Nedbank SA Charity Golf Day Founder and Chairman Geoff Johnson paid tribute to FW de Klerk at the 25th annual anniversary of the event this year.
“When you meet someone for the first time, you shake hands, look into their eyes, and begin a conversation. When this happened with President de Klerk and me, I knew immediately that here was a man I would admire and someone I could trust. We were from opposite sides of the political spectrum. President de Klerk formerly Head of the Apartheid Government, and me a former anti-Apartheid activist and a member of the ANC.
At that first meeting, we spoke openly and honestly. The passion President de Klerk showed for South Africa was quite remarkable. He spoke warmly of President Nelson Mandela as well as President Thabo Mbeki with whom I had held several meetings in Lusaka in the 1980’s. After only a few minutes this former Head of State, Nobel Peace Prize Winner alongside Nelson Mandela in 1993, said “Call me FW”. And so I did, and a firm and longstanding friendship began.
I was then invited to meet with FW in February 2001 in his Cape Town office in the Sanlam Centre in Cape Town. The staff, particularly the receptionist, still talk about my arrival. Wide glass doors fronted the offices of President FW de Klerk and as you approached, the prominent reception counter was splendidly visible. That’s all I saw and walked straight in the glass door headfirst!!! For some reason the door released from its hinges and went crashing down with thousands of glass fragments splashing the floor!!! I’m sure insurance paid for the repair but now it is said about that first visit “Geoff came crashing in”!!!
I soon discovered that FW was a keen golfer and I told him about the South African Charity Golf Day I had started in the UK in 1996 raising funds for development cricket and rugby with former South African captains, Francois Pienaar (rugby) and the late Clive Rice (cricket) being helpful and supportive attending each year. Immediately FW asked if he could attend the next event scheduled for 14th September 2001. That date’s important. The previous year we had 148 golfers participate and I immediately began promoting the 2001 event with the guarantee of such a high-profile person attending. President de Klerk also invited his close friend Raymond Ackerman to attend. With only a few days before the event, we had 428 golfers applying to play! I was sitting at my desk around 2 pm on Tuesday 11th September conducting an interview with a reporter from the Johannesburg Sunday Times. The conversation was flowing well with exchanges about the appearance of President FW de Klerk, Francois Pienaar, Clive Rice and a host of International Rugby players from Saracens all attending. Suddenly there was silence at the other end of the phone. In a very tense voice, the reporter said “Geoff, do you have a TV nearby. Switch it on”!!! I did and witnessed live the second plane crashing into the World Trade Tower in New York. The tragedy now commonly know as 9/11!
I phoned FW first thing Wednesday morning and suggested we cancel the event! A daunting prospect to inform 428 golfers but one I had to consider. “No” said President de Klerk. “You do not give in to terrorists and life must continue as per normal”. And so the day progressed with the first tee time happening just after 06h30 and the final four balls finishing just as darkness fell. Earlier in the day I checked on the dressing of the tables for the Gala Dinner where 650 due to attend. Whenever I do a seating plan, I always omit table No. 13. To my horror there was table No. 13 right in front of the lectern. I castigated the catering staff and they bemoaned the fact they would have to move each of the 70 odd table numbers. I suddenly realised an opportunity and asked them to merely remove the No. 13 and leave this empty fully dressed table right in the front of the room below the main lectern. In my speech I said the empty table was a symbol in memory of those who had lost their lives three days earlier in New York. I was congratulated for such a brilliant remembrance and dedication to the victims of 09/11! Little did anyone know it was a mistake turned into opportunity!!!
At the Gala Dinner FW was accompanied by his wonderful wife Elita who has been equally involved with the close friendship I enjoyed from 2000. They enjoyed the 2001 event so much that they asked to be invited in 2002 once again held at Mentmore Golf & Country Club. After the 2003 event, I invited FW to become our Patron which he so willingly accepted. And what a Patron he was. FW de Klerk secured wine sponsors each year, introduced high profile South Africans to attend and support our event, and never wavered whenever I requested a favour or his opinion or assistance.
In 2006 FW invited me to attend his 70th birthday party held at the Mount Nelson Hotel in Cape Town. And what a splendid occasion with his friend Nelson Mandela delivering the main tribute to FW. It was heart rendering to see these icons of South African history, stand together on stage and warmly embrace after Madiba’s speech.
FW continued attending our event each year as we moved from Mentmore to Moor Park, then Foxhills and Stoke Park for one year and then Foxhills enticed us back where we spent the following 10 years. The annual Nedbank South African Charity Golf Day has been held at the present hosting golf club, Burhill since 2013 and FW in particular, always enjoyed returning to this splendid establishment who warmly greet us each year. The Burhill management and members always reached out to provide the absolute best hospitality.
During our 21-year friendship I have endured personal setbacks and challengers. FW and Elita, as well as FW’s longstanding Personal Assistant, Brenda Steyn, have always been there for me. Together with Bernadette we have enjoyed many lunches and dinners both in South Africa and the UK. Quite often just the four of us discussing so many topics as well as their constant interest in our families and grandchildren. But possibly the highlight for Bernadette and me was FW’s 80th birthday celebration in Cape Town with so many leading South African’s there to wish him well.
President FW de Klerk passed away in the morning of 11th November 2001 at his home in Cape Town with Elita by his side. The pandemic prevented us attending the State funeral, but we were immersed in the live TV coverage listening to many World leaders giving obituaries to a man I always felt was under recognised, under rewarded and undervalued by the political powers in South Africa. We deeply valued President FW de Klerk as out Patron, rewarded him by giving him our Patronage and always gave him recognition as the man who changed South Africa for ever.
We are all truly indebted to our Patron, President FW de Klerk, joint Nobel Peace Prize Winner alongside Nelson Mandela in 1993 and the President who released, unbanned and abolished the abhorrent policy of Apartheid in his famous speech delivered to Parliament on 2nd February 1990.”