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A Man of Taste

A Man of Taste

By Laura Secorun Palet

Fabric Designs by Iwan Tirta


The world mourns a hero, but Mandela was also a man — one with a unique sense of style and a brave gastronomic palate.  

By Laura Secorun Palet

Nelson Mandela may have encountered more than his fair share of adversity, challenges, awards and accolades in his life; but despite all of those things, he was only human — and had his own quirky tastes — just like the rest of us. Here’s a look at some of Madiba’s favorite things.


Close headshot showing his yellow and black designed shirt from chest upward.

Nelson Mandela wearing a shirt created by designer, Desre Buiski.

Source REX

Mandela is a political idol around the world but, in Indonesia, he is also a fashion icon. His very public love of batik – the island’s traditional colorful print – was so emblematic that, in certain parts of South Africa, it has come to be known as the “Madiba shirt.”

He picked up the style when he first went to Indonesia in an official visit, early in his presidency, and never again left it. He was such a bold batik-wearer that, even former Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla observed that, “If it was me I would hesitate to wear batik and speak in the UN General Assembly, but he did not.” As for designers, Mandela’s favorites were South African Desre Buiski and the Indonesian Iwan Tirta.


Mandela is commonly associated with the English poem “Invictus” – Latin for “unconquered” – by William Ernest Henley. During his imprisonment, the political leader found comfort in its words yet he did not, as the movie of the same name shows, give a copy of the it to the captain of the national rugby team. Instead, he offered him another of his favorite texts, the “Man in the Arena” passage from Theodore Roosevelt’s “Citizenship in a Republic” speech. “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better,” Roosevelt remarked. “The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood.”

Despite his close relation with pop bands such as U2 or the Black Eyed Peas, Mandela was a well-known fan of European classical music.

Greek tragedies — Sophocles’ Antigone in particular — were also among his favorites, together with African Literature. Things Fall Apart, a novel by Chinua Achebe about the tragic consequences of colonialism, is said to have been one of Madiba’s favorite reads in prison. And he himself curated a book called Nelson Mandela’s Favorite African Folktales.


Despite his close relation with pop bands such as U2 or the Black Eyed Peas, Mandela was a well-known fan of European classical music, and his two favorite composers were Handel and Tchaikovsky. Yet he was also very fond of African musicians and the sounds he grew up with. He greatly admired local singer Miriam Makeba who he called “the mother of our struggle” and “South Africa’s First Lady of song.”

And, to his daughter, he recommended the all-timer “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho” by African American musician and Civil Rights activist Paul Robeson as a reminder of the struggle against inequity.



Bowl of soup in a tomato base with vegetable and oxtail.

Oxtail Soup

Tripe. That was the favorite dish of the man who was starved for years in prison and then lived to dine with world leaders. Yup, animal intestines. On his last birthday party, family members ate “samp” a traditional dish made from corn and the stomach lining of farm animals. A recipe book by his ex-personal chef reveals he also loved sour milk and oxtail stew.


You’ve probably heard by now that the longtime pacifist had a lifelong passion for boxing. But in his autobiography Mandela explains his attraction to the sport. “I did not like the violence of boxing. I was more interested in the science of it — how you move your body to protect yourself, how you use a plan to attack and retreat, and how you pace yourself through a fight.” It was a way for him to work out in prison but also an allegory of his work: “Boxing is egalitarian. In the ring, rank, age, colour and wealth are irrelevant.” 


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