When Winnie Mandela, the famous anti-Apartheid crusader passed away on April 1, the entire world mourned with South Africa. Newspapers highlighted her achievements and stories from her years fighting against the unfairness of Apartheid.
One such little-known story from her life ties her to the people of Kerala – the only state she came to during her only visit to India. And the person who was responsible for the great leader's visit was Jacob Isaac Kalimadam, a poet from the small town of Mavelikara in Kerala.
"I was writing Malayalam poems in Kerala before I moved to South Africa in 1989. There, I was teaching English in a school, during which time I was heavily involved in the anti-Apartheid movement and with the African National Congress," Jacob told TNM.
Within a year, he decided to open a school for oppressed black kids in the country. The first school was opened in 1991 and this led him to meet Fatima Meer, a well-known writer-activist who was a great friend of Winnie's.
"Schools are important entities and this led me to interact with several prominent anti-Apartheid leaders in the country. I moved with the black people and fought against the 'tolerance allowance' - an absurd payment made to white teachers in black schools. It was during this time that, Fatima Meer became a great friend of mine. Through her I got the opportunity to meet Winnie Mandela," he said.
On how he got Winnie Mandela to come to Kerala, Jacob laughs and says that it was actors Prithviraj and Indrajit's mother, Mallika Sukumaran, who requested him to get Winnie to visit the state.
Jacob Isaac with Mallika Sukumaran and chief secretary of state K Jayakumar. Picture courtesy: jacobisaac.com
"Mallika's husband, Sukumaran, was a great friend of mine. She was then the secretary of the Children's Film Society in Thiruvananthapuram and wanted Winnie to inaugurate a programme they were hosting. So she sought my help," he said.
In 1998, Winnie Mandela and Jacob flew to Mumbai, and then to Thiruvananthapuram.
Winnie Mandela with Jacob Isaac's family
"It was her first visit to India. I recall her saying that she was earlier invited by former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, but she had to decline due to personal reasons. However, when Winnie visited in 1998, it turned out to be a boon to Kerala as she made a lasting impression in the minds of the people," she said.
She was received as a state guest by late Chief Minister E K Nayanar. In her short visit, she even went to the coastal town of Kovalam and inaugurated a children's movie Varna Chirakukal, made by then chief secretary of the state K Jayakumar.
"Her charisma and capabilities were just unimaginable. During the anti-Apartheid movement, she served as the president of the Women's League, one of the most powerful organisations in the country. Even as her contemporaries were jailed for over 20 years, she fought on, undeterred. She could have easily gone to become the president of South Africa. I believe, it was only her estrangement with Nelson Mandela that put a glass ceiling on her political career," Jacob says.
He also recalled his meeting with Nelson Mandela.
"He was a very busy man and I could only meet him once or twice. I remember I went to visit him during the 27 years he spent in the Robben Island prison. He was made to break limestone as punishment. This was probably a form of conditioning to vent his anger against the white settlers of South Africa. However this, I believe, was a futile exercise as the man was calm by nature," Jacob laughs.
Jacob currently resides in Pretoria and visits his native place of Mavelikara every two months. Some of his published works include a poetry book Sense of Enigma and Suggestion.