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By Don Makatile | Feb 11, 2010 | COMMENTS [ 0 ]

WHEN workers at their East London plant specially assembled a red car for Nelson Mandela, German carmaker Mercedes-Benz made a big marketing hoo-hah of it.

The feat must have given them bragging rights and they would be forgiven for thinking they are the wheels of choice for the world's best-loved nonagenarian.

But it was rival manufacturers BMW who made a splash upon Mandela's release 20 years ago. Ten of their shiniest and sleekest units were made available on February 12 1990 - a day after he walked out of Victor Verster Prison - to pick up the famous prisoner from the airport.

All thanks to businessman Richard Maponya, a great friend of the struggle.

All chauffeur-driven, Maponya himself was behind the wheel of the lead car in which Mandela and his then wife Winnie rode. Beside the driver in the front sat Reverend Frank Chikane.

This famous picture occupies pride of place in Maponya's home office at his palatial Hyde Park residence, north of town.

One of the BMWs, a 7-series, Maponya would later donate as a gift to Madiba.

"I gave it to him realising that I would not be able to keep up with his busy schedule at the time," the businessman recalls.

The car was dispatched with a driver, Michael Maponya, who up to this day still drives for Madiba.

The man behind Soweto's upmarket shopping mall - like all his business ventures, a first - Maponya is also the man Mandela chose to live with after his release.

But how did the Maponyas get to play host to the former president?

Like a man who history will attest has long arrived, Maponya's speech is conversational and unhurried.

"The story, I think, is a bit longer than that," says Maponya patriarch.

"I visited him in prison just about two months before he was to be released. My wife (the late Marina) and I went to see him. We spent the whole day with him. We had lunch with him."

With his trademark humility, the prisoner even apologised for the inclement weather on the day - it was windy.

"Otherwise I'd have taken you for a walk," Maponya recalls being told. "He pointed at a mountain in the distance, up to where he said he normally walked.

"I was so surprised that he would be allowed to walk that far - unaccompanied."

This was the first glimpse the visitors caught of the amount of respect the jailers had for their prisoner.

"The cottage he lived in was a beautiful house. That's where we were received. The lunch we had was sumptuous."

They talked politics, says Maponya, an old hand in the underground of the ANC.

"He was asking me about friends he had left behind and begged that I passed on his regards. I was surprised that he still remembered the people he used to associate with.

"Then he said to me that he understood I ran a BMW dealership. I said yes. He laughed and asked if I'd pick him up at the airport when he's released. I said it would be my greatest honour."

Maponya's own face lights up when he remembers the excitement of seeing his old friend of well over the 27 years he was incarcerated.

"But he was in good spirits. He'd also lost weight. You could see the man was healthy."

He adds with a chuckle: "He'd also gone greyish."

This picture contrasted sharply with the one of the fit-as-a-fiddle personal lawyer Maponya had known in their early days.

"It had always been my wish to go and see him. Winnie was instrumental in arranging the visit.

"I had known the man when he was still the youth league president, long before I married his cousin.

"I used them as my legal team. OR Tambo was the man who actually opened my file. The person who was to represent me in court was Nelson. But during those days, he was a very busy man. The politics of the country was hotting up."

Several attempts to see him on Robben Island were declined, says Maponya who, as his old friend toiled in the lime quarry, built a business empire second to none in the black townships.

"We've been friends for a very long time," says Maponya who, even as he turns 90 this December 24, still respectfully refers to Madiba as "my older brother".

Maponya was brought into the ANC by Walter Sisulu. As he sold his wares in Alexandra, the hostels and the white suburbs, the wily merchant would sneak in a word about the movement. He was doing Sisulu's bidding.

Fast forward to the 1990s.

"On the day of his release I was not in Cape Town. I thought he was going to fly to Johannesburg. But he was persuaded to spend the night in Cape Town. The reception was overwhelming there. The following day, when he came to Johannesburg, I met him with the fleet."

What did you talk about inside the car?

"There wasn't much room for talk because of the excitement from the people. My orders were to try and dodge the crowds. Everybody wanted to touch the man," he says.

"He was supposed to spend the night at my place but it did not happen as arranged."

Two blocks away from his present residence, Maponya's first suburban dwelling, just opposite Summerplace, did not have sufficient security.

"We wanted a good safe place. Were anything to happen to him, the country would have been plunged into a crisis."

And so the most valued guest was whisked away to a safe place, where Maponya also spent the night.

But over a period of time Madiba would return to the warmth of his friend's house - almost always unannounced.

"The following day I was to drive him to FNB Stadium. That was the most frightening drive of my life. I had never seen so many people in one place. There were more people milling outside the stadium than those already seated inside. And they were still arriving by all manner of transport."

After Madiba spoke, driving him out proved a challenge. He was then airlifted to Orlando Stadium.

The multitudes that were at FNB were now running to Orlando.

Memories of a true friend; obviously cherished like the many awards, citations and pictures on his office wall.

Even up to this day, as they enter the sunset of their meaningful lives, the world's most famous statesman would drop by, the last time in September.

And there's a picture on the wall to go with this memory too!


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