MTHATHA – First Nelson Mandela arrived, then the tornado hit.
A killer storm smashed into a pharmacy storefront in the town of Mthatha as South Africa’s most famous citizen, and then the country’s president, was buying soap.
It was a life-changing moment for the woman who on that day 15 years ago came to Mandela’s aid.
Stella Hawkes intially ran off thinking the outlet was under attack, but she came back to help the anti-apartheid hero and took him to her office before his guards whisked him away.
“The following day Nelson Mandela was there, to come and visit me,” Hawkes, who was manager of the pharmacy at the time, told AFP.
“I could not believe when he came in asking ‘where is the lady that helped me yesterday?’.”
It was a freak event that sparked an unlikely and enduring friendship between an ordinary citizen and an icon able to inspire the world and connect with the man on the street.
For Hawkes, a 43-year-old woman of mixed race, the next surprise came within days.
Mandela’s assistant rang with an invite to dine at his rural home in nearby Qunu, where he had built a home after his release from 27 years of apartheid prison.
“I thought, no this is April fool. Why should I be invited to the Madibas’?,” she recalled, using Mandela’s clan name.
“It was so awesome. I could hardly eat the food, I was more interested in his conversation and the jokes he made. He’s got such a good sense of humour.”
Hawkes ended up visiting his Qunu home several times. She was told to bring along her colleagues and friends, and her nephews and nieces — one of whom tried to spot Mandela for two rand.
“He said you know my children, I’m a pensioner, I don’t have money. When I get my pension I will ask your aunty to bring you again and I will give you two rand,” she said.
“So that was like so funny because he handled that well. I was so embarrassed.”
The second time Hawkes went for dinner, Mandela’s third wife Graca Machel — whom he had married a few months earlier on his 80th birthday — was there.
They were a warm couple, she said. “I think it’s so beautiful, it’s cute, they’re so in love, they’re happy.”
Mandela also set up a meeting with US talk show queen Oprah Winfrey — one of his many famous friends — while Hawkes was visiting America, but she missed the message.
“When we had got back to Cape Town from America, Mandela was on voice mail on my phone: ‘Stella, I have made an appointment to go meet Oprah, Oprah is waiting for you people’.”
She later dined with Mandela and Oprah at Qunu and was also invited to Mandela’s 85th birthday where the rich and famous were invited to party alongside his cook and gardener.
— ‘Madiba magic’ —
Hawkes credits Mandela with changing her life, after he queried why she worked for someone else, when South Africa’s democratic change had opened the doors for all.
It was his words that she remembered when she bought a home to open up a guesthouse.
“That was my turning point in life. I do feel that there is a Madiba magic,” she said.
Mandela’s charity work also inspired her to do her own.
“He touched me in such a way that I felt so special, I felt that I could look up upon myself. He showed me that he can touch anybody’s heart,” she said.
Hawkes sees her friendship with him as an example of this.
“That is why we would have never had a new South Africa without having Madiba as a president.”
Hawkes lost contact with Mandela, who retired from public life aged 85, only catching a glimpse of him at local Qunu events, saying she believes access to him began to be restricted to family, which she respects.
Two photographs in her home capture the pair at the pharmacy and another of a beaming Mandela with his arm around her shoulder.
“I feel he’s a blessed man, he’s a lucky man, and I feel when he touches you, he puts some of that favour on you,” she said.
“For me I felt, he put it on me because since I met him things just seemed to go brighter in my life. So that’s the way I describe my Madiba magic – its gives you this luck.”
Describing him as “loving person” and “always down to earth”, his latest hospitalisation in Pretoria is a deep source of sorrow.
“We’re all hurting. Everybody’s hurting. We know we cannot bring him back but one thing we shared beautiful moments with him, the best, and there will never be, ever ever, another president like him.”