At around midday on a Tuesday in August 1995, the residents of the tiny town of Orania in the vast, empty expanse of the Karoo region in the Northern Cape province stared into the deep blue sky as a South African Air Force helicopter appeared above them. The president had arrived for tea and cake.
Orania had been founded five years earlier under the flag of the nineteenth-century Transvaal Boer Republic – behind a sign that read “Strictly Private” – by a group of Afrikaner families resistant to the change happening around them. In 1990, the same year the settlers bought the town, Nelson Mandela had walked to freedom after 27 years in prison. He swiftly set about a campaign of peace and reconciliation that helped to dismantle apartheid, and 1994 saw him elected as South Africa’s first black president.
That lunchtime in Orania in 1995, Mandela stepped out of the helicopter sporting one of his by now familiar patterned shirts – a green number, buttoned at the neck. He had arrived to this staunchly white, Afrikaner enclave to meet 94-year-old Betsie Verwoerd, the widow of former Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd, the ‘architect of apartheid’ who had been assassinated in parliament in 1966. It was Verwoerd’s government that had imprisoned Mandela in 1963.
Not long before, Mandela had invited the widows of a number of former South African leaders – black and white – to tea. Mrs Verwoerd had declined, citing infirmity and age, but politely mentioned that if he were ever in the area – highly unlikely given Orania’s location in the very centre of nowhere – Mandela should drop in. Mandela called her bluff and just a few weeks later he made arrangements to visit Mrs Verwoerd at home.
After being greeted uneasily by the town’s leaders, President Mandela was shown to the community hall for a 45-minute conversation with the aged Mrs Verwoerd behind closed doors. There, in a private room, the pair drank tea and coffee and ate koeksisters, a sweet doughy treat that is something of an institution in South Africa, where it’s often sold on street corners or in batches to raise funds for churches, schools and community centres.
The koeksister takes its name from the Dutch “koekje”, meaning “cookie”, and there are two types: the Afrikaner version eaten that day by Mandela and Verwoerd, which is a braided pastry coated in a honey-like syrup, and the Cape Malay version, which is more of a cake laced with cinnamon, cardamom and ginger, and sprinkled with dried coconut. Today, on the edge of Oriana, in addition to the strange assortment of busts of apartheid-era political figures (HF Verwoerd included), there stands a two-metre high monument to the sweet treat.
The importance of food both to the process of reconciliation and to Mandela himself cannot be overstated. In prison on Robben Island in 1970, Mandela wrote to his then wife Winnie: "How I long for amasi [traditional South African fermented milk], thick and sour! You know darling there is one respect in which I dwarf all my contemporaries or at least about which I can confidently claim to be second to none – a healthy appetite."
Mandela’s political life can be measured in meals: as a lawyer defending out-of-town cases alongside the prominent white human rights lawyer George Bizos, he would eat fish and chips in his car as there was nowhere else the mixed-race pair could legally sit together (even a park bench was out of bounds); in prison there were grim rations, supplemented later with samosas, rotis and curries smuggled through security in the briefcase of lawyer Dullah Omar and made by his wife Farida; and after 27-years behind bars Mandela’s first taste of freedom was a hearty casserole followed by rum and raisin ice cream at Bishop Desmond Tutu’s house.
Addressing prison food, Mandela wrote in 1970: “A human being whatever his colour ought never to be compelled toward the taking of meals simply as a duty. This is likely to be the case if the product is poor, monotonous, badly prepared and tasteless.” After his release, Mandela delighted in eating, however simple the foodstuff (in later years he was a fan of for breakfast, served with warm milk).
And his symbolic breaking of bread – or in this case koeksisters – with the widow of the man whose administration had sent him to prison could not have sent a clearer message. His journey to Orania was a perfect example of the lengths to which he would go to make peace.