One man’s enthusiastic grin as he stands within inches of his hero Barack Obama has caught the imagination of the Twittersphere. Paraic O’Brien went in search of #redtieguy.
Historical narratives don’t come much more compelling. Nelson Mandela’s light was flickering in Pretoria. Barack Obama was in the country by coincidence, he took to the stage at Cape Town University.
“Nelson Mandela showed us that one man’s courage can move the world”, he said.
Over his shoulder, in the invited audience, another man’s smile was doing something similar.
An 18-year-old in a red tie and suit looked close to exploding with excitement as President Obama took to the stage and started talking. Watch the video (above) and try to concentrate on what the great orator is saying.
I couldn’t stop myself. I wanted to jump the barrier and hug him. Everything he represents for me. “Red tie guy” Mikhail Hendricks
For a strange, hilarious few minutes the historical theatrics were being eclipsed by the contagious smile of a bit part player. Twitter, as is its wont, went berserk. Who was the #redtieguy?
For one thing (and at the risk of reading too much into it) that smile seemed to smack of more than just an adolescent basking in celebrity limelight.
It shone with hope and positivity and everything that the man in front of him was supposed to represent and everything that the man in the hospital bed did represent. Am I getting carried away?
No, according to Mikhail Hendricks, the #redtieguy.
He’s 18. He lives in one of South Africa’s largest townships, Mitchells Plain, Cape Town. He was brought up by his grandparents “just like Barack Obama”.
At a young age his dad disappeared and his mum remarried. “My grandad was the breadwinner, he looked after myself and my two siblings. Every day, we had what we needed to survive.”
You get the feeling he’s downplaying it a bit. He’s in his final year of high school at the Cape Academy of Mathemathics, Science and Technology. It’s a government funded boarding school for gifted students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
He recently won a poetry prize in the US Embassy Black History Month competition. He wants to study law at university, with a view to “serve my people, just like Barack Obama.”
Neither his poetry or his politics are fully formed, to be honest. His sense of hope and opportunity are very well developed indeed, though.
There was Mandela’s generation. There’s Obama’s generation. “Then there’s us”. He is not worried about the future of a post-Mandela South Africa. “He laid a solid foundation for this country, my generation know what we have to do to build on it,” he says.
Finally, the question everyone wants to ask him: “Why were you smiling like that, during the speech?”
He gets carried away, trying to answer. “I couldn’t stop myself. I wanted to jump the barrier and hug him. Everything he represents for me. He’s a pioneer. His life story. The challenges. The racial barriers. Everything. I had to keep pinching himself. I was only inches away.”
He was smiling about what Barack Obama represents to him. Smiling about the country Nelson Mandela helped forge. Smiling about the future.
Keep an eye on Mikhail Hendrick’s smile.
How did Mikhail end up behind Obama? An extract from Mikhail's letter to the US consulate-general in Cape Town:
"I now would like to make a sincere plea with you, that come what may, that I please have the humbling opportunity to meet my hero. Whether it be an intimate encounter or just a distant one.
President Obama's life story is so close to mine and I strongly admire his humble journey to the White House and how through all the storms he always manages to stand firm in what he believes in. I want him to know that!"