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‘These Are My Heroines’: When Nelson Mandela Met the Spice Girls

In 1997, the anti-apartheid revolutionary and first president of South Africa was so charmed by Baby, Posh, Sporty, Ginger and Scary that he said meeting them was one of the greatest moments of his life

2022 marks the 25th anniversary of the year that everything happened — 1997. It was an ear-biting, Pierce Brosnan-loving, comet-obsessed world, and we’re here to relive every minute of it. Twice a week over the next 12 months, we will take you back to the winter of sheep cloning and the summer of Con Air. Come for the Chumbawamba, and stay for the return of the Mack. See all of the stories here.

In November 1997, Prince Charles took his son Harry on a trip to South Africa. It was the young prince’s first overseas visit on royal business and — as a healthy distraction from the grief of losing his mother, Princess Diana, just months prior — 12-year-old Harry got to meet two of the biggest cultural luminaries of the 1990s: Nelson Mandela and the Spice Girls. 

The meeting had been manufactured as a public-relations coup for Prince Charles; it was a hinge of history in which the U.K. was forging a new future with the now Black-led African nation. Three years prior, Mandela had successfully negotiated the end of the apartheid system of governance of South Africa. As part of his presidency, Mandela was keen to re-establish a relationship with the U.K., after having spent his life, including 27 years in prison, fighting Britain’s colonial legacy.

As the press reported at the time, Prince Charles also wanted to “shake off his ‘fuddy-duddy’ image” in the wake of Diana’s death, so he planned to use that moment in South African history to rehab his image as well. According to ABC News, “By bringing Prince Harry to the Spice Girls’ concert [they were in South Africa to perform at a charity show in Johannesburg], Prince Charles is being seen as trying to expose his children to the kind of fun-loving events that were Princess Diana’s trademark.” 

On that fateful November day in 1997, Mandela and his wife Winnie were on hand to greet Prince Charles as he arrived at the South African presidential palace in Pretoria. Also awaiting his arrival were five of his subjects from the U.K.: Ginger Spice, Sporty Spice, Posh Spice, Scary Spice and Baby Spice.

During their photo shoot on the steps of the presidential palace, Mandela, Prince Charles and the Spice Girls all posed for photos and answered questions. Mandela explained the purpose for his meeting with Prince Charles, saying, “His visit here, I have no doubt, is not only going to be in the interest of Britain only, but in the interest of South Africa as well. We are very excited about it.”

Then, Mandela was asked about the pop stars standing on either side of him. “And what do you think of the Spice Girls?” a reporter yelled over the din of the press scrum.

“Well, I…” Mandela started to say, before stopping to laugh after Scary Spice warned, “Watch it!”

Mandela waited for a beat and then continued his thought: “You know, these are my heroines.”

“And he’s our hero, as well,” Ginger Spice interjected.

“I don’t want to be emotional, but it is one of the greatest moments in my life,” Mandela responded. 

That’s right, the anti-apartheid revolutionary, the first democratically elected Black head of state in the world and South Africa’s first-ever president — a man who received more than 250 honors in his lifetime, including the Nobel Peace Prize, who spent decades fighting against poverty, HIV/AIDS and racial injustice, who was also a father and a husband — told the gathered press that meeting Sporty, Ginger, Baby, Scary and Posh was one of the greatest moments of his life.

Prince Charles, of course, had to throw in his two shillings as well, saying that meeting the Spice Girls was “the second-greatest moment of my life.” “The first was when I met them the first time,” he joked.

Meanwhile, Scary Spice attempted to reframe the moment with the appropriate gravitas. “The Spice Girls can’t believe we’re meeting two very important people,” she explained. 

A short time later, Ginger Spice added, “I think there’s a classic speech that Nelson Mandela did, and you know, I can’t remember it exactly, but he mentioned about how you never suppress yourself, never make yourself feel small by others’ insecurities. And that’s what Girl Power is all about. So I think we’re on the same level, in that view.” 

Mandela didn’t disagree with Ginger Spice’s assessment. “Well, you must realize, of course, they are talking about an old man,” he chimed in. “Everybody young is always generous towards an old man.”

Scary Spice, however, argued with the 79-year-old living legend. “No, it’s about how you feel inside. You’re only as old as how you feel,” she told him. 

Ginger Spice agreed. “You’re not old,” she soothed. 

As it turns out, Mandela wasn’t just being nice to the platform-heeled girl group for the photo-op. He truly wanted them to spice up his life. In fact, a decade later, Mandela requested that they perform for him at both his 89th and 90th birthday celebrations. The Spice Girls were happy to do it, too. In 2008, Sporty Spice told the press, “We’re great friends of Mr. Mandela, and we would love to perform for him again.”

One source close to the South African president said, “Nelson is desperate for them to sing one last time, and he’s confident it will happen. He first met the girls in 1997 and called them his heroes. He has deep admiration for them.”

Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be. In April 2008, Scary Spice shared the news that although the press reported that the “Spice Girls would be coming together for the final time to perform at former South African President Nelson Mandela’s birthday,” the girl group had since broken up once again. (They’d recently reunited after having initially disbanded in 2000.)

And so, for his 90th birthday concert, Amy Winehouse performed instead. She went on to wow Mandela with her retro sound and even charmed him with a joke: “You and my husband have a lot in common. You’ve both spent a long time in prison.” And of all his musical guests that evening, Mandela said that Winehouse was “the person he most liked.” 

Still, it wasn’t what he wanted, what he really, really wanted. And it couldn’t compare to that November 1997 meet-and-greet with Prince Charles and Harry — the Yalta of late 1990s pop culture, just with a little more zigazig ah.