Nelson Mandela and Teófilo Stevenson Print


In November of 1994, I had the privilege of presenting my letters of accreditation as the first ambassador of Cuba, to Nelson Mandela, President of a South Africa recently liberated from the terrible system of racial segregation known as apartheid. I was accompanied by my wife Silvia; Marcos Rodríguez, previously Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, and his wife Rosa María.

In that brief diplomatic meeting, Mandela asked three questions: How is Cuba? How is my brother Fidel? How is Teófilo Stevenson?

As a youth Mandela was a heavyweight boxer and, during his close to 30-year imprisonment on Robben Island and in other jails, followed the Cuban’s brilliant boxing career. Stevenson became his idol as the best amateur heavyweight boxer in the world.

For known reasons, among them the battles of Cuito Cuanavale and the massive Cuban military presence in southern Angola from 1987-1988, the racist regime was obliged to release Mandela in 1990, and in July 1991 he shared the platform with the Comandante en Jefeduring the central event for the 26th of July anniversary in Matanzas province. Mandela and Teófilo met and forged a friendship during that visit to Cuba.

A few months after Mandela’s expressed interest in Teófilo, the Cuban champion arrived in South Africa to take part in an International Amateur Boxing Association (AIBA) seminar near Pretoria. We received Teófilo at the airport and attended to him as he deserved. I knew him personally and this was a special occasion for all the Cubans working at the embassy and collaborating in the country to get to know him better. Our ranks included a good friend of Teófilo, Dr. Jimmy Davis, and we all enjoyed recounting anecdotes linked to boxing and sports in general.

When we first received the news of Teófilo’s visit, I called a South African friend who was President Mandela’s personal aide. I explained the matter, emphasizing his President’s interest in Stevenson and, a few hours later, he called me back to say that Stevenson and myself would be received by Mandela in the Government Palace, giving a date and time.

We arrived punctually and were escorted to a salon by a lady who, apologizing, explained that the President was meeting with an unexpected visitor, but would not be long. About 20 minutes later, a door opened and through it came that giant of humanity with his unmistakable smile, advancing directly toward Teófilo with his arms outstretched, exclaiming Teófilo! and embraced him. He also greeted me warmly and, as always, asked after Fidel. He invited us to sit down and said, "Excuse me for the delay, but I’m finally here. As it happened, an African president wished to see me and, although it wasn’t on my daily agenda, one has to receive friends; but he has left and now we can talk about important and pleasant things," he said, looking at Teófilo.

I knew that Teófilo could communicate in English, but I had never seen him in action so, before the meeting with Mandela, I offered him my services as an interpreter if he should need them. His smiling reply was, "If he says something I don’t understand, I’ll ask you, but I don’t think that’s going to be necessary. But, thanks anyway, Dalmau."

That’s how it was, I wasn’t needed as an interpreter. I settled into an armchair to listen to the conversation between the two great men about their personal experiences as boxers, both of them smiling and laughing for most of the 45 minutes of the meeting. However, their conversation wasn’t limited to boxing, but also the pressing problems confronting humanity as a result of the inequalities imposed by the rich on the poor. I joined the conversation at one point but I was really more interested in listening, aware that this meeting was something very special which I had the good fortune to witness.

Among other things, Mandela spoke of the non-racial society aspired to by those in the leadership of the African National Congress and its ally, the South African Communist Party; he explained that in spite of the existence of people of different skin color in his country and in many other parts of the world, the word multiracial implied the existence of many races but, as he saw it, the term in itself was discriminatory, as humanity is one only. Teófilo assented, expressing his agreement with Mandela.

While enjoying the meeting, which seemed more like a reencounter of old friends, although Mandela was 33 years older than Teófilo, passages from his then recently published autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, in which this great man’s modesty constantly reveals itself, came to my mind. And Teófilo, the most famous amateur boxer in history, also possessed that virtue, which grows even more in the presence of figures whose merits are recorded forever in history of humanity, like Nelson Mandela.

That meeting of boxers ended with a photograph of both of them, at Mandela request, because he wanted to show it to his grandchildren, who otherwise wouldn’t believe that he had talked personally with the best amateur boxer of all time, and that he – Mandela – wished to look important in the eyes of the youngest members of his family. It also ended with a warm embrace, which Mandela emphatically extended to Fidel through Teófilo. Precisely because of that modesty of Teófilo, I never knew whether this message reached the leader of the Cuban Revolution.

Granma International, Havana.  July 13, 2012