Magazine article New African

The Man Who Nursed Mandela

Magazine article New African

The Man Who Nursed Mandela

Article excerpt

During his presidency, Nelson Mandela attended Johannesburg's elite Park Lane Clinic where he got to know Tim Groom, a veteran nurse and anti-apartheid campaigner who is now based in the south of England. In this exclusive interview with Tom Sykes, Tim reveals that Mandela the private man was every bit as regal, wise and compassionate as Mandela the public figure.

Q How did you first meet President Mandela?

A I started working at the Park Lane Clinic in March 1991 as a night superintendent. One day, in September 1991, Mandela came in to the medical wing for a check-up and some MRI scans because he was quite unwell as a result of his 27 years in prison. He had done hard labour on Robben Island--breaking rocks and that sort of thing--and had got dust inside his lungs and eyes. He saw Michael Plitt, a renowned respiratory doctor.

The Park Lane Clinic is essentially a mother-and-child-hospital, but it had a small medical wing where Mandela stayed the night. I started my shift that evening and at 5:30 the following morning, a night nurse called me to say that President Mandela was wide awake. "I don't know what to do about it," she said.

I went up and knocked on the door of his private room. 1 went in and said: "With the greatest respect Mr President, it's half past five in the morning and you're wide awake. Is there anything wrong? Can we get you anything?"

He replied that every morning, for the last 27 years, he had been woken up at 6 am by his warders. He had thus made a decision to get up at 5:30 each morning so that when his warders opened the door at 6, he was dressed and ready. This way he could feel he had some power over his own destiny. He would decide what he wanted to do and not be at the mercy of the people who had taken away his liberty. "I was not responding to them," he said, "they were responding to me." This was one of the most powerful things he said to me.

When I told a friend of mine about what Mandela had said, he was so inspired that he changed his career and started a "re-scripting your life" business. Mandela's point was that although they imprison your body, they cannot imprison your mind, your thoughts, your philosophies or emotions.

Q Did you get to speak to him much after that?

I would often sit down and have a cup of Milo with him. I remember asking: "What are you going to do, Mr President, to sort out South Africa's problems?" He replied: "It's not what I'm going to do, it's what we're all going to do." Again, this had a huge effect on me.

The point is, whatever he said in public, he would also say in private. It also didn't matter to him whether he was talking to a major statesman at a conference or some nurse at 5:30 in the morning. No matter who you were or what your rank was, or what time of the day it was, he would speak to you. His personal and political outlook was this: we are all equal and we are all in this together; if we all work together, we can all solve the problems.

Q What was he like as a person to interact with one-to-one?

Mandela was exactly the same in private as he appeared to be in public. He had unbelievable charisma. He was regal, focused and respectful towards whoever he was speaking to. At first I wondered whether this was a politician's mask that he wore, but then the more I got to know him, the more I realised that he was a genuinely friendly and empathetic person.

Mandela's inclusive attitude to people was based on his vision of South Africa. If you wanted to be a South African, he wanted you to be a South African. I remember going to see him one evening at 9.15 just before he went to bed. Before he retired, he would take the time to shake hands with and say goodnight to six or seven people. I was one of those people. I feel that you can't fake that kind of respect and comradeship.

One of the main problems we had was handling the sheer number of people who wanted to see Mandela when he came to the clinic. …

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