no, Nelson. Nelson Mandela" he replied and laughed.
It had been a few years since Mandela and I had shared a cell in a place that, I was sure, we were both trying to forget. I got up and we embraced, while his Biri Biri body guards stood outside by the door.
"What happened to your beard" he asked while he looked at me with affection. I returned the look and asked:
"What happened to your black curls? You are as gray haired as Richard Gere!"
He proceeded to tell me about his problems with the various coalitions, the new labor laws and the pressures from the white separatists. But he referred to them in a very objective way but not devoid of passion. At the end he said:
"I heard you were in Pretoria and I knew I would have to come and see you in spite of the crazy schedule my people keep me under. I want you to come with me for lunch at the Pretoria Lawn Tennis and Country Club. You know, that club used to be a milk white facility. He sort of rubbed that one in. He knew I had been a member. What he did not know was that at the time I was madly in love with two of the member's wives, and the club with its manicured forests, gentle hills and its discreet and inviting guest suites was a perfect place for illicit love affairs.
"I'll be delighted." I replied while I pulled out the miniature Phillips recorder from my attache case and set it on the coffee table. He looked at it and with some resignation and observed:
"I see you still pushing a pencil. What happened to book number 6?"
He was referring to the book I worked on when I was in jail.
"Book number 6 came and went. You remember it was all about the situation in South Africa in the seventies. A French publisher picked it up and it did well, judging by the checks I get once in a while. But, I am not going to ask what you been up to. You Nobel Prize winners are all the same. You run up to Stockholm, fill up with smorsgarbord and acquavit, get your medal pinned on your new suit, verify the numbers on the check and hightail it to warmer climates. "
He laughed and produced some Callard and Bowser Mint toffees from his pocket. I took a couple and we toasted each other as we removed the familiar green wrapper. It had been a ritual in jail.
"You got to keep things in perspective" he observed in a sober tone.
"It took the human race several million years to learn how to walk on two feet. And it has taken less than twenty years to recognize the rights that some people have in their own land. We are happy about our accomplishments in South Africa "
I added: "Nelson, it is only the beginning. We all have much to learn still. Specially about tolerance. Incidentally, where did you get the mint toffees? I can't seem to find them anywhere in Pretoria"
"Our Ambassador in London sends them by diplomatic pouch. I call it getting even for all those years without them! Now, let us go to the Club"
We took the elevator down to the lobby. His bodyguards led us to the front door of the hotel.
"Gee, this is a nice bus" I said. It was a 450 hp Mercedez Benz equipped in Italy with air conditioning, bar, lavatories and reclining seats.
"Where do I sit" I asked Mandela.
He turned to one of his lieutenants and listened for an instant. Then he turned to me and said:
"This time you sit in the back of the bus!"