by Mandla Langa, Business Day
FEBRUARY 10 1990 was an unseasonably warm afternoon for London, a circumstance, I remember thinking, which must have been favourable for a group of derelicts sipping from a flagon of cheap wine on Green Lanes, a lower middle-class neighbourhood straddling Islington and Stoke Newington and typified by barbershops, butcheries, restaurants and kebab joints servicing the mainly Greek Cypriot and Turkish communities. None of us — not the Saturday afternoon shoppers sampling Mediterranean fruits and dolmades from pavement stalls, nor the tramps risking liver sclerosis — could have guessed that an event of historic importance was to happen in the next 24 hours.
For me, the drama that would have a profound effect on my life started as a phone call. It was from Mike Terry, secretary of the British anti-apartheid movement, cueing me, somewhat breathlessly, to a breaking-news broadcast on Nelson Mandela on ITN at 3pm. In a way, that call was to be the last bugle in the battlefield, announcing the final hours of a long struggle.
Exile, a byproduct of an enduring conflict caused by forces over which we had no control, was ending. This left me with a strange sense of unease — like someone about to be divested of a crutch.
At the designated hour, the TV flickered to life and showed President FW de Klerk telling a press conference that Mandela would be released the next day, February 11 1990.
A little more than a week before, De Klerk’s government had unbanned the African National Congress (ANC), the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) and other political parties, an augury of Mandela’s release. There was, therefore, no surprise, nor was there reason for any outpouring of emotions; that is, until a still photo of Nelson Mandela flashed across the screen. There he was, at last: Mandela in a grey suit matching his hair, his eyes narrowed to slits, a strange almost self-conscious smile on his face.
For me, and I suppose for countless millions watching, this was the first real sighting of Mandela since his famous walk into the gates of Robben Island in June 1964. In its various publications the International Defence and Aid Fund (IDAF) had used a picture of Mandela and Walter Sisulu taken as they conferred in a prison courtyard. Even though it had been shot secretly and was helpful in giving us a glimpse of how time had affected the two men, the very fact that they’d been photographed in captivity only served to distance us from them. Somehow, the image of an imprisoned Mandela, a lion cooped up in a cage, deepened our remoteness from him and heightened our helpless loathing for the system that had corralled him and given him a uniform of servitude.
A representation that had become a substitute for any memory of Mandela was in a poster calling for his release, with Mandela’s face partly obscured by prison bars, the top of the bars morphing into flaming candles.
Images of suffering or violence have a more estranging effect on exiles — and we were in exile — than on the people on the frontline, simply because the latter are inured to the horror, which they breathe every day while the exile experiences it vicariously. About a decade earlier, when I was in Angola among Namibian refugees, I had a sense that they were likely to be more traumatised by news of attacks in villages back home than by personally surviving the horrific South African Defence Force (SADF) raids on their camps such as Kassinga or Viana in Luanda.
Similarly, although to a different degree, seeing Mandela in the grainy prison courtyard picture increased our frustration. Vignettes of life and struggle did not aid memory but led to the guilty impatience most exiled people felt towards the pace of the execution of the struggle being waged in the native land.
But, for now: here he was, tall and ascetic, his smile directing our gaze to the man beside him. De Klerk, who was at once both jailor and liberator, struggled with his own smile, which appeared forced and uneasy, like someone compelled to take part in a complex game whose rules he could not quite grasp. Even though photogenic in his own right, De Klerk always had the appearance of having been upstaged every time he was photographed next to Mandela.
The closest analogy to a situation where one figure eclipses the other recalls James Baldwin’s review of The Defiant Ones, an old manipulative film about two fugitives, one black and the other white, who escape from prison while chained to one other. With the best will in the world, he wrote, it is virtually impossible to watch Tony Curtis while Sidney (Poitier) is on the screen.
Likewise, De Klerk was momentarily blotted out when, giddy with excitement, the entire South African community in London, it seemed, had trekked to celebrate Mandela’s release on the afternoon of the next day, a Sunday that was made for festivity. The disjointed conversations were about the event, as if it would mark the first day of creation. It was also a moment when people took stock and remembered many more on this globe who were in chains — and this majority from the fellowship of the imprisoned consisted of people of colour.
It suddenly occurred to me that James Baldwin might have had Mandela or political prisoners everywhere at the back of his mind in his open letter to Angela Davis. It said: One might have hoped that, by this hour, the very sight of chains on Black flesh, or the very sight of chains, would be so intolerable a sight for the American people, and so unbearable a memory, that they would themselves spontaneously rise up and strike off the manacles. But, no, they appear to glory in their chains; now, more than ever, they appear to measure their safety in chains and corpses. But since we already understood that our troubled republic would only survive if its citizens would be steered towards the path of forgiveness, only the most churlish soul would have made the point that both Mandela and De Klerk had themselves been bound by their own chains — for De Klerk could not have conceivably regarded himself as free with Mandela in prison.
That afternoon, we massed outside South Africa House in Trafalgar Square, the imposing Herbert Baker building whose grounds had seen the record-breaking anti-apartheid vigil; a TV set was rigged to one of the pillars, where the countdown was already starting for Nelson Mandela’s long walk out of Victor Verster Prison, where he’d spent the last months of his 27-year term. Across the Strand, Mandela’s heroic namesake gazed into the air atop Nelson’s column, prompting one of the revellers to express her dream of a day when South Africa would elevate her own Nelson to even loftier heights.
The celebrants, among them locals and tourists, were elated that they were part of a historic event; there was, however, a discernible sense of something heavy and inalterable that had come over South African expatriates or exiles. The two groups had built relationships far from home either for purposes of employment or pursuance of political work. One way or the other, Mandela’s release meant different terms of engagement with the world, a re-evaluation of relationships; the anti-apartheid activists, most of them with eyes brimming with tears, were soon to be bereft of a cause around which to rally. The exiles had sung songs about Mandela, sometimes with the same long-distance yearning reminiscent of ancient exiles in Babylon; they’d sung about what would be the meaning of his day of liberation. In a way, we had all been in prison during all those decades he was incarcerated. And now that he was free, we were also free. But what was the meaning of this freedom?
Mandela walked out of the prison gates on the afternoon of February 11 1990, with Winnie Mandela beside him. Beaming proudly although with uncharacteristic restraint as if not wanting to steal Mandela’s thunder on this momentous occasion, Winnie held her husband’s one hand while, with the other, she saluted the expectant crowds. In Trafalgar Square, 6,000 miles from the drama unfolding in Paarl, all of us were united in a single fantasy: to be there. To be there under the Cape sky, together with the hundreds, who swelled into thousands, who welcomed Mandela; on the concourses where the spectators waved and cheered, many unfurling ANC colours; we stopped with the motorcade for Mandela to get out of the car to greet an anonymous white couple; and we were part of the waiting crowds as the deputy-president of the ANC appeared on the balcony of Cape Town’s City Hall to speak to the 50,000 people assembled outside at nightfall.
“I stand here before you,” he said in an unemotional voice, “not as a prophet, but as a humble servant of you, the people … I, therefore, place the remaining years of my life in your hands.”
Far from soft
Demonstrating the conciliation that became synonymous with his name, Mandela had a kind word for De Klerk, whom he called a man of integrity. But, so that no one would get the wrong idea that he’d been softened in prison, he said: “Our struggle has reached a decisive moment. Our march to freedom is irreversible…. Now is the time to intensify the struggle on all fronts. To relax now would be a mistake which future generations would not forgive.”
For the time being, though, the present generations were whooping it up, filling the pubs around The Strand, drinking to the health of a man who had survived all these decades in prison in pursuit of an ideal. Much later, some of the people from the ANC office in London, such as my direct boss, Mendi Msimang, who was the chief representative of the ANC in the UK and Ireland (he had once been a clerk in Oliver Tambo and Nelson Mandela’s law practice in Johannesburg), visited South Africa after an amnesty allowing exiles to return. When they came back to start the ANC’s electoral drive in the UK, we quizzed them about Mandela. What was he like at close range? I remember Gill Marcus’s reply. Gill was the indefatigable head of the information department who single-handedly published the ANC news briefings — an invaluable resource that kept the international subscribers apprised of developments inside South Africa — and not someone given to succumbing to shock and awe.
“It is impossible to intimidate Mandela,” she said. “He is totally without fear.”
If it were not possible to intimidate Mandela, he could, however, overawe. This he did without meaning to, as some of us were fated to discover when he came to the UK on his first visit out of South Africa since his release, to grace the Wembley Concert held in his honour. For me, I’d later compare his reception in the UK with Palestine Liberation Organisation leader Yasser Arafat’s maiden voyage to the UK in December 1993, where, even though feted by diplomats from Arab states, there was a sense that South Africans, given their political situation, could realistically empathise with the Palestinian conundrum. “Please remember me to my brother,” he said. I took it that the brother was Nelson Mandela, the man affectionately called Madiba.
Although Arafat’s visit was accorded almost all the protocols of a visiting head of state, to Israel’s chagrin, there was an accompanying coldness; the British, whose attitude to visiting revolutionaries was informed by memories of long-lost empires, didn’t warm to Arafat the way they did to Mandela.
Mandela arrived amid apprehension among organisers of the Wembley Concert. Its producers Tony Hollingsworth and Mike Terry were having a haemorrhage apiece at rumours Mandela wouldn’t make it. There were suspicions he would be refused entry… that he was unwell, etc. But all this was proven incorrect when he turned up at Heathrow, hale and hearty. On the evening of the concert, on April 16 1990, Mandela was the guest of honour at a reception hosted at Marlborough House, Pall Mall, by Sir Shridath “Sonny” Ramphal, the ebullient but shrewd secretary-general of the Commonwealth.
It was perhaps fitting that the reception was held in an august venue that oozed history from its walls. In 1936 Marlborough House became the London residence of the dowager queen, Queen Mary, widow of King George V. In 1953, Queen Elizabeth II donated it for use by the Commonwealth Secretariat when Queen Mary died.
On this evening, a different history was being carved in the UK; here, British aristocracy brushed shoulders with South African commoners, some wearing ill-fitting suits on loan for the occasion; here, actors, entrepreneurs, sportspeople, writers or journalists mingled and crossed different thresholds of class and affluence to be in the company of the lanky, grey-headed man who still looked unreal in his dark suit. Some of the ANC leaders present were still smarting from Margaret Thatcher’s contemptuous dismissal of their movement as a terrorist organisation — and who, while lamenting Tambo’s absence, rejoiced over his vindication. He had stayed the course, and the stroke that had incapacitated him was the price he had paid — Tambo’s dream of a free and democratic South Africa appeared possible, if only vicariously, through the exaltation of his one-time legal partner.
I got to understand what Gill Marcus had meant about Mandela’s overpowering personality when I got a moment to introduce myself and shake his hand. Here he was, smiling cautiously, his eyes studying me with a mix of intentness and genuine curiosity and warmth that photographs had failed to bring out. Slenderer than in the pictures, and taller, he appeared to compensate for his lankiness by affecting a slight stoop. I got a sense that he could, if asked, tell me the exact number of glasses of wine I’d drank on the day — and the amount I was likely to imbibe before the night of the following day. This might sound coy; but what I’m trying to say is that, for some religious people, a priest is usually invested with that mystical presence that makes the potential transgressor feel at once vulnerable and sedate. With Mandela, this ineffable feature, an aura of sorts, was there; in that brief exchange, which couldn’t have taken more than two minutes, you went away with a feeling that he’d seen right through you.
But, we were on a mission and this encounter with greatness could not be squandered. Inspired by the concert to mark Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday in 1988, two editors, Sarah Lefanu and Stephen Hayward, had set about soliciting manuscripts from authors worldwide to contribute to an international anthology where writers would express their opposition to apartheid. Literary luminaries such as Margaret Atwood, Vikram Seth, Han Suyin, Wole Soyinka, Joyce Carol Oates, Ben Okri, Lewis Nkosi and Nadine Gordimer donated manuscripts to this venture. For the project to succeed, however, Mandela’s endorsement was needed.
On the evening of April 16 1990, Mandela put his signature to the foreword where he applauded the gifts of almost 40 writers. Called Colours of a New Day (Writing for SA) the anthology — which was international not only in its authorship but also in the nature of its publishing — would appear almost simultaneously later in the year in South Africa, North America, India and Nigeria. Even before his release, there had already been speculation about Mandela’s status as a world citizen.
In 1987, after one of the many false alarms that Mandela together with his Rivonia co-accused would be released into President Kenneth Kaunda’s custody in Lusaka, Zambia, there was anxiety as to where he would finally want to be located. This was notwithstanding his repeated avowal that he was a servant of the ANC — a point stressed at the United Democratic Front (UDF) rally of 1985 via his daughter, Zindzi, and that he would subject himself to its diktat.
Although absent at the ANC’s watershed consultative conference that was held in Kabwe, Zambia, in 1985, Mandela and the prison leadership were a constant, if not sometimes awkward presence.
The conference was held during the most troubled time for the ANC. Internally, there were significant political strides being made by the mass democratic movement. Paradoxically, since major political advances are reflected by the corresponding increase of repression, this was the period of the partial state of emergency, the first since the ’60s.
Externally, however, the ANC was still reeling from the effects of its ouster from the front areas as an aftermath of the Nkomati Accord, signed between Mozambique’s Samora Machel and South Africa’s PW Botha on March 16 1984. Furthermore, there was the massacre of 13 ANC members and Batswana in Gaborone on June 13 1985; this, however, was a lesser headache for president OR Tambo than the recent — and unprecedented — mutiny that had taken place in ANC camps in Angola. There was a song that encapsulated the rebels’ grievances, Akekh’uMandel’usentilongweni/Sakhe saswel’inkokhel’ingenatyala (Mandela’s not here; he’s in prison/we’re deprived of an innocent leader).
For the first time, Umkhonto weSizwe commanders set up a firing squad and executed a number of their compatriots fingered as ringleaders. The mutineers’ representatives, however, had a list of demands that proposed a change in the way the National Executive Committee was constituted, moving that it be through an elective process rather than by appointment. Further, they wanted their grievances communicated to the island leadership led by Nelson Mandela. The matter never got any airing at Kabwe and only surfaced five years later at the ANC’s first consultative conference in December 1990.
Any fear, however, that Mandela would ever pull rank was dispelled by his humility even on a day when lesser mortals would have had a hard time refraining from basking in glory. This was on April 16 1990, when he addressed a capacity crowd at Wembley Stadium and was delivered live and in living colour to more than 600-million TV viewers in 67 countries.
If the first concert in 1988 was a birthday gift to Mandela by the world’s best performing artists, this one, dubbed a concert for a free South Africa, was to welcome him into the world. It was a fitting tribute, striving to harness the energy of creative people worldwide. Recognising the weightiness of the occasion, Lenny Henry, the black British comedian who was the master of ceremonies, had toned down the risqué jokes which had become his trademark.
The people of the world showed how much they cared when Mandela received a 15-minute ovation after his address.
He had started by thanking the international reception committee, which had made his trip possible. Inspired by Archbishop Trevor Huddleston, then president of the anti-apartheid movement and Mandela’s lifelong friend, the first concert and rally of 1988 had contributed more than any event to catapult Mandela to the world’s most revered political figure. Acknowledging this support, Mandela then thanked the artists of the world who had, for many years “lent their talents to the common effort to end the apartheid system. We thank you especially for what you did to mark our 70th birthday. What you did then, made it possible for us all to do what we are doing here today.”
He had told us how great an honour it was to have had his name used by the anti-apartheid movement to pay tribute to the oppressed people of South Africa in their struggle for freedom, “in naming your streets and avenues, schools and parks, in awarding prizes, honours and awards, in your poetry, music and art”.
Towards the end of his speech, he acknowledged then ANC president Oliver Tambo. “As you know,” he said, “Comrade Oliver Tambo is recovering in a clinic in Sweden…. He kept our organisation united and strong under the most difficult conditions and we say therefore that our prayers are that he should be able to recover sufficiently to take his position of leadership of this organisation.” Then, walking across the stage, his image blown up hundredfold on screens girding the arena, he waved at the ecstatic throngs, who still waited for the one word that they would take home with them. And he didn’t disappoint. “Finally,” Mandela said, “I want to tell you, as I have told many other meetings before, that we respect you, we admire you and, above all, we love you!”
There are a few moments when anyone who’s ever been at the receiving end of the Pretoria regime’s callousness could feel sufficiently moved to sympathise with it or its deluded children. The reason for this is that this regime has been all-powerful, ruthless and totally in control. But it is the might, ruthlessness and control of someone who becomes totally bewildered the moment the tables are turned. It occurred to me, watching the expectant faces of more than 70,000 spectators, that this was one of the few occasions when the decks were stacked so completely against apartheid rule; here it was, being presented with the true meaning of international solidarity in action. It was in the presence of real power.
From the minute of the enactment of the first inhumane statute, through all the years of a false paradise for a minority and a living hell for the majority, the National Party must have dreaded the possibility of this trembling hour, when it would be shamed before countless millions. Because, in truth, the applause that followed, deafening and prolonged, was no longer for the man who had charmed the world with his deathless optimism and undying humanity.
Nor was this an ovation for his exceedingly elegant and beautiful wife, Winnie, whose own smile represented the joy of the millions of South Africans who couldn’t be part of the celebration in Wembley. No, the joy was a tribute to the bravery of the youth and the resilience of old people, especially the women doing back-breaking work on farms while dreaming dreams and hoping hopes; it was for an unborn South Africa, kicking in the womb, waiting to burst out like a spring chicken and claim its place in the world.
It was also a time when the spectators could pat themselves on the back for their own role, through the years, of solidarity with other peoples of the world.
Overcome by the music and the joy of being alive, a young woman summed up the moment to Dali Tambo at the artists’ after-party. “Imagine,” she beamed, “coming out of prison after all these years with a smile like that … what a geezer!”
It occurred to me that Mandela’s valedictory words and the incandescent smile had done all to seduce even the most hard-hearted journalists. The smile became, for many people a poignant index to South Africans’ — whether involved in the struggle or not — partiality to whooping it up.
Mandela’s smile accommodated everyone and became a long-distance embrace for the people at home. I wondered idly if the ANC would one day come up with a policy on leadership smiles, seeing that there were some leaders who seemed to take themselves so seriously that their faces seemed incapable of smiling.
For the week Mandela was in London, the city was in some kind of fever, the media outdoing itself in its coverage of the visit. For us, there was a new spring to our step as we lorded it over people who had throughout time lorded it over us.
We were mysterious, each one of us basking in the reflected glory of the man with the world’s most famous smile. At Madame Tussauds, where we gathered the next day for the commissioning of Mandela’s startlingly lifelike likeness, someone remarked that as he had already wreaked so much havoc against apartheid, wasn’t it some form of overkill, really, to have Mandela’s clone loosed upon the world!
But this was 1990 and Mandela was still destined to address, and be rejected by, the warring factions in KwaZulu-Natal’s killing fields, where by the time we went to the elections in 1994, more than 20,000 people would have lost their lives. He was still going to lead the ANC’s negotiation team and clash with his liberator-jailor FW de Klerk after the massacre of ANC people in Boipatong.
Chris Hani was still alive and South Africa was far from the knife-edge or explosion that followed his death. And his friend Oliver Reginald Tambo was alive, if barely, in a Swedish hospital, having been felled by a stroke that had all our names, both oppressors and oppressed, written in large, indelible letters. It was perhaps a presentiment of a troubled future that caused Mandela’s smile to slip sometimes — a cloud that hovers in the sky and leaves a memory of its shadow.
Someone once observed that Mandela’s passion for hard work derived from his fear of retirement, the superstition that a sedentary lifestyle would hasten the approach of the grave. Perhaps this explained the punishing schedule where, in a short week, he met legions of lobby groups that sought his attention, from the Parliamentary Black Caucus, led by Bernie Grant, to black theatre ensembles, black athletes or musicians. Even though the two Wembley Concerts honouring him had struck a significant blow against racism and intolerance, the British National Front and skinheads were still spouting hatred and conducting racist attacks on Asians, in parts of southeast London and elsewhere. Much more, Mandela was also expected to intercede on behalf of the members of the Black Labour Party section, who privately communicated anxiety over being sidelined by the main, or white, Labour Party, whose leadership had been transferred from Neil Kinnock to John Smith. Even though there must have been something gratifying about being recognised as an international problem-solver, an oracle armed with a panacea for everyone’s ills, Mandela must have apprehended the huge price people stood to pay for eminence in an imperfect world.
He had seen the toll on his friend and comrade OR Tambo, who had travelled all over the planet seeking solutions for his afflicted country. By the time Mandela took the flight back home, to face familiar problems in languages he could understand, he must have been heaving a monumental sigh of relief. It was possibly on his international travels that he must have discovered that, while his name could open doors, it could also become a burden. It could also be open to abuse.
The power of a name
I believe that the establishment of the Mandela Foundation, much later, was — apart from the practicalities of maintaining a legacy — a direct response to the manner in which his name had, so to say, been taken in vain.
In 1987, Mandela’s release was still a matter of speculation, with numerous false alarms that saw media contingents massing in various African capitals. In May 1987, I accompanied Prof Willie Kgositsile, our poet laureate, to the Republic of Congo to attend the 24th anniversary of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) whose centrepiece would be an international literary symposium of writers against apartheid. As the convention would be an august event addressed by the chair of the OAU, Col Denis Sassou-Nguesso, diplomacy required that ANC secretary-general Alfred Nzo strengthen our delegation.
There was certain solemnity to the occasion since the organisers wanted to inaugurate a Nelson Mandela Literary Award, an idea mooted by the Pan African Writers’ Association. We had travelled from Luanda with Maria Eugenia Neto, wife of Dr Agostinho Neto, Angola’s first president and Jose Luandino Vieria, author of The Real Life of Domingos Xavier, which was adapted into a harrowing film called Sambizanga, about a member of an African liberation movement who is arrested by the Portuguese secret police, after bloody events in Angola.
He refuses to betray his companions, but is beaten to death in prison, and not knowing he is dead, his wife goes from a police prison to another, trying vainly to discover where he is.
The tussle for Mandela came when the session chairman, Mauritian poet Edouard Monique, introduced the subject of the Mandela award. There was some confusion at first because we’d all believed in the merits of the symposium conferring this honour on Mandela. Despite Monique’s accomplished facilitation as he could effortlessly negotiate both the English and French linguistic minefields, confusion arose when the proposed literary award was politicised to placate the PAC, which was represented by Gora Ibrahim. The late writer from Côte d’Ivoire, Jean-Marie Adiaffi, who couldn’t understand why it had to take two liberation movements to fight the South African regime, jokingly chided the ANC — meaning Kgositsile and I — for wanting to hog the revolutionary limelight. Kgositsile hit the roof.
“We’ll consider treating with the PAC,” he said, “when Gora tells us of the last time their combatants engaged the enemy.” If, he went on, people wanted to fool around with Mandela’s name, “we’ll ask him to turn down the OAU prize”.
Of course Prof was bluffing; the leadership of the ANC wouldn’t have allowed us to turn down an honour like that; Mandela wouldn’t have regarded it as an individual honour but another building block for the ANC. But the organisers didn’t know that.
Much more importantly, if Mandela had learnt that we had practised some form of brinksmanship, using his name, albeit in the mistaken notion that we were protecting him, he would have been furious. His instinct of extending a helping hand, even to those who spurn it, would have dictated a different course of action, a more accommodating approach.
It was possibly this understanding of how the success of some revolutions is also predicated on compromise that informed the actions of Nancy Morejón, a beautiful poet from Cuba, who conjured the splendour of Havana’s Central Park. She’d spent the whole afternoon at the symposium examining, analysing and marvelling at Africans’ almost instinctive capacity for disagreement. She recited a poem dedicated to Mandela and the people of South Africa.
So, if you cross the Park, the world,
The womb of the Revolution,
You must hesitate,
Walk slowly, breathe self-consciously,
And give your whole life,
This symposium would form part of a series of activities worldwide, partly aimed at the isolation of the apartheid regime. A strong measure towards this objective was the boycott, which, in The Struggle is My Life, Mandela would define as a tactic and not a principle, which allowed citizens to apply a certain pressure against governments wielding power in an unjust or immoral manner.
Forming a backdrop to these initiatives were festivals, such as the culture and resistance forum in Botswana in 1982; one of the graphic artists at the festival was Thami Mnyele, who would be among the 15 ANC cadres and Batswana killed in an SADF raid on Gaborone in June 1985. Thami had been trained in Rorke’s Drift in the late ’60s and mid-’70s.
During these grim periods, some students made linocut and etchings that contained coded references to political prisoners and even stylised impressions of Nelson Mandela.
Mandela was the spirit behind the ANC’s tactic of the cultural boycott, which forbade performers from granting succour or respectability to apartheid, which still had mainly segregated venues. The world artistic community respected the boycott movement, even if it meant taking losses; it spawned formations such as United Artists Against Apartheid, led by Steve van Zandt, which inspired a 1985 rock classic, I Ain’t Gonna Play Sun City, featuring a gallery of legends that included Bruce Springsteen, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Bob Dylan and Gil Scott-Heron. This boycott was broken at different times by entertainers such as Shirley Bassey, Elton John, Percy Sledge, Ray Charles or Queen, who performed in apartheid venues and in Sun City for huge amounts of money.
Elsewhere, though, creativity was unleashed with actors and artists inspired by Nelson Mandela. For instance, in an interview with Steve Hammer, which appeared on the Austin Chronicle of January 1996, one of the world’s most respected actors, James Earl Jones, speaks about preparing for his role in Cry the Beloved Country, the film based on the novel by Alan Paton.
“Way before that,” he says, “I’d read the book years ago and had always wanted to be in it. My big question was: How would the gentleness — which I think is the key to my character — how would it go over with young black people? My main concern was that it not appear as something from the past, as a museum piece. I said: ‘When Mandela is freed, we’ll see.’ My character mirrors Mandela’s gentleness. When he was freed, I knew I would make this picture.”
Cultural boycott peters out
In the period between Mandela’s release and the establishment of a democratic South Africa, the policy of the cultural boycott spluttered to an end. Suddenly, everywhere you looked, there was someone wishing to perform in South Africa who could produce a letter of exemption, bearing Mandela’s famous signature on an ANC letterhead. By then, people had forgotten Jerry Dammers’s song, which was the first cry that had reawakened the world to the horror of injustice: Free Nelson Mandela!
“Free Nelson Mandela” was a cry taken up and turned into a creative crucible for composers in the ANC camps in Angola. Amandla Cultural Ensemble — the Angolans called it conjunto (a small musical group) — which consisted of MK soldiers who had organised themselves into a troupe that was managed by trombonist Jonas Gwangwa, ended up travelling all over the globe performing songs and skits detailing the various stages of South Africa’s struggle.
Forming the highlights of the repertoire were two speeches by Nelson Mandela; the first one was the raison d’être behind the armed struggle, which gave the oppressed two choices: to submit or fight. The second was Mandela’s speech at the dock. Presented dramatically, these sequences had a profound effect on audiences, from Novo Catengue to Novosibirsk, leaving most people moved to tears.
Songs, however, were the main feature, carrying the hopes of the guerrillas-in-training, exhorting the people of South Africa to rise and unite and free Mandela. The most rousing tune was the one directly appealing to Mandela.
Freedom is in your hands
Show us the way to freedom
Now we say: away with slavery
In this land of Africa.
In the 1980s, one of the running jokes at the ANC office in Islington, London, involved an encounter between British customs officials and a black illegal immigrant who’d swear on a stack of Bibles that he had stowed away on a cargo boat from South Africa. When asked about his port of embarkation, the applicant, whom we’d dubbed Sheepfold Miracle, an anagramitisation of ‘I escaped from hell’, answered: “Johannesburg.” And who was the prime minister of South Africa? “Nelson Mandela,” was the ready response.
While the above encounter was a cause for mirth and fed the latent xenophobia inherent in a significant percentage of South Africans, it also pointed to the silent pressure the world would exert on South Africa and further foreshadowed the huge price the country would pay for its vaunted success as a favourable destination for anyone dissatisfied with their lot on the African continent. This notion of South Africa as a Utopia in the making transcended continental borders and embraced that political arena defined as the African Diaspora.
Thirteen years after the National Party won the 1948 elections that empowered it to formalise segregationist policies accepted universally as particularly egregious, South Africa was forced out of the Commonwealth after a year-long campaign by a world disgusted with violations such as the Sharpeville Massacre, which saw 69 killed and hundreds maimed for protesting against retrograde pass laws on March 21 1960.
In a sense Sharpeville became a reference point for the struggle against apartheid.
Having found the pretext it had always sought, the new republic declared a state of emergency and thereafter banned both the PAC and the ANC on March 30 1960. Although this sticks in the craw of dyed-in-the-wool ANC supporters, the PAC is still widely credited for the mobilisation that resulted in the bloodletting in Sharpeville.
I was 10 years old, in Chesterville, Durban, when Sharpeville happened; I remember the heaviness in the air, which was reminiscent of the gloom that gripped the country when news came on January 21 1960 that all hope was lost for the 35 miners submerged 600 feet underground after a rock-fall in Coalbrook. An itinerant chimney sweep called Mjantshi kaThobela, the local oracle who was wired into everything that was happening in the country, told us that the world was coming to an end. Darker than the soot he scooped out of people’s chimneys, Mjantshi warned us, a group of snot-nosed schoolboys, that soon enough the army would roll into the township and anyone stupid to give a thumbs-up sign and chant, “Mayibuy’iAfrika,” would be arrested. Anyone calling for Mandela to come and liberate the people, as was the wont of some self-styled rebel full of rotgut liquor, would be shot dead on the spot.
We had heard of Mandela from the street and had conjured up for ourselves an image not unlike the colossuses we saw every week on the screens of the Shah Jehan or Raj cinemas. We saw Mandela more as Allan Quatermain in Sir Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines than as Paul Robeson’s Mbopha, mainly because it was quite clear who the hero was. How we clapped and cheered when the white hero saved Africans from other Africans and rescued the alabaster maiden from bloodthirsty savages, who looked like us!
If we were colour blind then, our eyes were opened by the events that unfolded in neighbouring Cato Manor, a sprawling slum whose dwellers were threatened with forced removal. Nine policemen were massacred when they tried to arrest sellers of illegal sorghum beer. We then saw the might of the police, who came in six-wheeled armed personnel carriers called Saracens, and rounded up the suspects, many of whom were hanged.
It was about that time that the South African Broadcasting Corporation started an isiZulu service, which started at 9.30am, prompting Mjantshi to observe that black people worldwide had been created at 9.30am. By this time all pretence at even-handedness by the Pretoria regime had ended with Dr Verwoerd enacting law after law, which caused our parents, when they thought we weren’t listening, to sigh: “Where is Mandela now?”
The answer came from the radio broadcasts, which were eloquent in what they didn’t say. In addition to the bitter, self-mocking delivery of the news by anchors whose inflection conveyed the pressure they were under, the streets, whose grapevine crackled from coast to coast, filled in the blanks. As my elder brothers and their friends got into more nighttime huddles to the annoyance of our parents who were uneasy with secrecy, Mandela’s name was on everyone’s lips.
He is banned; no, he’s not banned: he’s in Pietermaritzburg to address a conference that would defy the banning of the ANC. Later, no: Mandela is out of the country to organise the underground forces, which will return victorious, arms in hand, to liberate us… in fact, Mandela’s everywhere organising a three-day stay-at-home strike that’s supposed to begin on May 31 1961.
The strike happened long before the men and women, who couldn’t actually afford it, withdrew their labour and stayed home. It had been brewing in the discontent people felt towards the government, so that when it was announced it fell on receptive ears. On our street, in fact right across the township of Chesterville, local zealots knocked on doors, sometimes using knobkerries, demanding home dwellers to join the march. That first night, the municipal offices were set on fire. I remember the near-human howls of the administrator’s well-fed dogs and the chatter of flamingos and other exotic birds as they succumbed to the blaze.
Some of the township dwellers, who for any number of reasons, felt threatened by the strike and the door-to-door campaigns, took their belongings and fled, some with comical consequences. The actions of a well-known school principal could have informed one of Jerry Seinfeld’s stand-up routines.
Having loaded his terrified family into his car, the principal had tied a mattress to the roof of his car and, as the car moved, he then held on to it with his arm. The tie-down job proved insufficient as the car picked up speed, with the result that, in the morning, the burnt out mattress was part of the debris on the roadside.
Even though the strike was short-lived, called off by Mandela and the Action Committee, its effects reverberated through our township. My mother’s friends, who returned to the madams’ kitchens and found traumatised employers who realised how incapable they were of running their households, had found a confidence they had not known they possessed.
But it was clear even to the uninitiated that the government’s show of force and its silencing of voices of dissent would lead to violence.
The intimation of violence happened on June 26 1961. From a hideout, Mandela read a statement to the media where he voiced his intention to make government impossible, an assertion that would be repeated, two decades later, by OR Tambo when he exhorted South Africans “to render the country ungovernable”. Mandela told the press that he had chosen a life where he would live separate from his wife and children “to live like an outlaw in my own land”.
In 1984 I was in Harare for the inaugural Southern African Film and Video Organisation, which coincided with the first Zimbabwe International Book Fair. Some of Africa’s best filmmakers and writers, including the duo of accomplished hell-raisers, Haile Gerima and Djibril Mambety Diop, were in attendance. We’d arrived from Lusaka armed with VHS copies of documentaries such as Last Grave in Dimbaza, The Sun Will Rise and Six Days in Soweto, most of which were IDAF or BBC productions. There was a clip featuring Winnie Mandela commenting on life of banishment in Brandfort, Free State, her great eyes luminous with defiance. Haile Gerima, who is normally outspoken and combative, could not mask his admiration. “This is one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen,” he said, shaking his head. “For Mandela to leave her to conduct an underground struggle is a show of unparalleled commitment.”
Erosion of respect
I was 14 when Mandela started serving his life sentence on Robben Island in 1964. By then, our family had been moved from Chesterville — a township we’d once regarded as grim — into a reasonable facsimile of hell: KwaMashu Township about 25km north from the Durban city centre. Here, there was nothing bar the endless stretches of sugar-cane fields and snake-infested scrubland. Families were dumped with their belongings in front of four-roomed matchbox houses that were without any of the basic amenities. The floor of the front room of our new house was strewn with dead ashes and garbage, a sign of previous occupancy by workmen needing night-time heating.
I suppose one of the most unforgivable sins of apartheid is not so much the pieces of legislation enacted in pursuance of an unjust system as the erosion of respect the young have for the old. For, in the eyes of the youth, it is the parents that have allowed this state of affairs to prevail. My father was a minister of religion, held in high esteem by his peers, but here inside this fetid house, he was reduced to a manikin. As we off-loaded the truck and carted our belongings into the house, listening to the truck driver hurrying us on as he had another urgent assignment, I recalled the truth of Norman Mailer’s observation that “being a man is the continuing battle of one’s life, and one loses a bit of manhood with every compromise to the authority of any power in which one does not believe”.
And, as usually happens with all townships, the population of a once-sparse settlement increased and in no time KwaMashu became a crime-ridden cauldron of repressed anger, which was proof that people reverted to rodent behaviour when they had their backs against the wall. Hardly a weekend passed without someone stumbling on a mutilated body lying in the bushes or in a culvert, whose eeriness gave the impression of having been designed exactly for that purpose. A certain palpable rage permeated the township, like an electric current, born of some black people’s need to lash out and destroy everything that was created in their image. I suppose it was this recognition of how thoroughly the white world held us in contempt — and how we had internalised this scorn — that we embraced the arrival of the black consciousness movement.
The period was characterised by a certain gloom which had been ushered in by the banning of the two main political movements, the ANC and the PAC; the capture of Mandela’s comrades at Lilliesleaf Farm in Rivonia — which the regime and its media dismissed as misguided forays by weak-eyed visionaries and political gadflies — and their subsequent sentencing to life imprisonment marked the closing of a glorious chapter where people had exulted in reclaiming their collective humanity. South Africans, who had also organised themselves in study groups where they dissected and interpreted Marxist treatises and a miscellany of revolutionary tracts, suddenly found themselves facing potentially long jail sentences for indulging in intellectual activity. In a word, many people found themselves bereft of a crutch. Here and there people talked in whispers about so-and-so who’d gone off and joined Umkhonto weSizwe; there was a suspicion, widely harboured but hardly voiced, that there had been something almost adventuresome and informed by derring-do in the way the group that was arrested at Lilliesleaf Farm had conducted its underground mission. The disguises and the ruses they had used to evade capture were amateurish; others, like Harold Strachan who engaged in solo-sabotage capers, had added more heat for suspects than advanced the revolutionary programme in any significant way. The torpor was further deepened by the knowledge that the price to pay for engaging in political work was high and the network of informers industrious. The political trials were as efficient as they were ruthless, with death sentences meted out with scant regard for international indignation. Three prominent trade unionists from Port Elizabeth, Vuyisile Mini, Zinakile Mkaba and Wilson Khayinga, were executed, giving composers additional names to be invoked in poems and revolutionary songs.
The National Party government’s sense of the impunity was bolstered by the voting population’s choice of leaders. BJ Vorster’s graduation from minister of justice to prime minister was akin to the rise of caudillos, the strongmen who’d been loosed on the unsuspecting Latin American people by the CIA and the United Fruit Company. A Nazi sympathiser, he embodied, in word and gesture, everything that black people feared and held in utter contempt. Even from a young age, I suspected that white people had elevated this monstrosity to the highest office out of a need to avoid taking responsibility for anything that would be done for their benefit, much like the complex relationship between carnivorous animal rights campaigners and butchers. One only had to see the piercing eyes glittering beneath a great beetling brow — a motif much favoured by cartoonist Jock Leyden of the Durban Daily News — to know that the road towards self-determination would be long and hard.
But Pretoria’s cavalier attitude to life failed to prick the consciences of the leadership of most western countries. Trade with South Africa continued; there were angry exchanges in the various United Nations councils — and some African countries compensated for their powerlessness with laryngeal imprecations against apartheid which had no real effect. Vorster passed more laws and progressively more people were diminished by poverty and fear. Thumbing his nose at the efforts by African states and the Nonaligned Movement, Vorster actively dangled concessions for countries favourably disposed towards South Africa, bagging in his hunting expeditions quarry such as Malawi’s Kamuzu Banda and Ivory Coast’s Félix Houphouët-Boigny. The latter had frustrated OAU attempts to get him to attend meetings, pleading a fear of flying, a phobia that would miraculously disappear when he had to visit cities such as Paris or Johannesburg. It was ironic that Vorster assiduously courted African leaders from far and wide to grant his regime some legitimacy, while rebuking the global community for meddling when it suggested he initiate dialogue with internal leaders such as Mandela.
These forays into Darkest Africa by the Nationalist Party government were accompanied by an unstated policy of active ministration of amnesia against the leaders on Robben Island, a project that saw the government cranking up its machinery of censorship. Although virulently anticommunist, the government could still borrow from Stalin’s airbrushing out of history of his political opponents. This was a refinement of an ancient Roman practice. The senate wiped its deposed emperors from the historical record by a decree of damnatio memoriae — or condemnation of the memory — by removing their names from public inscriptions and destroying their statues. Like a palimpsest, the traces of original ideas espoused by opponents of apartheid remained inscribed on the substrate of people’s minds.
Given his charisma and natural leadership qualities and a resonant name that sounded tailor-made for rallying around, Mandela was one person whose memory the regime strove to efface. While the majority of church leaders risked arrest by citing holy writ that championed the virtues of giving succour to the unfortunate, which involved visiting those in prison, some of the collaborationist pastors went to great lengths to remind congregants of the wisdom of giving unto Caesar what was his due. Forming an epigraph to James Baldwin’s evocative essay on fractured race relations in the US is a verse taken from the King James Version of the Bible. It is an apposite and prophetic comment on what the leaders of apartheid South Africa had in mind for Mandela and his ilk.
His remembrance shall perish from the earth
And he shall have no name in the street.
He shall be driven from light into darkness
And chased out of the world
— Job 18:17-18
From about June 1964, when Mandela started his life sentence on Robben Island, to 1984 — the period when the mass democratic movement started flexing its muscle, the Pretoria regime pulled out all the stops to maintain an illusion that Mandela didn’t exist. It was strange, for instance, to walk around the grounds of the University of Fort Hare in the ’70s and learn that Mandela had once been a student there, as had a number of African luminaries who made their mark in the anticolonial struggles of the ’60s, among them Oliver Tambo, Govan Mbeki, Chris Hani, Robert Sobukwe, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, Dennis Brutus, Seretse Khama, Robert Mugabe and Charles Njonjo. Njonjo would later become minister of health in Kenya — reviled for his refusal to board a flight once he learnt that the pilot was black. There was little evidence of the previous occupancy of the university houses by these leaders, pointing to a particularly South African hesitancy to memorialise icons, as that would displease the authorities.
Trying to remove personalities from the public domain to render them forgettable merely ensures the reverse; they grow larger than life in the realm of popular imagination. The National Party administrations from the ’60s to the ’90s, believed that in shutting a man behind prison gates you obliterated his memory. Today, supporters and detractors of Mandela are united in recognising that it is very difficult to immure a myth, because that is what Mandela became, a will-o’-the-wisp, a hero who could fight the enemy by using the weapon of absence from the arena. Here, some might speculate why it had to be Mandela and not, say, Jeff Masemola of the PAC — whose period of incarceration was the same or even longer than Mandela’s — who achieved a status proximate to that of a living saint. The answers conjure up Martin Luther King Junior’s ascendancy to the leadership of the civil rights movement in the US and how he became the chosen one and not Reverend Ralph Abernathy or the equally personable Andrew Young. Although people might choose a path that catapults them to leadership, it might be truer to say that fate takes them by the scruff of the neck and frogmarches them into history. In terms of Mandela, the ANC worked hard, once it decided he would personify its campaigns.
In this, the ANC was aided and abetted by the international solidarity movement, which, as was evidenced by a succession of star-studded extravaganzas across the globe, ascertained the association of Mandela’s name and image with what is good and admirable in human beings. Further, in seeking to legitimise the ANC, the mass democratic formations led by the UDF harnessed the Mandela persona, usually indirectly.
On February 10 1985, at a rally to celebrate Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s winning of the Nobel peace prize, Zindzi Mandela read Mandela’s response to the government’s offer to release detainees. Although the message was dramatic enough, where Mandela rejected the conditional offer of release, it was the very act of speaking to the people, through his flesh and blood, that electrified the huge rally.
On home soil, Mandela struggled somewhat at the beginning, South Africans being slow to warm to wannabe Messiahs. It is no secret that his earlier years on Robben Island were fraught with contestation; some even source his somewhat difficult relationship with his successor, Thabo Mbeki, to the low-intensity rivalry between Mandela and the more ideologically astute Govan Mbeki. There were clashes, also, with some of the brasher elements of the black consciousness movement, like the late Strini Moodley or Saths Cooper or even Mosiuoa Terror Lekota, before the latter’s conversion to ANC politics. One imagines that it was more these jousts with fellow inmates and comrades than the hardship endured at the hands of the prison authorities, which armed him for his future role.
To the world outside he also had to prove that he hadn’t sold out — an accusation favoured by some black political parties that were in decline. The booing by crowds in KwaZulu-Natal, when, fresh from prison, Mandela urged factional warlords to throw their weapons into the sea, echoed widespread rumblings associated with scepticism at what one person could achieve. This wasn’t surprising.
As the political parties started campaigning during an incredibly fraught atmosphere where threats of violence abounded, where the right wing had even invaded the World Trade Centre where talks were being held, Mandela was even more destined to face insurmountable hurdles. He went on his knees, figuratively speaking, to bring into the party people like Constand Viljoen, who was widely held in awe by the military; likewise with Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, whose mistrust of a future, ANC-led government almost scuppered the possibility of the elections of 1994.
All these tangled pasts, of course, would loom large in Mandela’s decisions on maintaining a viable state.
Test of courage
Even though there was exultation and hysterical outpouring of joy at the inauguration, after the first democratic elections of 1994 when Mandela took the oath as the planes flew dangerously close above the Union Buildings, it was a matter of time before Mandela was put to the test. And in politics as well as in other aspects of life, character plays a big role in offering up the arsenal of weapons to be used to face challenges.
Mandela’s upbringing in a royal Thembu house whose powers had been attenuated by first the British, then the Union government of 1910 and later by the National Party and its complex mechanisms of ensuring control, must have introduced him to the implications of injustice.
People who became politically active in the first decades of the last century did so from real conviction, because they knew that the price for this involvement was high. In our political classes, comparisons were sometimes made between the struggles of black Americans and the struggle against apartheid of South Africans.
In the early ’20s in the US, especially in the deep South, black people could be lynched willy-nilly; it’s not an exaggeration that lynching in South Africa had been elevated to state policy in the early years.
Leaders who were thrown up by popular will — or necessity — had to be strong, their morality unquestionable.
Black people had to carry passes and, in big cities, were forbidden to walk on pavements; hundreds and hundreds were brutalised — and any white person, no matter how lowly, was boss. Mandela lived through all that; he saw the monster of apartheid at close quarters and was not fazed.
He was part of the growth and revitalisation of the ANC during its weakest moments, was imprisoned for his commitment and was ready to go to the gallows for it. He saw the ANC, from the intimate distance of prison, wobbling in exile; the split by the Africanists following the death of Robert Resha in London must have given him a glimpse into the ANC’s vulnerability.
He must have been distressed when ANC cadres were expelled from the frontline states after the Nkomati Accord between Samora Machel and PW Botha in 1984. He must have despaired at the many massacres, including those in Lesotho, Mozambique and Botswana.
When he came out, then, it must have been into another country; the South Africa he had been shut off from in 1964 was vastly different from the South Africa of 1990.
Most of the past hurdles based on race had mutated into challenges of poverty and fear; there was rampant crime — and the scourge of HIV/AIDS, which would make the country he would lead a shameful model, eclipsed by countries like Uganda, in commitment to combating the epidemic.
He had to deal with the fear of white people, who, remembering how they got where they were, expected to be dislodged violently from their lofty perches of privilege.
In a word he had to grapple with the implications of a mordant dictum: the future is certain; it is the past that is unpredictable.
Mandela was courageous in setting up the structures to support democracy at the same time that he went about addressing the horrors of the past through the truth and reconciliation process. Many believed — a belief that I share in — that this was a masterstroke that helped South Africa in two ways. They could — and, as the past still endures, still can — come to terms with the horror heaped on them or on others in their names. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) also acted as a valve and allowed the catharsis needed by the country, which was full of the walking wounded, to breathe and thereby avoid widespread bloodshed.
It was when we witnessed the public collapse of great men, in vivid colour in our living rooms, that we started understanding the huge task that had to be achieved if all of us were to be able to remain sane.
In the twilight of his years, Mandela was feted and honoured everywhere and almost by everyone. Sacred and secular leaders worldwide — and the occasional wispy supermodel or starlet — gravitated towards him and touched the hem of his saffron shirt, like the lepers of Lourdes, believing that this would be a balm for the secret wounds in their souls. Many saw him as a lucky charm, a talisman necessary for South African victories in sports; the dramatic Rugby World Cup win in 1995 was credited more to Mandela than to Francois Pienaar, who led the squad.
A few commentators have railed against what they saw as the commercialisation of the Mandela brand, which they felt was a national treasure and should be at the disposal of the government. Here and there were murmurings of what would happen to his legacy especially whenever people were unable to go past Zelda la Grange, a white Afrikaner. There were those who felt that Mandela could not have become what he became without the ANC and the people of South Africa; and so, the logic went, he was owned by the ANC, a family heirloom.
A country of extremes
More than that: South Africa has always been a country with the dubious distinction of managing to spawn violently divergent tendencies while containing extremist excess. For instance, Alexandra Township, a square mile of unimaginable squalor and poverty is a stone’s throw from Sandton, an opulent commercial hub that houses the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. It is a country that allowed the existence of Orania, a private whites-only settlement in the Northern Cape where in 1995, to the utter horror of his comrades, Mandela had tea with Betsie Verwoerd, widow of the arch-apartheid architect HF Verwoerd, as gesture of reconciliation. Grateful to Mandela for his visit, she asked him to consider the volkstaat ideal with sympathy and wisdom. It’s a country that also attracted Amy Biehl, a student from Sante Fe High School, who learnt of Mandela’s story and determined to work for the cause to free him. As fate would have it, she was killed by a frenzied mob; Linda Biehl, in memory of her slain daughter — and in a demonstration of forgiveness that could only have happened in Mandela’s honour — she publicly embraced her daughter’s killers.
In a word, the South Africa that Mandela midwifed through influencing the trajectory of his country’s history inspired strong passions, some bordering on the fanatical. Almost all the bloggers on websites that comment on South African politics somehow have Mandela as a touchstone, whether or not they agree with the current political situation.
His successors, be it Thabo Mbeki — who was recalled by the ANC in September 2008, or Jacob Zuma, who succeeded him as ANC president, were almost invariably unfavourably benchmarked against Mandela. One site that presents itself as a counter to the South African government’s reluctance to release crime figure statistics has extracted choice sections of Breyten Breytenbach’s essay for Harpers Magazine, salivating at Breyten’s nonce usage of “Moneydeala”, which alleged an exploitative use of the Mandela brand for profit.
Whatever conclusions were reached by the readers of Harper’s Magazine or by the international right-wing cabal that routinely gets into rhapsodies over any negative titbit on South Africa, there was Mandela’s impact on the world stage. His sense of right and wrong had won him the Nobel Peace Prize; there were a few of us who felt that he should not have agreed to share the honour with De Klerk, whom we felt had a lot to answer for. This had a precedent in 1973 where Le Duc Tho refused to accept the prize that had been jointly awarded to him and Henry Kissinger on the grounds that his country was not yet at peace. But we were being unnecessarily hardline.
Cognisant of the struggles of other peoples elsewhere, in occupied Palestine, for instance, Mandela has traversed the world and pointedly stayed clear of Israel; he did reject the Kemal Ataturk Award from Turkey, bringing world attention on the repression against Kurdish minorities, a gesture that was dumbfounding for my friends on Green Lanes and which was denounced in harsh terms in editorials of Hurriyet, the Turkish daily. Hurriyet, which means liberty, called Mandela “an ugly African”, possibly borrowing a coinage to characterise the more unpalatable aspects of American foreign policy.
But Americans, who gave Mandela a ticker-tape salute on Wall Street, have singularly been forced to show their more agreeable face since Mandela’s release, the leaders like Bill Clinton ensuring that he became a regular feature of an honoured circle of eminent persons. Where in the past his face had disappeared from public display, Mandela’s burr-haired, hoary head and broad smile became ubiquitous representatives of progress and integrity. The broad African features, which in history and anthropology had been despised as redolent of shiftlessness and mendicancy, had been rehabilitated and rendered acceptable, as if Mandela’s release had also freed sections of the world humanity of their prejudices. Mandela was one of the few statesmen whose state of health would have an effect on the markets. For instance, in September 2007, George Bush’s faux pax that Saddam Hussein had killed Nelson Mandela sent the markets into a tailspin. Most would suspect that this was a payback for Mandela’s outspokenness against Bush’s stance on Iraq, especially the barbed remark at the International Women’s Forum in 2003 that the US was “one power with a president who has no foresight”.
He worried that Bush, “who cannot think properly” was likely “to plunge the world into a holocaust”.
If they’d previously thrown up bona fide mediocrities as their leaders, the Americans were to redeem themselves in Barack Obama’s election in the summer of 2008. South Africans prided themselves, correctly or incorrectly, that Mandela’s influence, albeit from more than 11,000km, had created a world environment of greater tolerance. In other parts of Africa, though, there was a tenuous link between Mandela’s voluntary step-down from the presidency after only one term; he bucked the trend that had characterised African leadership, where some Big Man — with fortunes indistinguishable from the state’s treasury — would tenaciously cling to power, which would be handed down to his progeny in the event of his death.
His brother's keeper
But Mandela was more than just a reassuring figure for the world to know that it was still firmly fixed on its axis. He was as much a part of the history of this country, this continent and this globe, as he was an agent of that history. The adulation was the world’s embrace for the man who symbolised courage, hope and reconciliation. Even though he knew how the world regarded him, his unshakeable and genuine humility was a breath of fresh air when compared with the moral midgets who strutted on the world stage, flatulent in their self-aggrandisement and bluster. Addressing the UN in 1995, Mandela had said: “Many in positions of power and privilege pursue cold-hearted philosophies, which terrifyingly proclaim: I’m not your brother’s keeper!”
And he was his brother’s keeper. One sometimes heard the pain in his voice on occasion of the burial of a comrade, someone Mandela had lived and worked with for decades. In 1993 alone, he had presided over the funerals of both Chris Hani and Oliver Tambo. Regarding Tambo, who had been his friend and comrade for more than five decades, he had said: “He enriched my own life and intellect, and neither I nor indeed this country can forget this colossus of our history.”
It would take another decade before he would lose another friend, comrade and political mentor, Walter Sisulu, whom he called by his clan name, Xhamela. In one of the biggest funerals that South Africa had ever seen, a stricken Madiba delivered a tribute that was as simple as it was moving. Decrying the unintended burden of longevity, where he was fated to survive his compatriots, he said: “Those of us who are singled out to stay the longest bear the pain of seeing our comrades go.”
He characterised Sisulu as his support, defender — someone whose disappearance from the scene left him wanting.
“In a peasant society a person walking with a stout stick, a staff — no longer than an ordinary walking stick and lesser than a pole — is a common sight. One always has it around…. It aids one to maintain a steady, firm gait. It is a crutch one leans on, helps you not to falter in your walk. It is also a weapon to help one defend oneself against any unforeseen danger that may arise in the journey. With it one feels secure and safe. Such was Xhamela to me.”
If Sisulu had such a profound effect on Mandela he, Madiba, meant so much to a significant percentage of world humanity. In the foreword to Mandela, The Authorised Portrait, former secretary-general of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, wrote:
“People always ask me what difference one person can make in the face of injustice, conflict, human-rights violations, mass poverty and disease, I answer by citing the courage, tenacity, dignity and magnanimity of Nelson Mandela.”
Life’s enduring contradiction was that, while the world held him in high esteem, it was only here, in his native land, that Madiba had a rough ride. He was stung by his comrades’ disrespect on the one reported instance when some members of the national executive committee of the ANC turned on him for daring to question the course that then-President Thabo Mbeki was following for the AIDS epidemic. He had already fired a shot across the bows and challenged AIDS denialists, by word or precept, when, on the fifth anniversary of the death of Princess Diana in 2002, he had paid tribute to her and her campaigns to take the stigma out of the pandemic.
He said: “Those who are infected with this terrible disease do not want stigma, they want love.” Also: “AIDS today in Africa is claiming more lives than the sum total of all wars, famines and floods and the ravages of such deadly diseases as malaria.”
In 2004, tragedy struck closer to home when his only surviving son, Makgatho Mandela, succumbed to the disease.
“I announce that my son has died of AIDS,” an 86-year-old Mandela told a news conference. “Let us give publicity to HIV and AIDS and not hide it, because the only way to make it appear like a normal illness — like TB, like cancer — is always to come out and to say somebody has died because of HIV and AIDS. And people will stop regarding it as something extraordinary.”
“I announce that my son has died of AIDS,” an 86-year-old Mandela told a news conference. “Let us give publicity to HIV and AIDS and not hide it, because the only way to make it appear like a normal illness — like TB, like cancer — is always to come out and to say somebody has died because of HIV and AIDS. And people will stop regarding it as something extraordinary.”
Shortly, towards the fourth democratic elections, the African National Congress needed all of its the political heavyweights to counter the effect of the Congress of the People, which had broken away from the ANC following the recall of former president Thabo Mbeki. There were many pundits who said that Mandela should continue limiting public appearances, for the sake of his health. But Mandela threw in his lot with the ANC and appeared in two of the organisation’s rallies. This moral weight behind the ANC, many aver, swung millions of votes away from any other political parties. The involvement of his grandson, Mandla, was quite evident in this public relations exercise that won the ANC the votes. Mandela was known to dote on his grandchildren; in his grandson, he probably saw traces of himself as a young man. In fact, there was a belief that Mandela was preparing the younger man for leadership position in the ANC of the future, long after he, Madiba, had joined that great political party of the ancestors.
Lending credence to this was the fanfare attending Mandla Mandela’s installation as a chief and the serious rather than ceremonial role for traditional leaders in the post-Mbeki future, which has been mooted by the ANC.
There will never be another Mandela, just as the ANC underwent significant transformations after Mandela’s tenure as the organisation’s leader. But this is a natural progression, a handing over of the baton from one style of leadership to another. To expect differently would be to regard history as static; Mandela was there and made his contribution at a time determined by historical necessities. There’ll be carbon copies of him, like Madame Tussauds wax effigies, life’s biggest tribute. And most of the musicians and artists and writers who were galvanised by the anti-apartheid movement or moved by their collective conscience to perform for Mandela or contribute their creativity to the cause, have grown old, some disgracefully, others still with their eyes on the prize. A few of the people who were gung-ho to be identified with South Africa must have had second thoughts, because that South Africa when Mandela walked out of prison, is gone, like a region that’s been submerged under banks of sand. In search of the Promised Land, Sheepfold Miracle and his brethren probably ended up in Alexandra or Diepsloot, where, to avoid being prey to marauding mobs, they must have negotiated their way out of xenophobic violence, which regularly rears its ugly head.
There will never again be a Mandela Moment, the day when South Africans exulted in a celebration of a common ideal, when they formed long queues to vote for the first time in 1994, in a manifestation of unity that silenced guns and mortified demagogues. There will never again be a repeat of the infinitesimal moment of self-recognition that was transmitted through the synapses of thinking South Africans when an old man collapsed — and Archbishop Desmond Tutu simultaneously wept — when apartheid atrocities were disclosed during a TRC hearing in Cape Town.
As we have started to don the mask and assume the same characteristics of the countries that, in the years of struggle, we promised ourselves never to become, one hopes that, in our newfound, extravagant sense of self, no one will rise up and force us to heed these fateful words:
“I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I’m prepared to die.”