Following Madiba

I was blessed to have significant access to Nelson Mandela in his retirement years, leading up to co-producing the documentary 'Mandela at 90' that was the BBC's pick of the day in January 2009.

As Giant Media we were the fly on the wall in meetings at his office, his homes in Houghton, Maputo and Qunu and on the travels he still made domestically and abroad.

The Mandela Foundation was adamant that we should not portray the revolutionary as a cuddly, teddy bear figure.

Seeing the Saharawi Foreign Minister Mohamed Ould Salek in Pretoria last week reminded me that with my experience of the icon in presidential days, there was no fear of this.

There were two issues during Mandela's time at the helm on which we clashed at virtually every press conference: China and the Western Sahara.

Mandela's stubborn streak had him believing that the newly-democratic South Africa could adopt a two-China's policy by maintaining diplomatic ties with both Taiwan and Beijing.

A few of us never wasted an opportunity to say this was fanciful. If Washington, London, Paris and Moscow had had to make the choice we maintained, Pretoria could not avoid doing so.

There was a tense meeting between Mandela and a Beijing envoy where Madiba bridled at being told he could not have it both ways.

"Do you know who you are talking to," said Mandela?

"No, Mr President, do you know who are dealing with," the Chinese diplomat replied?

When in 1997 he finally made the choice to tie the knot with Beijing, Taiwan sent over its foreign minister and a planeload of journalists to hear the bad news and presumably to see if there was any way of changing his mind.

He was clearly irritated by my asking him at the press conference what had motivated his decision after more than three years in power.

"I would have thought that a journalist of your experience would not waste my time with a question like that," he replied, without offering any answer.

Being dressed down by my president in front of many of my Taiwanese friends was made less painful by the fact that from the moment he announced his decision to establish diplomatic ties with Beijing none of them ever spoke to me again.

As for the Western Sahara, it was Ould Salek himself who showed me a letter by Mandela himself promising to recognise the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic.

Many times, I asked Mandela when he would keep his word to the country under illegal Moroccon occupation since 1975.

He never did.

That step was taken by President Thabo Mbeki when he grew wise to Rabat's stalling tactics.

Chatting with Madiba while make the film, he said he was proud that South Africa has become one of the staunchest supporters of the Western Sahara cause.

He understood that I had needed to be a gadfly. Equally I had to understand that things were not as simple as they appeared to me at the time.

Then he paid me the best compliment I have had in decades of journalism: "I read the stuff you wrote," he said, "and some of it was quite good."

Jean-Jacques Cornish is Eyewitness News's Africa correspondent.