Sabi Sabi Safari Lodge remembers how Nelson Mandela won a stand off with an elephant

The centenary of the late civil rights leader and South African president was celebrated this year

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* Sabi Sabi game reserve's luxury Bush Lodge was the venue for a conference attended by Nelson Mandela in 1999

The incredible life of Nelson Mandela – trailblazing civil rights leader, political prisoner and South African president – has been well remembered this year, with an international day of celebration on 18 July, or what would have been the late leader's 100th birthday. But apart from his political legacy, many of his friends and citizens remembered Mandela, known as Tata ("father") or Madiba, as a man of the people who perfected a personal touch.

Sabi Sabi private game reserve, a luxury, conservation-focused safari set deep in the African bushveld, knew this well. Commemorating Mandela's centenary, its members of staff shared personal anecdotes of occasions when the former president would visit, hosting meetings or summits in the politically-neutral bush. Jacques Smit, Sabi Sabi's director, told Tempus about the last of these, which took place in 1999 after his time in office.

"Nelson Mandela's last visit was in mid-September 1999 – at this time he had retired from politics to pursue humanitarian initiatives. During this time there was a high-level governmental conference being held at Sabi Sabi Bush Lodge – represented by all major political parties – and Nelson Mandela was to fly in for the day to attend this," he said.

"While we don’t have insight into these meetings, there was certainly at that time discussions happening that would be deemed to be effective for the country as a whole, and it would’ve made sense to the organisers to have a South African game reserve to host these high delegation meetings which would add to the neutrality of all parties involved." >>

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* The view from Sabi Sabi game reserve's luxury Bush Lodge, where Nelson Mandela was greeted by songs and dance

Smit says that what the Sabi Sabi staff recall most fondly is Mandela's arrival. As he entered Bush Lodge, members of staff greeted him with traditional songs and dance – only for Madiba to respond in kind. "Nelson Mandela was a man of the people, so while he did not share in detail his thoughts, he certainly made an impact on our staff – as he did on our nation," he said. "It was palpable by the manner in which he immediately broke out into the famous 'Madiba Shuffle' on arrival at Bush Lodge."

Then-Operations Manager Michel Girardin shared that his response "sent everybody into raptures". Later, it was Girardin who was on hand to transport Mandela and his security to his helicopter for his departure – at 2pm sharp.

"On descending into the dry riverbed, I saw an elephant bull coming down from the track from the opposite side. This meant one of us had to give way," explained Girardin. Unfortunately for the team's hurry, Sabi Sabi has a strict policy of not disturbing the wildlife in the reserve, which meant they were forced to wait for the elephant to make his move. >>

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* The interior of Sabi Sabi game reserve's luxury Bush Lodge, which was the venue for a conference attended by Nelson Mandela in 1999

"Madiba was really anxious that the departure time of 2pm was going to be delayed. He asked me what we were going to do, to which I asked him why the departure time of 2pm was so critical," said Girardin. The answer was Mandela's wife, Graça Machel. "He replied, 'Graça 's son is going in for a knee operation and I want to see him to wish him well before he goes under anaesthetic'. What struck me was that this amazing man, with everyone wanting a piece of him, made the time to focus on the important things in life – family."

Arriving on time, Girardin was delighted to take a photo with the former president. "[He] added that I should send a copy of the photo to him. I remarked that why would he want me to send him a copy, when he had photographs with Queen Elizabeth, Bill Clinton, Fidel Castro – but he insisted and so when the photos were processed I sent him two copies. A few days later an envelope arrived at our head office, addressed to me from Madiba. He had returned one copy of my photo with a personal thank note."

For Smit, this story is just part of what exemplifies why Mandela is held in such high honour today. "[Mandela was] certainly a giant of a man both in stature and in presence," he said. "He emulated hope, justice and equality for all. He was – and still is – a beacon of hope for South Africa and we believe his blueprint will forever be at the forefront of our government. Nelson Mandela was an advocate for all livings being – human and animal – and was instrumental in many conservation efforts that promoted conservation and tourism in South Africa."