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Flirting and freak outs of reporting Mandela

  • Story Highlights
  • Curnow first met Mandela in 1990 and has encountered him several times
  • Meetings usually ended less than graciously for Curnow
  • Last encounter saw Mandela trying placate Curnow's upset daughter
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By CNN's Robyn Curnow
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JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (CNN) -- What do you say when you meet one of the most iconic statesmen in the world?

Baby Freya cries as Mandela tries to placate her.

Mandela holds baby Freya as Robyn Curnow and her husband Kim look on.

For someone who makes a living out of communications, I have consistently been tongue-tied around Nelson Mandela.

The funny thing is I am not particularly star-struck -- as a CNN correspondent I get to interview and profile all sorts of "famous" people. It's just a not a big deal for me.

However, with Madiba (as Mandela is often called), I feel like every moment spent with him is a gift, a blessing that I will tell my grandchildren about one day.

As a South African he has a place in our hearts that is hard to define.

However, my stories about my encounters with Nelson Mandela are the stuff of comedy clubs. I've never quite managed to hold my own with him.

I always land up somehow embarrassing myself when I am around him; I've slipped on shiny presidential floors, got tangled up in camera equipment and made pathetically inane comments.

I first met Nelson Mandela in the early 1990s. I can't remember exactly when, but it was at the Wanderers cricket stadium in Johannesburg. He visited the VIP room, during a test match, where I was working during school vacations and everybody lined up to meet him.

I stood proudly and waited my turn, he came over to me. He was tall. He said to me, "You are so gracious, I am so humbled to meet you."

I remember thinking, if Nelson Mandela thinks I am gracious -- fantastic. I promptly turned around and ungraciously tripped on my best shoes, tumbling into the crowd behind me.

I was the one humbled.

Years later, I was a young reporter working for the South African Broadcasting Corporation during Mandela's presidency. I wasn't senior enough to cover the big political stories of the day so news editors only assigned me the light hearted Mandela news stories.

The one I remember most was around a birthday or Christmas during which there was a photo opportunity at one of his grandson's kindergartens.

Word had got out among the press that "Twinkle twinkle little star" was Madiba's favorite nursery rhyme, so, of course, all the children sang it for him.

I sang along too, twinkle-finger actions included, it's a great song.

Whether it was or not Madiba's favorite, is not something I have ever asked him.

Years after that, I was taking a sabbatical from journalism and spent a year studying for my Masters degree at Cambridge University.

Mandela just happened to be an honorary fellow at Magdalene College, where I was studying. He came to visit that year, giving a speech in the college's beautiful cloisters.

I waved at him, as he passed by all of us students assembled in the quadrangle. Of course, he didn't wave back, but I felt gracious and humbled in his presence, protected by Magdalene's great walls.

And then I turned to my awe-struck friends and said, "Did you know his favorite song is 'Twinkle Twinkle Little Star?'" -- which kind of killed the moment.

Fast forward a few more years, I reported on Mandela occasionally during my time as a correspondent at CNN London's bureau.

From a distance, I saw him get older and shakier on his feet. His hair got whiter and his public engagements lessened considerably.

Once in while, I would regale my friends with Madiba's stories -- yes, there are more -- like the time I sneaked into the bathroom in his presidential mansion, desperate for relief, before a long-delayed press conference and phoned a friend from within to ask whether it was morally right to steal some of Nelson Mandela's soap. ( I didn't. It isn't very gracious).

Or the time, I asked Zelda la Grange, his devoted personal assistant, to take a photo of me and Madiba together before I went up to Cambridge.

He agreed and came over to me, throwing his arm around me and giving me squeeze a and joking, "Ah, I am sure your boyfriend will be jealous."

Did you know that Nelson Mandela is a terrible flirt?

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Again, I became self-conscious. I was carrying my handbag over my shoulder and I didn't want the photo to look like I was Margaret Thatcher or my grandmother, for that matter, constantly clutching a handbag.

So with his arm still firm around my middle, I bent down to put my handbag on the floor. That's when Zelda took the photo... unfortunately; the automatic flash went off on my camera.

That's a complete no-no around Mandela -- his eyes were damaged during his years of imprisonment on Robben Island and flash photography is forbidden.

So they whizzed away, slightly peeved, and I landed up with a "Me and Mandela" photograph that showed the president grinning into camera, holding me around the waist and me half bent over, lowering my handbag, with my head half cocked and eyes half closed.

It was not mantelpiece material.

I never thought I'd meet him again, up close and personal, until, last year when Zelda, ever the diplomat, like her boss, invited to me to introduce my newly born daughter, Freya, to him.

My husband Kim and I had just returned back to live in South Africa, after nearly six years away in London.

It was oddly nerve-racking, and I did what I always do in his presence I acted incredibly gauche, stupid and clumsy.

I kept on saying: "So how are you?"

As if he'd offer me a glass of wine, and say, "Ya know Robyn, my knees are killing me, I'm bit worried about the situation in Zimbabwe and howz about them Mets?"

I offered my baby to him, like a little sacrificial lamb.

The pictures tell it all. The ones we sent to friends (and everybody we knew), show us laughing with the world's greatest statesman.

The ones we didn't email to the world show our daughter freaking out and crying.

Madiba tried to placate her by wagging a finger at her and telling her, "I am your great great grandfather."

She freaked out some more.

I think she takes after her mother.

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