“MY LIFE was totally transformed by this man,” Mozambican businessman Abilio Soeiro says, trying to put into words how the entrance of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela into his life changed everything.
The afternoon sunlight slants into the drawing room of Mr Soeiro’s home in Mozambique’s capital, Maputo, where signed portraits of his famous friend line the walls.
The house is on the same street as Mr Mandela and Graca Machel’s home where Mr Soeiro and his wife, Lola, were once regular guests to lunch, or just to watch TV.
Mr Soeiro had already established a name for himself as a self-made businessman importing luxury French brands by the time he met Mr Mandela in August 2000.
Because of his “special organisational skills”, he says, he was asked to help organise the couple’s housewarming party.
As he began to move in the same circles as Madiba, their friendship deepened into one of mutual respect and affection.
“Bio”, as Madiba affectionately called him, came to be defined by his relationship to the elder statesman. “His stature is so great,” he says, “that a woman asked to be photographed with me just to have a picture of some one who knows him.”
Naomi Campbell, Oprah Winfrey, Will Smith, Bono — you name them, he has met the celebrities and “they would not have been interested in me if I did not know Mr Mandela”.
Although Mr Mandela came to Maputo to escape the political limelight in South Africa, his presence was like a magnet, attracting the glitterati to Maputo during the time he spent there.
A regular guest at these functions, Mr Soeiro collected the photographs and memorabilia (including dinner menus) and the result provides a unique window, not just of Mr Mandela’s influence on Mozambique’s social fabric (where his wife Graca is known as Mama Graca), but also of his deepening relationship with his new family, the Machel-Sambine clan.
“These years he spent getting to know his Mozambican family is a part of Nelson Mandela’s life nobody has written about really,” Mr Soeiro says explaining why he wrote the book. “I believe he must have felt very happy here and enjoyed life in Maputo.
“Mr Mandela received such tenderness, not just from Graca, but also from her children. He never felt isolated.”
You won’t find long snatches of deep conversation between the two men or insights into Mandela’s inner intellectual life in the book. Instead, it is a loving record by a man who treasured the small moments he passed with Madiba or witnessed between him and others: for instance, the cook at Graca and Madiba’s family home, who speaks of Mandela’s love for her succulent Maputo crabs with “matapa” (a traditional spinach and peanut mix).
The author poignantly remembers the first time he saw Mr Mandela, bent over some flowers near the door and waved to him, receiving a characteristic, beaming smile in return.
Mr Soeiro and his wife received an invitation to a private lunch at Graca and Madiba’s home and the friendship deepened. Thereafter, the two couples were present at all each other’s big occasions: family birthdays, weddings and graduations.
Mr Soeiro celebrated six of his own birthdays at his famous neighbour’s home and travelled to South Africa for star-studded celebrations of Madiba’s 85th and 90th birthdays.
All this time, Mr Soeiro was busy with a journey of his own, and one that explains the title of the book Thank you, Madiba. Mr Soeiro, who had dropped out before finishing school decided to study again, encouraged by Madiba, who told him not to be embarrassed by the desire to learn, no matter his age.
Seven years later, he emerged with a master’s degree in marketing.
“Mr Mandela always encouraged me. Every time I passed a year he organised a dinner at his house to congratulate me,” Mr Soeiro remembers.
The last time the two friends met was shortly after Madiba’s 94th birthday. Mr Mandela was now too weak to travel to Mozambique and they had not seen each other in two years.
Mr Soeiro was desperate to see him one last time and show him the draft of his book. When Graca gave him the green light he flew over straight away and spent more than five hours, with the ageing man.
“He did not speak much. Sometimes he held my hand. It was clear, he did not have the same energy.”
Mr Soeiro gave his friend a copy of the book and a bottle of 100-year-old Portuguese wine for them to drink on his 100th birthday together. As he was preparing to go Mr Mandela asked his assistant to bring the book up to his room.
“So I knew he wanted to read it,” says Mr Soeiro, who can no longer contain the tears.
On his 95th birthday, the first big milestone the two men will spend apart, Mr Soeiro says even old friends need to give the family space to honour him properly.
• Thank You, Madiba (translated into 10 languages) is being launched on Mandela Day in Maputo by former Reserve Bank governor Tito Mboweni.