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Matthew Willman

Copyright © 2017 Matthew Willman

Published by Matthew Willman Publishing at Smashwords

First edition 2017

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or any information storage or retrieval system without permission from the copyright holder.

The Author has made every effort to trace and acknowledge sources/resources/individuals. In the event that any images/information have been incorrectly attributed or credited, the Author will be pleased to rectify these omissions at the earliest opportunity.

Published by the Author using Reach Publishers’ services,

P O Box 1384, Wandsbeck, South Africa, 3631

Edited by Kevin Turner for Reach Publishers

Cover designed by Reach Publishers




Every effort has been made to make this book as complete and as accurate as possible. However, there may be mistakes, both typographical and in content. The author shall have neither liability nor responsibility to any person or entity with respect to any loss or damage caused, or alleged to have been caused, directly or indirectly, by the information contained in this book.

All stories contained in this book have been sourced from actual experiences, and/or told directly from the people met, and their interpretation thereof. No claim of authenticity of stories shared is made, nor is the author liable to authenticate and/or prove the events and experiences had. The author confirms all stories expressed reflect his opinion. All stories reflect the author’s personal accounts and not that of the organisations represented. All permissions have been granted by the respective organisations and institutions reflected in this book.


“Willman brings great enthusiasm to his professional work. He is sensitive to his subjects and understands the ethical issues around being a photographic documenter. He is articulate, diplomatic and with a good sense of humour.”

- Oxfam International

“We believe Mr Willman to be a world-class talent, whose striking and evocative images deserve to be exhibited on the world stage.”

- Nelson Mandela Foundation

“One really special thing about Matthew ... he’s got the bug. He has an absolute sense of overview … about what is, what went before, and what’s to come. Matthew is passionately connected to the complexity of his existence and those around him. I don’t want to speak for him; his words and images go beyond what any of us could imagine. I’m sure of Matthew’s gift; it’s not an issue ... he connects with his passion ... the rest just follows.”

- Annie Lennox, musician and songwriter

“Keep smiling all the way, Matthew, as you serve Him to the best of your ability.”

- Founding Zambian President, Dr Kenneth Kaunda

“Matthew is a remarkably talented young man and I am thrilled to see the quality of the work he is producing. We have been enriched by many cultures, languages and faiths; it is a heritage in Africa to be shared, experienced and celebrated, as is the diversity of our landscapes, our wildlife, our villages and towns. Thank you Matthew for mediating these to us through your images and stories.”

- Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu

“Many photographers entered Nelson Mandela’s environment, not necessarily with the aim of just taking a good photo. Matthew was one of the few people who managed to get the most beautiful photographs of Nelson Mandela because he remained focused on his purpose. [it is] a privilege to have worked with Matthew.”

- Zelda la Grange, former personal assistant to Nelson Mandela

“Matthew is a professional and highly talented photographer.  While being photographed by him I never felt that he was invading my personal space. I appreciate his refreshing approach to his task.”

- FW de Klerk, Former President of the Republic of South Africa and 1993 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate

“Meeting honest young people like you makes me feel the struggle was worthwhile. I know now that the freedom we fought so hard for will be protected.”

- Winnie Madikizela-Mandela

“Thank you, Matthew, for showing me your work and photographs. I know that every story and every photo is carefully thought out and planned. After all, beauty doesn’t just happen.”

- Denis Goldberg, Rivonia trialist

“Keep hope alive, Matthew! Continue with dignity.”

- Reverend Jesse Jackson, American civil rights activist, Baptist minister, and politician

“I have met with Matthew often to discuss, at length, our South African story. Matthew’s desire to increase his knowledge about the struggle for democracy is exemplary for one in his position, for he has nothing to gain but understanding and compassion. I have witnessed the great lengths [he has gone to] and the hardships [he has] endured, in order to capture stories and images. I have no doubt his story will find its place in our collective history.”

- Dr Aubrey Mokoape, former leader of the Black Consciousness Movement and Chairman of the Pan Africanist Party, South Africa (PAC)

“Matthew has a wonderful ability to connect with people. He is clearly a person [who is] passionate when it comes to his work and highly skilled in communicating through his words and images.”

- Dan Hurley, President, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

“You deserve every success nationally and internationally for your outstanding photography and passion for South Africa!”

- Pam Golding, Chairman and founder of Pam Golding Properties

“Matthew Willman is unusual amongst many experienced professional photographers and story tellers. His ability to connect technique and creativity, expression and passion, is undoubtedly a rare gift. Willman is an asset to South Africa and we all could learn more from his determination to be relevant in a changing world.”

- Malcolm Lyle, Associate Director of Photography, Durban Institute of Technology

“Mr Willman is a talented journalist who has produced striking and evocative images and stories of Robben Island. His work evokes the power of the human spirit that bears testimony to the history of the struggle for democracy in South Africa. Keep telling your stories.”

- Palesa Morudu, Marketing and Communications Manager, Robben Island Museum

“Matthew shows us all that dreams do come true!”

- Pieter Dirk Uys (Evita Bezuidenhout)

“Matthew really does have the Midas touch; great images, great stories. You are a great man, thank you for your hard work.”

- Craig David, singer and songwriter

“Matthew’s images capture individuals in their unique and special identity, providing uplifting and joy-filled understanding and memories. That’s no surprise to anyone who knows Matthew as I do. He has the ability to see and creatively record the essence of life at its best.”

- John Pepper, CEO of Proctor & Gamble (retired) and former Chairman of Walt Disney

“Matthews’ passion and enthusiasm for his art, his sensitivity and love of people is immediately felt. This is how his magic begins, allowing his vision and mastery to come through his lens. Willman’s work is a gift, an artist of world-class standing.”

- Monsieur Hubert Guerrand-Hermès, leading member of the House of Hermès International

“Aah yes I must thank Matthew, my cheeky boy.”

- Ahmed Kathrada, Former Rivonia trialist, prisoner on Robben Island.


Words of Affirmation


1. Finding Mandela

2. Keeping the Enemy Close

3. Mandela’s Prince Harry

4. The Arch’s Way

5. The Scarlet Carpet

6. One Last Remark

7. Tripping Over Presidents!

8. Nothing to Lose

9. Robben Island

10. A Road Less Travelled

11. Listen and Learn

12. A Place in the Mountains

13. Yet Being Someone Other

14. Making Choices

15. When the World Applauds

16. Where Dancers Move

17. Madikizela of Bizana

18. Little Bird

19. The 42nd President

20. A Girl in the Desert

21. Walking With Dinosaurs

22. Mandela’s Helicopter

23. A Harsh Reality and the Made-Up Dream!

24. Fame, Fortune and Beautiful Women

25. Jungle Book

26. In Gratitude

27. Of Squirrels and Nuts

28. In Passing



“There are victories whose glory lies only in the fact that they are known to those that win them.”

- Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom

The heart of a young boy is dangerous; it is volatile, and most of all, it is beautiful. It knows no limitations; it dreams big and falls in love with heroes. Nothing is off limits, everything is an adventure, and running home battered and bruised after a good day out, with big smiles and lots of dramatic stories, reflects a life expressed to the fullest.

I was glad to be home for a bit. Over the past few weeks I had been in New York, working with dancers from across the city, shooting on the streets for a dance project. With bags half unpacked and e-mails begging for my attention, I had nothing more pressing on my mind than to keep a promise I had made to a 14-year-old family member and his best friend, to build a treehouse. At the bottom of my garden, which borders a nature reserve, a tree had grown out through the rocks of the cliff face, with branches two feet thick suspended in space, hovering over the forest below. The tree was begging to become a new place for adventure and imagination. Together we hammered nails, placed planks of wood, laughed and joked non-stop, until our platform, perfectly positioned, was complete.

Many times during the building of that treehouse, I found myself watching these two young chaps make mistakes, assert their authority and crack jokes, whilst all the time living out their fantasies of what they were creating. Often they were clumsy, they didn’t follow instructions and many times very nearly found themselves hurtling twenty-five meters down into the ravine below. Fortunately, I had them both secured with climbing ropes so there was no chance of that. Sitting back watching, I knew that there was nothing in my life as a photographer that would mean anything to them. I was important to them not because of my career, but because I gave them the opportunity to have an adventure. They weren’t just knocking in nails; they were building a hideout, a place of their own. I gave them a license to dream and an opportunity to feel dangerous. Therein lies the essence of my life. The idea that there exist opportunities to dream, to let our imaginations run free. This is the driving force for so much of my work as a photographer and storyteller today.

It has taken 25 years to compile a collection of stories that allow me to share an insight into some of my adventures and experiences. In truth, the most challenging aspect of writing this book was whether it was good enough to pursue, come what may.

South Africa during the early nineties was in the throes of change. The old apartheid era was shrivelling up fast and new leaders with new ideals were emerging. The importance of building a new constitution and safe-guarding our new-found freedoms were yet to be tested. Back then, we were all riding the wave of hope, smoothing over gaping holes in our society, striving forward to catch up with the rest of the world. Somewhere in the middle of it all was a young boy on the cusp of adulthood, faced with the choice to leave South Africa or to stay and be a part of the change that was happening. I chose to stay and as the age-old saying goes, ‘that made all the difference’.

One fateful night, as an idealistic teenager, I made a decision that I would one day shake the hand of Nelson Mandela. Standing in a crowd of thousands, jostling to get a better view of Mr Mandela standing on a podium far away, I knew I had nothing to lose in pursuing that dream.

So many things in life begin as idealistic dreams. Many years ago in South Africa, those who opposed white minority rule drew up a list of ideals that became known as the Freedom Charter. Its vision was lofty. Even today, in post-apartheid South Africa, we strive to achieve what was written 65 years ago. The same can be said for visionary individuals throughout history: Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, Joan of Arc, and William Wilberforce. Mother Theresa, whilst being questioned by a US Senator in Washington on the impossible enormity of alleviating poverty, politely responded that each one of us is called to be faithful to the task at hand, rather than merely be successful. I didn’t know much about Mother Theresa when I met her in 1989, but much of her life and the lives of countless others have been driven by high ideals to change minds and improve lives.

The stories created before, during and after my time with Mandela, although episodic and distinctly removed from each other, are all inter-connected. There is a part of me that exists in ‘the bubble’, moments I step into and out of my work, and then there’s everyday life. When I return home from a trip, the world hasn’t changed, no-one is waiting for me at the airport, and I still have to wash the dishes and stand in the queue at the local store for minced meat or a bag of fresh oranges. No-one asks me what happened or tries to soak up this extraordinary adventure. I simply come home with a quiet confidence and go about my life, knowing that there are places out there that I have touched, and appreciating that even if only for a little while, I was a part of it.

This book is a candid account of moments and experiences from my journey. At times, if I have done my job well, the stories will touch on common emotions and feelings that make us all human. My questions are your questions. My naivety and ignorance are the same as yours might be, if you too were to find yourself in any of the situations that I found myself in. What has been written here happened in the midst of everyday life. It highlights moments that show how precious life is and what you can do with it!

I began a journey to meet Nelson Mandela, and in so doing, created a life worth living.

Matthew Willman


KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa

May 2017


Sometimes it’s not always the realisation of the dream that counts, but the fact that it gave you a life worth living.

I was as nervous as hell. Nine years pursuing every possible avenue to meet Nelson Mandela, and here I was, wondering if I should have worn something a little more casual than the suit and tie I had borrowed. Sitting waiting in that corridor, I had no idea what this defining moment would look or even feel like. I had certainly not imagined anything beyond the moment I would reach out to shake the hand of Mandela.

At the end of the corridor, a woman appeared; there was a light above her head, which gave her quite a commanding appearance, so instinctively I jumped up. The woman didn’t wait for me, she indicated for me to come and then slipped through the door behind her.

At the end of the passage was a lounge. Two large sofas with a single, blue wingback chair graced the room, an intimate space I imagined had received many important guests over the years. Soon after 10am, an intimidating bodyguard came through to the lounge; he gave me a quick once over and then moved to the side, slightly out of view.

Even before I saw him, I heard him: that unmistakable voice, a voice I had listened to on television, through the radio and on YouTube for so many years. Zelda la Grange opened the door, and as if God had waved a magic wand, the “Wizard of Oz” himself appeared, exactly as I had imagined him to be for so many years. Of all the people in the world who could possibly walk through that door, it was him, the great man, Tata Mkhulu, Rolihlahla, our President, the visionary, leader, father and inspiration, Nelson Mandela.

I just stood there. I didn’t know what to look at first; his white ivory cane, his face, those big hands or his fancy, colourful shirt. I was struggling to accept that Nelson Mandela himself was walking towards me and me alone. I couldn’t believe that Nelson Mandela had risen from his chair in his office next door and was walking to come and greet me. Incredible!

I didn’t dare move. I had no idea what to do; I literally had no clue what to do next. This person, this myth of a man, was right in front of me, smiling broadly, looking right at me. My whole chest was burning with joy. I could feel every sinew bursting with life and excitement inside of me. Nearly 3 465 days from the day that I stood as a young boy on a street corner in Durban, along with thousands of other people watching Nelson Mandela make a speech some 50 yards away, I finally got to reach out and take hold of his large, welcoming hand. I knew that everything I had done, all the endless hours I had spent hoping and wishing, fighting and reckoning with myself, had reached an end. Finally, the simple dream I had held onto for so long had arrived. I had shared this dream over and over with so many people, some who had supported me and others who had laughed and thought I was stupid. Finally, I was shaking the hand of Nelson Mandela.

The first few moments were filled with a wonderful sense of awe and amazement, until I realised that I had no idea what to do with it all. There I was, finally experiencing the culmination of this long-held dream, with everything going so well, until I suddenly found myself tripping over a tiny stone on the mountain top. What do you do with it, how do you react to those moments after that dream is realised?

I know what I did: I blurted out,

“Good morning, Mr Mandela, Madiba, sir …” I had no idea what to even call him. Madiba smiled, he nodded. I carried on. “Sir, it has taken me over nine years to shake your hand and meet you, sir.”

Madiba gave me a big, engaging smile, his cheeks curving broadly, and in a matter of fact tone he said,

“Ja, and why didn’t you just phone me?” In a playful way, his whole face suddenly looked serious, his eyes wide open, fixed on me, expecting an answer.

I was stunned, the three or four people in the room laughed; even Madiba’s bodyguard gave a quiet chuckle. Madiba loved it; he continued to hold onto my hand. His other hand leaning on his white ivory cane, he looked around, sharing the moment, smiling and laughing too. It broke the tension and all the anxiety I had felt. What a beautiful moment, what a beautiful, beautiful moment. I can’t say it enough. It goes round and round in my head; the day I first met him. It felt like that scene in the film In Pursuit of Happyness, where the actor, Will Smith, plays a down-and-out father, who, after years of trying to prove himself, finally gets the nod from the big bosses. He runs out into the street and there’s a moment where the camera swirls around him. For the first time, he is able to breathe, he’s able to exhale and accept his achievement. He had been released. For those few moments, I felt the same.

I often think What if I had not doggedly pursued this dream? It’s so daunting and sobering I dare not allow myself to wander down that path too far. When I look at it all in retrospect, I am aware that I was so hell bent on making this dream the centre of my life, that maybe I had missed the bigger picture. Maybe the dream was broader than Mandela. Maybe he was just the catalyst I needed to push me out of my comfort zone, to keep me on the edge, always pushing forward towards something more. As soon as things became too comfortable, I’d instinctively move on. It’s as if I needed the tension, the uncertainty and the threat of failure to keep me engaged. It had kept me focused, and that is all that mattered.

I spent one hour with Mandela that morning. I managed to capture some really special images, which would take on a life of their own in the years to come, in ways I’d never thought possible. I guess I simply photographed from the heart, capturing how I saw this man, his humanity.

Later that same day, I returned home, a bit lost. I had achieved my goal, but now what? What on earth would I do with the rest of my life? It was not an absurd question to have floating around in my head. Everything up until this point had demanded focus, a certain determination. There was little else in my life I could walk into or create, now that I had met Mandela.

Little did I know that this was not the last and only time I was to spend time with Mandela. Something new was about to be revealed in the weeks and months ahead. The Nelson Mandela Foundation had begun building what is today The Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory. They needed a photographer to help build an archive of images pertaining to Nelson Mandela’s life, as well as the rare opportunity to work privately with Nelson Mandela.

It wasn’t immediately after my first encounter with Mandela that things fell into place. That would be way too easy. A few weeks went by before I received the news that maybe there would be another opportunity to photograph Nelson Mandela. It was during my first interaction with the Nelson Mandela Foundation, that I had asked the powers that be if they would consider me working to build a portfolio of images of Nelson Mandela, which the foundation could use as ‘memory’ images. The idea didn’t go down too well at first. Such access was unprecedented, and they certainly did not want another person around Mandela, especially at his advanced age. I would only complicate the delicate balance in place around the great man. This was perhaps why, upon my return, I descended into moments of deep depression. My ego expected acceptance, but reality had proven over and over that I was a very tiny fish in this grand ocean of Mandela’s world.

Fridays were usually slow mornings for me. I worked as a waiter on Thursday nights, getting home late, so on Friday mornings I generally slept in. It was perhaps a little after 8:15am. It had been rainy and cold the whole week and this morning was still the same cold, miserable weather. I was awoken by a telephone call. I reached over and whilst still lying in my bed, I answered the call.

There are moments in life you never forget. The person on the other end of the line was calm and told me to sit down. Since I was lying down, I immediately sat up. It seems my boldness to speak my mind that day at the Mandela Foundation had started a chain of events, which culminated in some rational decisions. It turns out I was the perfect candidate to work with the Mandela Foundation to help build a visual resource of The Mandela Presidential Library, or what is today called The Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory. I was not affiliated with any other organisations. I was independent, showed a keen interest in South Africa’s collective history, proven by my work on Robben Island. With all things considered and with utmost caution, it was agreed that there was an opportunity for me to contribute. A door had opened and I was in with a chance.

My role as a commissioned photographer to the Nelson Mandela Foundation would afford me many amazing opportunities to work not only with Nelson Mandela himself, but to have the privilege of photographically documenting various locations across South Africa that pertained to his life. In so doing, I was able to create intimate and celebrated photographic works, telling the story of this remarkable, special man.

I had found purpose!


Whatever you do, no matter how crazy or different, just make sure to never lose your dignity.

On the 31st of October 2006, apartheid strongman, the former president of the Republic of South Africa, Mr PW Botha died. A month previously, I had been sitting with him in his lounge, trying not to attack him on a range of issues swirling around in my head. This was not the first time that I found myself in the company of this man, but it was the first time I dared to take out my camera to record a few images of him. Not that it’s of any historic importance, but it turns out those few images snapped on that day were the last photos the world would ever see of this iron-fisted, finger-wagging former president.

Two days after Botha died I received a telephone call from his widow, Barbara Botha, asking if I would come down to George to attend the funeral. At first, I was a bit hesitant; in fact, I said no. Any engagement that I’d had in the past had been in private and part of my journey to Mandela. As I matured, I began to appreciate what this man and the regime behind him had systematically done, especially to the ‘non-white’ population of South Africa. I was fully engaged, working with the Nelson Mandela Foundation, so why on earth would I go there and be seen burying this hated man? It could potentially derail my career.

After one night of restless sleep, I woke up and called Barbara back to say I would attend. So it was that two days before the funeral, I flew down to George and ended up staying in the Botha’s house. I literally walked into a media frenzy of those who hated the man and others who simply couldn’t care less. Security was tight, but knowing the former bodyguards, I made my way up the stairs to the front door to greet Barbara and was welcomed in. The house smelt of flowers; every space, including the floor, was taken up with floral arrangements. I had never seen so many proteas in my life.

I noticed that only one of the bouquets was on the floor, a large arrangement of indigenous South African flowers. I asked Barbara who it was from, and she waved her hand dismissively.

“Aah, that’s from old ‘Kortbroek’ (short pants), Marthinus van Schalkwyk.”

Politically, it was Marthinus van Schalkwyk who became the last leader of the National Party, and who eventually joined the ANC (African National Congress). The nickname ‘short pants’ was used to infer his child-like status amongst greater leaders. It was very derogatory, but it clearly showed peoples’ dissatisfaction with him. Nevertheless, he too had sent flowers that now graced the floor of the Botha’s home.

So, how did I come to find myself in this very strange environment? I certainly did not align myself with the policies of the National Party government. But there I was, in the thick of things, in PW Botha’s house, the day before his funeral. It had all begun one horrible night, camping in the back of my car under a lighthouse at Cape Agulhas.

A cold front weather system had moved in from the South Atlantic and had made landfall around the time I arrived at the southern-most tip of Africa. My plan was to set up camp that night, but with the howling wind and impossible rains, there was no way to pitch a tent. The wind battered my car and the rain was unrelenting. I had spent the past week in Cape Town where, for the first time, I’d had the opportunity to interview Archbishop Desmond Tutu. I realised during my time with ‘The Arch’ that if I wished to understand apartheid South Africa, the man I really needed to see was the man who had been one of the most formidable presidents of South Africa, PW Botha. I knew he lived in the holiday town of Wilderness, along the Garden Route, east of Cape Town. So, as with many of my ideas, I figured out the basics, left Cape Town and headed east. My night under the lighthouse, cooped up in my car, was spent wrestling with myself. I had no idea what I was getting myself into; waves of fear and intimidation came and went. Just as I had made up my mind to go to find PW Botha, I was gripped with fear again. Throughout the night, I tossed and turned, eventually lying awake, looking out of the back window at the beam of light from the lighthouse above me going round and round.

Mercifully, dawn broke. The rain had abated, but the wind was still causing havoc for anyone who dared to venture out. With a quick breakfast of ProNutro porridge and a comb of the hair, I was off, heading towards Wilderness. If I thought too much about it all, I would drive straight through to Durban without stopping. Being a holiday resort town in the dead of winter, the streets were empty. I pulled up at a filling station to put in petrol and grab something warm to drink. I had no idea where this former president’s house was, so I casually went across to a group of black men huddled inside the shop.

“Excuse me, gentlemen, do any of you know where Mnr PW Botha’s house is?” I wasn’t expecting much by way of reply, but I was wrong.

“Over there.” All six of them pointed in the same direction to a red roofed house along what looked like an estuary, facing away from the ocean.

“Thank you.” I didn’t say anything else; I walked out the shop, climbed in my car and left.

Just off the main freeway and over the train tracks was a small road that was hardly noticeable. It took me down towards the lagoon, sheltered from the pounding waves of the ocean over the rise.

I didn’t want to cause any alarm, so I parked my car a little distance from the gates to the house. It was just on 11am. Already the crows in my stomach were battering me about inside. There was a slight drizzle and the clouds hung low. I knew that if I didn’t get out and make my move, I would shy away and leave. I grabbed my camera and notebook, climbed out the car and made my way to the front gate. Above the post box was a sign with an anchor on it. Above the anchor were the words, ‘Die Anker’, which is Afrikaans for ‘The Anchor’. The gates were open, which I thought was very strange. There didn’t seem to be anybody around, so I walked right in. I was not more than five steps onto the property when a plain-clothed man stepped onto the driveway from behind a clump of bushes. I stopped, allowing him to come to me. The man was obviously some kind of security guard.

“Kan ek jou help?” Great; more Afrikaans. I was useless at Afrikaans.

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