The Pompey Man Who Nursed Mandela

Throughout his presidency, Nelson Mandela attended Johannesburg’s Park Lane Clinic where he got to know Tim Groom, a veteran nurse and anti-Apartheid campaigner who has since settled in Portsmouth. In this exclusive interview with Tom Sykes, Tim argues that Mandela the private man appeared every bit as wise and compassionate as Mandela the public figure.

How did you first meet President Mandela?

I started working at the Park Lane Clinic in March 1991 as the Night Superintendent. One day in September that year, Mandela came in to the clinic for a check-up and some MRI scans because he was quite unwell as a result of his long spell in prison. He’d done hard labour on Robben Island – breaking rocks and that sort of thing – and had got dust inside his lungs and eyes. He had a consultation with Michael Plitt (the renowned South African respiratory doctor).

The Park Lane Clinic is essentially a mother and child hospital but it also has 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. I entered and said to Mandela, ‘Look, 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 twenty-seven years he had been woken up at 6 o’clock 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 when he would do it, and not be at the mercy of the people who had taken away his liberty. ‘I was not responding to them,’ he told me, ‘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 Mandela’s anecdote, he was so inspired that he changed his career and started a ‘rescripting your life’ business. Mandela’s point was that although they imprison your body they cannot imprison your mind, your thoughts, your beliefs or your emotions.

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 impact 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 communicate with you. His personal and political outlook was this: we were all equal and we are all in this together; if we all work together we can solve any problem.

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 and 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. Only his doctor and the hospital management would be informed about when he was due to visit. Then I’d suddenly get a phone call from the police saying that he’d be here in five minutes. We would notify our own security guards who would go and meet him at the front door.

He’d enter the hospital in the quickest and most secretive way possible. He’d rush straight to the lifts, go up to the second floor and then move around the back of the hospital so he wouldn’t be seen. But of course people would always see him and word would spread of his arrival. Half an hour later, when he was coming out, thousands of people would be massing both inside and outside the hospital. The lift doors would open and he’d step out into a throng of perhaps four hundred people gathered in the foyer.

Mandela would drive his security men nuts because he’d insist on meeting and shaking hands with everyone he met. It was lucky that at that time he didn’t sign autographs – that would have taken all day!

Did you talk about politics much? How would you characterise Mandela’s political perspective?

No, he was too discreet to discuss politics in much detail. He would only say things like, ‘We need to move on from the past and ignore recriminations and focus on getting the country sorted out for the future.’

I remember seeing him around the time he set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and ‘reconciliation’ was the key word. He said it was vital not to apportion blame. In those tribunals people were compelled to be honest and they told the most horrible truths, but virtually no one was punished. The only people who were punished were those who didn’t come forward and admit the wrongs they had done. Mandela believed passionately in this kind of justice.

The sense I got from talking to him about the wider political system was that, although he was in many ways a communist, he also thought capitalism had its virtues.

What do you think were his weaknesses?

Some of the problems South Africa has had since Mandela’s presidency could be blamed on, as it were, his blind spots. It’s important to understand that these weaknesses came out of conviction. He was very very loyal. He was loyal to those who didn’t necessarily share his vision of South Africa as a “rainbow nation” that welcomed all colours and creeds. He was loyal to those who were corrupt or may not have had the right skills for the job they were doing.

A lot of black South Africans in the anti-apartheid movement (and a few white activists such as myself) were disappointed when Thabo Mbeki – who had stayed in the UK sitting out much of the struggle – came to the new South Africa and was made Deputy President and then President after Mandela stepped down. For many of us, people like Mbeki had contributed very little to the campaign that Mandela led, but Mandela was nonetheless loyal to such people.

Then again, it’s hard to criticise anyone for being loyal, I think. It’s usually a positive trait. After all, Mandela had been in gaol for so long, had been cut off for so long – he couldn’t phone anyone and he couldn’t even get a newspaper. He had relied on the loyalty of others to get him through that experience. The other weakness he had was spreading himself too thin; there was just so much to do when he got out of prison and became president.

What else did you talk to Mandela about?

Family was a favourite topic. I’d ask him, ‘Mr President how are you feeling today?’ ‘I’m fine thank you,’ he’d reply and then ask me ‘How’s your family?’ He also liked to talk about rugby and the weather.

What was his work schedule like? How did he pass his free time?

He just didn’t stop! Even when he was ill in the clinic he was always having meetings. He didn’t have much time for TV, but he did read a lot of books and every single newspaper every day.

He was a man of simple tastes. Park Lane being a private clinic, we had chefs rather than cooks and the patients could order pretty much any dish they wanted. But every night the head chef would go and ask Mandela what he fancied eating and each time he’d order something really simple like chicken and rice or chicken and mielie-meal or beef stew. Meanwhile his assistants would ask for something much more luxurious such as the lobster or the smoked salmon platter!

He was a very disciplined man who followed simple rules: early to bed, early to rise, eat healthily, live frugally.

You met Mandela in other contexts, and on one occasion Bill Clinton was there too. Can you tell us about that?

In 2000, while working for an NGO called Habitat for Life, I attended a fundraising event at which both men were present. It was funny because Mandela had about four bodyguards whereas Clinton had a whole phalanx of secret service men and armoured cars with machine guns sticking out their backs. Mandela came on stage in one of his trademark colourful shirts, by now in his early eighties and rather unsteady on his feet. His arm was being held by Clinton and Mandela joked, ‘You haven’t come here to see an old man like me, you have come to see the young man,’ and he pointed to Clinton. The combined charisma of those two was immense. If you could have attached an electrode to them they would have been buzzing!

At Habitat for Life I also met Jimmy Carter, Rudy Giuliani and President Kenneth Kaunda. Like Mandela, Kaunda had that “man of the people” touch. When he got off the plane at Durban Airport he immediately started queuing for a bus with all the locals. He got to the ticket desk and the woman asked him what his profession was. He said, ‘I am the President of Zambia.’ The woman was pretty shocked!

What did Mandela and Clinton like to talk about?

A lot about the youth, what they could and must do to change the world for the better. Mandela and Clinton were both passionate about education and how it could improve society. There’s an African concept called “ubuntu” which is about respecting the old because they know things young people do not and respecting the young because they learn and understand things that older people cannot. Both Mandela and Clinton seemed to follow this philosophy.

What is Mandela’s legacy?

He could only do so much as an individual. I look at him as an important symbol whose good example helped South Africa emerge from what was effectively a civil war into a period of relative peace and prosperity. Such social transformations are usually violent – look at many other parts of Africa or Northern Ireland, for example – but South Africa’s was relatively peaceful. Although some people still accuse him of being a terrorist, he renounced violence in the 1960s because he realised it could never work for the ANC.

He taught South Africans and people across the world to get up and do something about any situation that is evil and unjust.

Originally published in the April 2014 edition of the New African:

Photography copyright New African