For the centenary of Nelson Mandela’s birth, we commissioned Mandla Langa to reflect on Madiba’s legacy five years after his passing. Langa is a renowned author of both fiction and non-fiction, and in 2017 partnered with the Foundation on the book Dare Not Linger: The Presidential Years, an account of Madiba’s 1994-1999 presidency. The essay by him published here interprets Madiba’s life in relation to local and global contexts.
Almost everyone you meet has a story about Mandela; sometimes not so much about what he did as about how he made them feel. He was self-deprecating about his renown, joking, for instance, about meeting a couple in Nassau in 1991 when he was a guest of Chris Blackwell. An overawed cyclist almost fell off his bike when he saw Mandela. Calling his wife over, he said: “Honey, this is Mr Mandela.” Unimpressed, the wife answered, “Yes, I hear that … but what is he famous for?”
The most pertinent question, which remains unasked throughout the appraisal of Nelson Mandela’s life is, what was it about him that endeared him, sometimes to the level of near-hysteria, to people the world over? South Africans say that he made them feel alive; others, even admirers from far and wide, basked in his reflected sunshine and started connecting with the politics of their land because, they maintained, there were suddenly all these possibilities. It was through the world of artists – the poets mentioned previously – that he, Mandela, became even more alive in the public imagination.
Anyone who was lucky enough to have attended the concert to celebrate Mandela's 70th birthday while he was still in prison, at Wembley Stadium, London, in June 1988, would admit to have been treated to a transcendental moment. I remember the ecstasy among the South African exile and expatriate community, members of the anti-apartheid and solidarity movement and, of course, the thousands of mainly young people in the audience. Of the artists themselves, I remember the stammering pain mixed with joy on the face of the late Whitney Houston when she took the stage, beginning a long friendship with Mandela and South Africa, which would continue when she met him once he had become president at a dinner hosted by Bill Clinton at the White House in October 1994.
“This performance is very special to me,” she said, preparing to sing for guests in the Rose Garden, “because in 1988 I sang in honour of Nelson Mandela the inmate and tonight I sing for elected president, Nelson Mandela.”
While the world – or, according the to the title of one of Kgositsile’s poetry collections, the present – might be a dangerous place blighted by cynicism and selfishness, it can also be stimulated into tapping its hidden reserves of virtuousness. Mandela’s face became the most immediate representation of that undefined energy called “the struggle” raging at home and lent strength to the worldwide anti-apartheid and solidarity movements, which called for sanctions and isolation of the regime. “If there’s one lesson we can learn from the struggle against racism, in our country as well as yours,” Nelson Mandela said about the United States while on a visit there, “it is that racism must be consciously combatted and not discreetly tolerated.”
Artists, a breed renowned the world over for their low threshold for any form of intolerance, heeded the call to isolate South Africa; in the US, thwarting apartheid’s sleight-of-hand to escape international isolation, Steve van Zandt formed United Artists Against Apartheid and in 1985 produced a rock anthem, I Ain’t Gonna Play Sun City, featuring Bruce Springsteen, Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis, Bob Dylan and Gil Scott-Heron.
Not to be outdone, film and stage actors appeared in productions inspired by the South African story. One of the most enduring films is Cry, the Beloved Country, based on the novel by Alan Paton. The veteran actor James Earl Jones, Hollywood’s most distinctive voice, was concerned about how the portrayal of a long-suffering character would go down with a more militant youth. Speaking to the Austin Chronicle in January 1996, he said that he’d read the book a long time ago “and had always wanted to be in [its film version]. But 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.”
In a word, Mandela freed others to embrace their own freedom. But he knew that this freedom, which for black people involved removing both the physical and mental shackles imposed on them by the white racist regime, would not be complete without the white people – who had been routinely fed on the false diet of racial superiority – shaking off their own shackles. Even though a member of the ANC, in fact, its leader, he knew he had to become a statesman operating above or beyond the constraints imposed by party political loyalties if he were to truly steer his fragmented country on an unswerving path to a non-racial and prosperous democracy. He had once been on stage, playing Creon, the tyrant in Sophocles’ Antigone, on Robben Island and had developed a liking for Greek tragedy and Shakespeare. But this was a different kind of theatre, a theatre of life where, to borrow from James Baldwin again, “a current flowed back and forth between the audience and the actors: flesh and blood corroborating flesh and blood”. It was a theatre of life, real, where missteps could lead to bloodshed and the loss of innocent lives.
In leadership, the past is prologue
Early in 2018, the centenary year of Nelson Mandela’s birth, South Africans have borne witness to a flurry of political activity that has thrown, rather appropriately, a spotlight on our country’s leadership. At the heart of all this has been a decade-long strain put on our widely admired Constitution. Acts of omission or commission by various people in power have occasioned a series of transgressions typified by corruption and a breach of public trust. The result: one president has resigned, another has taken his place – someone who was instrumental, in fact, in creating our Constitution – and South Africa is gripped by the kind of optimism which, if it doesn’t reach the high-water mark set by Nelson Mandela’s release from prison in 1990, at least makes for some sense of much-needed renewal.
While the corruption South Africa has endured could be written off as common to administrations around the world, South Africans feel especially pained by it, mainly because the theft from the public purse diverts resources from the poorest of the poor. Our country’s poorest citizens bear the brunt when it comes to service delivery, which grinds to a halt at the threshold of their desperate dwellings. The grand larceny also distracts us from the much larger debate about the structure of the economy. It leads to silence about the unconscionable levels of inequality here, plus the fact that while the poor – invariably the black majority – are trapped in poverty, the well-resourced – the majority of whom, inescapably, are white – become vocal in decrying corruption, proof positive, so goes the logic, that blacks are incapable of running a modern economy. The ills of the unresolved past and its iniquities give a piquant flavouring to dinner conversations, where the past – a different country that was experienced differently by different people – is either commended or condemned. Common to these conversations, though, is the consensus that the world was a somewhat more tolerable place during the life and times of Nelson Mandela.
Nostalgia for the past – an impulse as prevalent in antiquity as in modern times – comes over people whenever they feel menaced, betrayed or disappointed. As a rule, though, very few people can be nostalgic about periods when they were powerless or set at naught. Dyed-in-the-wool beneficiaries of apartheid plunder, for instance, remember that past fondly; for the majority of black people – and a minority of relatively-committed whites – the return to the inglorious days of apartheid would be as unthinkable as would a return to life on a slave plantation be for African Americans. Paradise, then, could not have been real without the existence of hell. Mandela, a realist, wrote from prison in July 1985: “In my current circumstances, thinking about the past can be far more exacting than contemplating the present and predicting the course of future events.”
Given the all-too-human temptation for blacks to remember the scourge of colonialism and apartheid with an eye on avoiding their rebirth – and for whites to eradicate from living memory the reality of benefitting from the shameful legacy of the sjambok and the pillory, the better to absolve themselves – it would take the commitment of one man to coax our bipolar society into a realistic accommodation of its history. Advising against the principle of retribution, Mandela famously said that “All of us South Africans, both black and white, must build a common sense of nationhood in which all ideas of vengeance and retribution are impermissible.” For him, the moorings of the future were in the present, the now. For us, to know Mandela we must delve back into the past, into the makings of him, which are ineluctably intertwined with the makings of the South Africa we know today.
Mandela the pacifist, Mandela the warrior: the making of a leader in the field
Voicing an idea that must have roiled in the minds of the multitudes over the last two decades, the late South African poet laureate Keorapetse Kgositsile wrote:
I fear the end of peace
and I wonder if
that is perhaps why
our memories of struggle
refuse to be erased.
The fear of the end of peace or of its corollary, the beginning of war, had motivated Nelson Mandela long before he had consciously internalised his future role as a champion of peace and reconciliation. The fear was not so much a reflexive shrinking away from the possibility of harm to oneself as a deliberate advocacy of measures to shield the more vulnerable from injury or destruction. In this, Mandela’s disposition is in alignment with an Aristotelian notion of courage. The philosopher argued that the courageous person doesn’t fear death if he or she is committed to a noble cause. Mandela said: “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. I felt fear myself more times that I can remember, but I hid it behind a mask of boldness. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”
He not only controlled his fear but his temperament. Prisons were designed to break the prisoner’s spirit; the warders’ prime responsibility was to bend the will of their charges. In Mandela they found a person who knew not only the history of places like Robben Island but of the luminaries that had been imprisoned there through the centuries. There were the legendary Makana, “the commander of the Xhosa army” and Autshumayo, the Khoisan chief of the Goringhaicona who managed to escape from the island. A notable inspiration for Mandela was Maqoma, another celebrated commander who ended up there. In a sense, then, Mandela saw himself as part of a heroic fellowship, identifying with kindred spirits and continuing the journey of resistance started by these illustrious ancestors. He knew that the first step towards conquering a bleak place was to call it home.
“Just as the Portuguese colonialists gave a unique place in history to the island of Fernando Po by imprisoning numerous African patriots … so too have the rulers of South Africa determined that Robben Island should live in the memory of our people. Robben Island – one-time leper colony, Second World War naval fortress guarding the entrance to Cape Town harbour – a tiny outcrop of limestone, bleak, windswept and caught in the wash of the cold Benguela current, whose history counts the years of our people’s bondage. My new home.”
Mandela had a fair idea what the white nationalists in power were capable of wreaking. As a lawyer, first, and full-time political activist subsequently, he had had a ringside seat at the bloody drama that played out in the cities, towns and countryside. There was no spot on the landscape that was spared from hideous goings-on. The most vulnerable were the farmworkers and prisoners forced to work on plantations, such as the potato plantations in Bethal, in present-day Mpumalanga. A chilling account by journalist Janet Smith, writing in 2008, typifies a day in the life of a black South African under apartheid in the period that Mandela mounted his challenge:
“What happened in the 1950s in Bethal should never be forgotten. Many of the farmers compelled their workers to dig up the potato harvest with their bare hands, and those who could not keep up, or became exhausted, were beaten unmercifully. The men and women who died, either from the beatings or the cruel manual labour, were mostly buried out in the open fields, with members of their own families sometimes having to load their bodies into the earth.”
With an understanding that repression had to be confronted head on, Mandela became the ANC’s volunteer-in-chief for the Defiance Campaign against unjust laws in 1952. This, it must be remembered, was just four years after the National Party came into power, a period of great repression. Although the laws the campaign singled out were not repealed, its success lay in its being a very effective recruitment tool. “As a result of the campaign,” Mandela writes in Long Walk to Freedom, “our membership swelled to 100 000” and the “ANC emerged as a truly mass-based organization with an impressive corps of experienced activists who had braved the police, the courts and the jails. The stigma usually associated with imprisonment had been removed.”
But the assault by the state continued unabated, with banning orders served on Mandela and other leaders of the ANC, such as Chief Albert Luthuli, its president. This made it difficult to manoeuvre, organise or mount resistance to the ongoing onslaught, including the removals of the communities from Sophiatown and District Six to make way for white progress. And here, Mandela was candid about the mistakes made. For instance, during the removals, the ANC had coined the slogan, “Over Our Dead Bodies”, which Mandela characterised as “dynamic”, but which “proved as much a hindrance as a help”. For, while it “caught the imagination of the people”, it “led them to believe that we would fight to the death to resist the removal. In fact, the ANC was not prepared to do that at all.”
It was becoming increasingly clear to Mandela that in the end he and his compatriots “had no alternative to armed and violent resistance”. The men and women who formed part of the liberation movement had used all the “non-violent weapons in our arsenal … to no avail”. One of his last attempts to get the government’s attention through non-violent methods came with the convening of the Congress of the People, which took place in Kliptown, Johannesburg on 25 and 26 June 1955. In a re-enactment of a seminal event of more than 40 years earlier, the founding convention of the ANC in Bloemfontein in 1912, more than three thousand delegates from the length and breadth of the country, and a host of different organisations, came together to chart a course aimed at changing history. The upshot of this two-day meeting, which was periodically menaced by the thuggish officiousness of Special Branch detectives brandishing sten guns, was the adoption of the Freedom Charter, a document characterised by Mandela as “a great beacon for the liberation struggle”. The Freedom Charter “captured the hopes and dreams of the people and acted as a blueprint for the liberation struggle and the future of the nation”.
Matters came to a head on 21 March 1960. An anti-pass demonstration by the Pan Africanist Congress massing at the Sharpeville police station was fired on by the police, leaving 69 dead and hundreds injured. The majority of the casualties – men, women and children – had sustained gunshot wounds to the back while fleeing. There had been other notable examples of gross dereliction on the part of the state, such as the Coalbrook mine disaster in 1960 where 435 people, mainly black, suffocated or drowned under miles of rock. The Sharpeville Massacre, as it has come to be known, was a more naked form of violence whose effects reverberated across the globe. In South Africa, there were more demonstrations – called “civil unrest” in official euphemese – and resultant deaths and injuries. With liberation movements banned and any peaceful avenue to resolution of the country’s intractable problems effectively closed, there was no alternative but to rethink the strategy of passive resistance.
Finally, on the last weekend in March 1961, just days before the end of the marathon Treason Trial, Mandela popped up in Pietermaritzburg at the All-in Africa Conference. There he was mandated to write to Prime Minister HF Verwoerd about establishing a convention on a non-racial constitution for South Africa and to follow this path rather than hauling South Africa out of the Commonwealth of Nations. Verwoerd ignored the two letters Mandela wrote warning of a three-day stay-at-home for 29, 30 and 31 May. An extreme show of force on the first day and a last-minute turn around by the English press, which had previously promised to support the strike, led to disappointing support and Mandela called it off on day two.
The government’s wilful deafness and utter disregard for the lives of black people were therefore the catalyst towards the formation in June 1961 of Umkhonto weSizwe, the military wing of the ANC, and its launch on 16 December 1961, with Nelson Mandela as its first commander-in-chief. For Mandela, the decision to take up arms was predicated on the actions of the state. “Where the oppressor uses peaceful methods,” he said, “the oppressed will also use peaceful methods, but if the oppressor uses force, the oppressed will also retaliate in force.”
Announcing the first actions of sabotage by Umkhonto weSizwe after its formation, Mandela said: “If the government reaction is to crush by naked force our non-violent struggle, we will have to reconsider our tactics. In my mind we are closing a chapter on this question of a non-violent policy.” This rationale for taking up arms was contained in the leaflets from the ANC, which exhorted the oppressed to rise up.
“The time comes in the life of any nation when there remain only two choices: submit or fight. That time has now come to South Africa. We shall not submit and we have no choice but to hit back by all means within our power in defence of our people, our future and our freedom. The government has interpreted the peacefulness of the movement as weakness; the people’s non-violent policies have been taken as a green light for government violence. Refusal to resort to force has been interpreted by the government as an invitation to use armed force against the people without any fear of reprisals. The methods of Umkhonto weSizwe mark a break with that past.”
By the time these words filtered through the townships and hostels, farms and plantations, factories and schools – words replayed in clandestine radio broadcasts and from the capitals of countries, some of which have now been erased from world maps – the Soviet Union, the Democratic German Republic, Czechoslovakia, Madagascar, Ethiopia, Zambia – Mandela and much of the top leadership of the liberation movement were in prison. His journeys across Africa immediately before his final arrest, his last moments of operating as a free man – moments that told him how thoroughly unfree he had been in his native land – had prepared the ground for the ANC to establish its diplomatic missions abroad and spread the word of liberation.
While Mandela was in shackles, it would be Walter Sisulu, his mentor and one of the world’s most consistent political leaders, who would produce the first Radio Freedom broadcast from the ANC’s underground farm north of Johannesburg, in June 1963. “I speak to you from somewhere in South Africa,” Sisulu announced. “Never has the country, and our people, needed leadership as they do now, in this hour of crisis. Our house is on fire.”
Mandela the prisoner: the making of a leader inside
Nelson Mandela’s story, therefore, is about how he set out to put out the blaze.
In 1969, Mandela’s son died, three months after he had learnt of his wife Winnie Madikizela Mandela’s incarceration. He received a terse telegram informing him of his son’s death in a “motor accident in Cape Town”. The son, Thembekile – which means “the trusted one” – “was then 25, and the father of two small children”. Notwithstanding his pleas, Mandela’s keepers refused him permission to attend his son’s funeral. “As a father,” he said, “it was my responsibility to make sure that my son’s spirit would rest peacefully.”
There was nothing, therefore, in the behaviour of his captors to give Mandela a sense that he was dealing with rational people. Their actions went against anything he had known. Having grown up in the royal family of abaThembu – and being familiar with wars of resistance – he knew the code of conduct among people involved in hostilities. Even armies, who stared at each other from a great gulf, allowed enemies a brief respite to bury their dead. Mandela’s captors were simply not worth saving; unleashing the force of the state, they had heaped indignity upon indignity on their charges; their regime was nothing more than an obscenity.
Not daring to make the first move, however, or leaving the apartheid authorities to their own devices, unchecked on their path to ruin – where they would take the whole country down with them – would have been as equally reckless, as morally questionable as allowing the fire to rage on. Although he knew that his initiative could have ended up in defeat, he could not stand aside, as is evidenced in a passionate letter he wrote to give encouragement to Winnie:
“For one thing those who have no soul, no sense of national pride and no ideals to win can suffer neither humiliation nor defeat; they can evolve no national heritage, are inspired by no sacred mission and can produce no martyrs or national heroes.”
Notwithstanding Mandela’s wariness about the apartheid authorities, he had studied them long enough to see glimpses of humanity in some of them. He would later tell Patti Waldmeir in an interview that one thing he had discovered was that “men are not the same, even when dealing with a community that has a tradition of insensitivity towards human rights”.
There are few places as lonely and as depersonalising as prison. Prison destroys the soul, giving power to warders, who are weighed down by their own impotence in the bigger world. It is here that people are broken. Were it not for the fact that they were handmaidens, the cats’ paws of an inhuman administration, I would personally find the warders worthy of sympathy, for they were confronted by something alien to their upbringing and the teachings of their churches, which they had taken with their mothers’ milk. They’d never confronted black people whose conduct was out of character with what was expected of prisoners. It was on Robben Island that the warders could significantly lose their own freedom and sense of self. Much later, some of them would testify how their friendship with Mandela started to rekindle their connection with humanity.
It was is this realisation, this understanding of one’s role as a force on the inside, that the prisoner slowly takes over – assumes – the moral high ground and wrests legitimacy from the regime and its representatives. It is in the panic that comes over those who experience control slipping from their fingers that starts to arm the prisoner with resolve. During Mandela’s many years of incarceration, according to A Prisoner in the Garden, the authoritative prison archive of Nelson Mandela,
“Prison authorities compiled a detailed record around prisoner 466/64. They carefully recorded, duplicated and filed every piece of paper, relating to Mandela. These included results of medical tests, correspondence with family and friends, formal complaints against prison conditions and early negotiations with his captors. The prison files reveal the extent of the web of surveillance that existed in apartheid South Africa, the depth of paranoia around Mandela and, most strikingly, the power that this Robben Island prisoner wielded in spite of his status as an inmate.”
It was partly this status in prison – for he must have understood the effect of his own personality on his captors – that empowered Mandela to set out on a mission that would entail his release and culminate in his ascendancy to the presidency of the country. While alerting him to his own vulnerability, prison was also a place where he came to terms with himself, his predicament and the conundrum that faced his country.
Fifteen years before his release, in a letter dated 1 February 1975, Mandela wrote to Winnie, who was in Kroonstad women’s prison in the Free State. In the letter he characterised a prison cell as a place that “gives you the opportunity to look daily into your entire conduct, to overcome the bad and develop whatever is good in you”. Although meant for his wife, who certainly needed his support to survive one of the bleakest periods of her incarceration, when she suffered from periodic bouts of claustrophobia, the advice was also directed inwardly – especially the part where he suggested meditation nightly before going to sleep.
It was this sense of discipline that contributed to the peculiar aura of gravitas surrounding Mandela. In his early years on Robben Island, he found himself imprisoned with a cross-section of South African society. There were of course the grand old men of the struggle, like Walter Sisulu and Govan Mbeki, to name a few. It was, however, the young entrants into the prison population, the adherents of the Black Consciousness movement – firebrands who imagined they would shake Robben Island from its slumber – that further opened Mandela’s eyes to the country’s unique shape.
It was here that he came face to face with the fact that he didn’t have all the answers; and that people could differ with him – in a patently disagreeable manner. He crossed swords with Harry Gwala and countenanced the frustrated belligerence of people like Strini Moodley, who held that the old-timers were too tame. In a wide-ranging interview with Alec Russell of the Financial Times on 7 June 2015, Mac Maharaj, who would spend a substantial time with Nelson Mandela – and who helped smuggle drafts of The Long Walk to Freedom out of Robben Island – remembers exchanges that illustrate Mandela’s way of thinking:
“He understood where I was coming from. He understood that I was committed to the issue of an armed struggle based on mass mobilisation. But he said to me, Mac, in the end … how do you ambush the other side? You have inferior forces, you have inferior weaponry, but how are you going to defeat that chap? […] if you don’t know your opposite, how are you going to get them to respond the way you want … I said, but I’ve read Commando by one of the Afrikaner leaders, Denys Reitz, and other books so I have an idea how they think. Mandela responded that those were specific instances under previous commander. So what must I do? I ask. He says, learn the language. OK, I said, I’ll learn. He says, no, learn their poetry, understand their culture.”
From the personal accounts by late entrants into the prison community, Mandela came to learn, not only of the different approaches that those involved in the Struggle for freedom were taking, but also of the regime’s relentless slaughter of an unarmed populace. The toll was especially high in the aftermath of a series of states of emergency enforced first in 1985. The intensified repression was aimed at countering heightened – and widespread – resistance, which was inspired in the main by the Mass Democratic Movement. Appalled at the level of desperation, Mandela could see the country easily turning into a wasteland.
Mandela the president: a leader takes power, partly by reading a poem
“A good head and a good heart,” Nelson Mandela wrote, “are always a formidable combination.” There are “few misfortunes in this world,” he said on another occasion, “that you cannot turn into a personal triumph if you have the iron will and the necessary skill”.
It is not often that we can count ourselves lucky for having witnessed the making of history. The official announcement signalling the dismantling of apartheid with the release of Nelson Mandela in February 1990 is as etched in my mind as could be V-Day, the assassination of JFK or of Martin Luther King, Jr, or – much later – the day the planes crashed into the Twin Towers in New York for a succession of generations.
As there is something ineffable about these moments, and memory is sometimes unreliable, it is always advisable to get them corroborated by other witnesses. Here, the poets who have a licence to dream on behalf of their communities are especially helpful. Nelson Mandela would himself give honour to poetry by reading Ingrid Jonker’s poem, The Child is Not Dead, in its original Afrikaans during his address at the opening of the first democratic parliament on 24 May 1994. He said:
“The time will come when our nation will honour the memory of all the sons, the daughters, the mothers, the fathers, the youth and the children who, by their thoughts and deeds, gave us the right to assert with pride that we are South Africans, that we are Africans and that we are citizens of the world.”
Then he spoke of Jonker, who was “both a poet and a South African”, and who, in the dark days when all seemed hopeless, when many refused to hear her resonant voice, took her own life. “To her and others like her,” Mandela said, “we owe a debt to life itself. To her and others like her, we owe a commitment to the poor, the oppressed, the wretched and the despised.”
The child is not dead
the child lifts his fists against his mother
who shouts Africa! ...
The child is not dead
Not at Langa nor at Nyanga
nor at Orlando nor at Sharpeville
nor at the police post at Philippi
where he lies with a bullet through his brain ...
the child is present at all assemblies and law-giving
the child peers through the windows of houses
and into the hearts of mothers
this child who only wanted to play in the sun at Nyanga
the child grown to a man treks on through all Africa
the child grown to a giant journeys
over the whole world
without a pass!
For Mandela, who had always prized children and childhood, it was inevitable that he saw the symbolic connection between the death of one child as an example of a dream deferred. He reasoned, however, that a death must not be in vain but should galvanise all to create a liveable future for all South Africans. He wrote, and said:
“And in this glorious vision, she instructs that our endeavours must be about the liberation of the woman, the emancipation of the man and the liberty of the child.
“It is these things that we must achieve to give meaning to our presence in this chamber and to give purpose to our occupancy of the seat of government.
“And so we must, constrained by and yet regardless of the accumulated effect of our historical burdens, seize the time to define for ourselves what we want to make of our shared destiny.
“The government I have the honour to lead and I dare say the masses who elected us to serve in this role, are inspired by the single vision of creating a people-centred society.”
With these words, and Jonker’s poetry, a restless society, split apart by violence and strife, was steadied by the hand of a man who had learnt to be alone with himself for almost three decades.
It is, however, his five-year presidency that has come under scrutiny, because this was where he was responsible to the totality of the South African citizenry and not just to the ANC. In this period, a blip in the hundreds of years it took to manufacture modern-day South Africa, he must have appreciated that he would become weighed down by the burden of expectation from a populace in need of a quick miracle. In a sense, this country of wilful amnesia and selective nostalgia heaved a sigh of uneasy relief with Mandela’s acclaimed ascendancy to power. He was a ready-made scapegoat and messiah all rolled into one; the tension between these two poles would have led many straight into a madhouse. Mandela couldn’t have been oblivious to his own predicament. He had seen from history how some leaders that might have come to power via a popular mandate were overthrown on the strength of a faltering economy.
Mandela was familiar with the case of the late Chilean socialist president, Salvador Allende, who came to power when the country was in the grip of severe economic crises. To make matters worse, he was trying to build a socialist society through the nationalisation of industries in the face of unemployment, inflation and widespread malnutrition. Mandela’s own flirtation with nationalisation ended soon after the trip to Davos in 1992 where he was told, in no uncertain terms, by leaders from China and Vietnam how such a policy had led to the ruin of many a country’s economy. President Allende, as Mandela would 20 years’ thence, restored diplomatic relations with China, Cuba and various countries deemed undesirable by the Western powers. Notwithstanding Allende’s popularity with the farmers and the man and woman on the street, he had so alienated business and other politicians with his adoption of socialist policies that it was possible for his government to be overthrown in September 1973 by a military coup organised by Henry Kissinger and the CIA.
Aware that the goodwill that derived from the peaceful transition would not last unless leveraged upon – and cognisant of the dire consequences of an underserved public – Mandela knew that the biggest hurdle to overcome was the one of socio-economic transformation. The analysis of the office of the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP), an integrated socio-economic framework, was that “the South African economy is in deep-seated structural crisis, and as such requires fundamental restructuring”.
Growth and development, Mandela would note, were more than interdependent; they were mutually reinforcing. Addressing inequalities, he maintained, would expand markets at home, open markets abroad and create opportunities to promote representative ownership of the economy. The expansion of the economy would raise state revenues by expanding the tax base, rather than by permanently raising taxes. The success of this approach would entail the government getting into “active partnerships with civil society, and with business and labour … [to] jointly pursue the broader challenges of extending opportunities to the millions of adult South Africans who can currently find no place in the formal economy … Our people elected us because they wanted change.” He further remarked that while “people have high expectations which are legitimate … [and while] the government cannot meet all these needs overnight, we must put firmly into place the concrete goals, time frame and strategies to achieve this change”.
Analysing Mandela’s economic legacy, Matthew Davies, business reporter for BBC News, writes:
“In some senses, Mr Mandela and the African National Congress (ANC) inherited an economy that was heading for bankruptcy.”
So, it was to prove a difficult task to create a silk purse of an economy from the pig’s ear that apartheid had left behind. However, many analysts point out that great strides were made in delivering some of the Freedom Charter aspirations in the early years of the new South Africa. Dawie Roodt, chief economist at the Efficient Group, says:
“Many millions of people got running water, electricity, etc.
“But the infrastructure was neglected, and slowly state inefficiency and corruption became serious problems.”
The ANC had once been greatly enamoured of the social democratic model it had seen in various countries, especially Sweden; here, they saw a seamless relationship between government, labour and the private sector, to the extent that the boards of large corporations had trade union representatives. “Our present position on this aspect [of the economy] is the same as that of the Federal Republic of Germany, which contains in its constitution a clause on nationalisation as one of the options the government might employ in case of need. That option has not been exercised in that country for decades.
In truth, however, the complex question facing South Africa today – the economic quandary the country faces today, the runaway unemployment, the unacceptable levels of inequality – simply means that an anomaly in the negotiations became the recessive gene carried in the bloodstream of our democracy. It bespeaks a weakness, perhaps, on Mandela’s side, where he was distracted away from the granular detail of negotiations and concentrated, mainly, on the business of fostering stability and nation-building. He had a handpicked team, which, one believes, was also blindsided when it came to the question of the future implications of the economy. Given the outpourings of international goodwill towards our emergent democracy at the time of negotiations – for instance, the developmental experts and thinkers that could be found in the solidarity movement – Mandela’s team passed up an opportunity to tap into resources which could have strengthened its negotiating strategies.
Delivering the Political Report of the NEC to the 49th National Conference, which was held in Bloemfontein in December 1994, a disappointed Mandela summarised the incipient disaffection among the majority who voted for the ANC. He decried the “tendency for ruling parties is to claim success for each and every step they have taken in government. Let us be honest and say that we would have been satisfied if more people could concretely feel the impact of social change.”
The compromises reached in order to set up building blocks towards the emergent democracy had left the ANC with very little leverage in terms of economic clout. Mandela advised the conference to “admit that, in the process we did also falter”, and lamented that “the reality is that democratic forces in our country have captured only elements of political power”.
Mandela nudges the world towards goodness
The American writer James Baldwin made bold to suggest that “the poets … are finally the only people who know the truth about us”. One such poet was the German playwright Bertolt Brecht, whose oft-quoted ascription of unhappiness to countries in need of heroes was as much a caveat for his troubled country as it is for the rest of today’s troubled world. Brecht’s – or even Baldwin’s – prophetic truth is evidenced in the state of anxiety currently holding the entire global society in thrall.
On 3 January 2018, two events, a birth and a death, took place within minutes of each other. Another prophetic poet, who I mentioned earlier on, was Keorapetse Kgositsile. I had discussed the implications of a July celebration of the centenary of Mandela’s birth with him: he had dedicated a poem to Mandela, which exhorted the listener to “defy the devils who traded in the human Spirit”. Then, suddenly, he was gone, after a short illness. I wondered what he would have made of Mandela’s contested legacy in this centennial year, remembering how my big-hearted, diminutive poet friend routinely made short shrift of the revisionism that flows out of ignorance of the conditions that had informed Mandela’s choices.
The second event was the birth of my grandniece, Chloe. Watching this helpless bundle balanced in the crook of her mother’s arm, I thought of the world, the country that Mandela and now Kgositsile had left and one in which Chloe was now demanding to be fed. Although unhappy at the collapse – or desecration – of most of Mandela’s ideals at the hands of an unprincipled leadership within the African National Congress, Kgositsile was comforted that the structures supporting democracy were still in place. Indeed, an overwhelmingly huge percentage of South Africans derive comfort from the knowledge that Mandela’s bequest – however imperfect – is a far cry from the state of tyranny under apartheid.
Mandela’s unique journey from the day he stepped out of the gates of Victor Verster Prison in 1990 – through his six-year presidency of the ANC from 1991 to 1997, and of the Republic of South Africa in 1994, to the moment he stepped down after one term in 1997 – has been represented in various media, including books, films and stage plays. It is a journey marked by Mandela’s adoption of his own advice for his son:
“To lead an orderly and disciplined life, and to give up the glittering pleasures that attract the average boy, to work hard and systematically in your studies throughout the year, will in the end bring you coveted prizes and much personal happiness.” – Nelson Mandela writing to his son, Makgatho, 28 July 1969
Mandela’s code of discipline, which was underpinned by sacrifice, has also been recorded and published in numerous biographies, and in The Long Walk to Freedom – an autobiography written, in part, to show how his own life experience could serve as an example for others to follow. He was meticulous in ensuring that an archive of his life would be made as accessible and as comprehensively as possible. The collections housed at the Nelson Mandela Foundation, vast as they might be, are by no means able to present him in sum, however, this man who towered above his contemporaries at home and abroad. It is to poetry we must turn for that – to poets like Kgositsile and his confreres, who heralded Mandela’s destiny, filling in the blanks and puncturing the veil of secrecy in times when his image was taboo, giving the world an understanding of the man who, in the words of the Spanish poet Miguel Hernandez, “behaves inside a dungeon as if he already were free”.
His gaolers tried to force the bitter destiny of the Book of Job on him: His remembrance shall perish from the earth and he shall have no name on the street. To no avail. Mandela lived in poetry, which, according to Nadine Gordimer’s foreword to the anthology Halala Madiba, is “the highest literary form of the gift of intense imaginative identification with the subject”. The concluding lines from Departure From the Isle of Torments by the late former South African poet laureate, Mazisi Kunene, capture the essence of that long journey of a man whose intellect and emotion – head and heart – were the essential qualities for the management of a most trying transition. Kunene writes:
Behold the swaying multitudes, the frenzied laughter: You did the nation well by returning!
Doing the nation well was Mandela’s preoccupation from the very start. Proud, authoritative and forthright – attributes that could be sourced to his upbringing as a scion of the royal house of abaThembu – Mandela would find Robben Island and successive prison environments conducive to acquiring leadership skills – skills that didn’t, and don’t, form part of the curricula in leadership academies. For one, the isolation of prison, the enforced hibernation, became a refresher course in survival. It brings to mind Ralph Ellison’s unnamed hero in Invisible Man, who discovers that being invisible can be a source of strength, where covert action becomes a springboard “for more overt action”.
The unintended consequence of the apartheid state’s attempt to render Mandela invisible was unprecedented curiosity – What is he like? people asked – which led to a veritable explosion of his image. The media, print and broadcast, was awash with a face that had become as ubiquitous as spring air – and as revitalising. Old black-and-white pictures flickered across screens: Mandela in a group photo as a 20-year-old student at Healdtown Comprehensive School; in a portrait wearing traditional attire; in 1951, standing next to Ruth First at an ANC conference in Bloemfontein; in 1956, singing among 150 fellow accused at the marathon Treason Trial in Pretoria; a bearded Mandela bulked up by army fatigues, standing with Algerian Army commanders in 1962. Across the globe, television sets beam contrasting images of a youngish Mandela in his jackal-skin kaross worn toga-like as he strides defiantly in slow motion during his 1962 trial for leaving the country without a passport and inciting a strike. He was sentenced on 7 November 1962 to five years in prison. There are many more, a catalogue of the various incarnations he has had to pass through. The most enduring images, however, are of Mandela as a free man, a man who embodied freedom with such assuredness that it became synonymous with his name. In all this, the making of Mandela the symbol can be credited to the regime that threw him in prison.
Mandela the symbol: a leader gives power up
Therefore, itself rich in symbolism, one of Mandela’s most memorable gestures, judged counter-intuitive by Professor Njabulo Ndebele, was in 1997 when he stepped down as president of the ANC. The presidency of the ANC is held in high esteem for the simple reason that it confers on the incumbent the stewardship of the National Executive Committee, a council that could, if need be, bring about a resignation of the state president. Paradoxically, giving up power was Mandela’s most powerful moment. In his introduction to the chapter on Mandela in South Africa’s Nobel Laureates, edited by Kader Asmal, David Chidester and Wilmot James, Prof. Ndebele observes that a leader,
“too conscious of having power, and who wields it self-consciously, does not really have it. On the other hand, a leader who works with power, and who discovers the extent of it in the course of confronting situations whose resolution requires inevitable recourse to power, has vast amounts of it.”
Mandela’s action drew muted criticism from some of his superannuated brethren on the continent and far afield, who saw it as an incitement for their domestic masses to start questioning their extended tenure. For Mandela, leadership was mainly about advancing the cause of others, because he understood how they – especially strangers in neighbouring countries who suffered untold misery in sanctions and cross-border raids launched by the South African military – had paid a huge price. He was scathing of leaders, even “erstwhile revolutionaries [who] have easily succumbed to greed, and the tendency to divert public resources for personal enrichment”. He lauded the “universal respect and even admiration for those who are humble and simple by nature, and who have absolute confidence in all human beings irrespective of their social status. These are men and women, known and unknown, who have declared total war against all forms of gross violation of human rights wherever in the world such excesses occur.”
Therefore, when he was in various circumstances required to comment on the leadership in, say, the Southern African Development Community, he stressed the importance of serious planning for regional growth and development. These were not mere words or the rehearsed platitudes that characterise speeches in summits; coming from a generation of hard idealists who had grown up in the principle of a united Africa, Mandela believed that the current crop of leadership could turn the tide against poverty and inequality in the region. This because, as he put it, “our fortunes are so interdependent. None of us can achieve sustainable growth and development, or peace and stability, in isolation.” In this regard, people who acted as gatekeepers that cut off access to him and alienated him from his natural constituencies could get Mandela nettled.
“It sometimes pains me,” he wrote in his diary on 7 January 1998, “when dependable friends who have shared resources with us when we were alone in our fight against apartheid, but who are regarded by the staff as mere strangers bent on disturbing the President.”
Mandela: cherishing life despite threats of dreadful outcomes
Today, as South Africa and the world gear up to celebrate the centenary of his birth, the inevitable question comes up: What would our country be like if Mandela had not stepped into the breach to assume leadership at a most perilous period of our history? Aligned to this question is the subtext in current debates about the economy, where queries are being raised – oftentimes with a real purpose to elicit knowledge and sometimes with an aim of breaking down what is held to be the mystique around Mandela – about whether the negotiations in the early 1990s were skewed against the black majority. Was the Mandela project a massive sell-out? Behind these unasked questions – one is helplessly forced to conclude – are justifications for the fancied sell-out: the old people were deferential to white counterparts on the negotiation table. They were scared of the white man.
Commentators tend to approach the debacle – the human tragedy – that characterised South Africa from its inception as a colonial construct to the present moment, where it struggles to integrate its discrete pieces into a coherent whole, much the same way sports fans do a post-match analysis. Armed with the advantage of hindsight and instant replay technology, the analyst can reimagine, but never quite empathise with, what took place in the arena. The act of recreating the past is always subverted by the gaps lying between what has been experienced by the flesh-and-blood actors – the gruelling trial that informs their decisions – and our collective grasp of their actions long after the noise of battle has died down.
It is always tempting, when dealing with a venerated figure like Mandela, for commentators who wish to ascribe to him an unassailable saintliness to urge detractors to remember what it was like back then, meaning that, given the overwhelming odds stacked against him, it would be understandable if Mandela capitulated and quailed before his captors. But all evidence points to a man who was single-mindedly steadfast in his quest to create a democratic and non-racial country of the future. The hardship was a temporary inconvenience, a time when he had to do the groundwork for a radical change, especially in the heady 1980s when repression in the country increased, a sign that the regime was losing its grip.
In a conversation with Richard Stengel, his interlocutor and collaborator towards the writing of Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela is asked if the people of his generation “still have a kind of deference towards the white man that will not exist in the younger generation?”. Or, put differently, if there was some residual inferiority to the white man roiling in the mind of leaders like Mandela. Mandela gave an emphatic no, because, he said,
“When you have been in the liberation movement for so long and you have been in and out of jail … you got our people now not to fear repression, to be prepared to challenge it. And if a man can challenge a law and go to jail and come out, that man is not likely to be intimidated, you see, by jail life, generally speaking. And therefore, even in our older generation, there is no inferiority except that it may be said that we are more mature in handling problems.”
We cannot today realistically know what Mandela et al felt when faced with incarceration. We have his word and the testimony of his compatriots. We do know, however, that it was a grim period, which none of us, certainly not the children of the dispossessed, would wish to revisit. The rash of memoirs by some of the principal and minor players of the hideous time puts a gloss on their culpability, where even securocrats like Niël Barnard come up smelling of roses; even the biographies by some of the warders are reminiscent of people striving very hard to put the events of the past through a colander whereby the grainy truth is sifted out and all we are left with is empty sweetness.
What we can take from what we know about Mandela is that he strove to enshroud himself and those around him with dignity that makes it hard for the enemy to unravel. From their arrival in prison, he insisted on being addressed as Mr Mandela. “You must fight the battle for dignity on the first day you go to jail,” he told Oprah Winfrey in an interview. “We put our foot down and insisted on being respected, even though we were prisoners.”
This response cannot – by any stretch of the imagination – be credited to someone who is cowed by others, black or white.
Mandela: putting words to eloquent silences
Even though privately concerned if his gamble backfired, Mandela’s readiness to face down the generals who spat fire and promised to put the country to the torch was an act of great courage. It is here, also, that his counter-intuitive stance towards leadership proved equal to the task: he defanged the right wing and brought it to be part of the negotiations towards a democratic future. Through the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which allowed for a long cathartic moment, violators of human rights stepped forth and owned up, thus ensuring some form of closure for their victims.
Not all were courageous, some following FW De Klerk in stalling about their culpability during South Africa’s darkest hours. It is here, I believe, that those who have no idea what instability can wreak – who are oblivious of the devastation in the blood-stained corners of the globe – scoff at Mandela’s gestures of reconciliation. As for the troubles South Africa sometimes find itself in, where the restive youth cries for reforms, it should be borne in mind that Mandela’s main preoccupation was to build this foundation on which our democratic society is based. To use a crass metaphor, a father builds a house but cannot be blamed for the incapacity of his children to improve on the dwelling.
He was not a saint, as he has repeatedly reminded us with his immortal quip that “a saint is a sinner who keeps on trying”. He had many transgressions, some of which would convert into virtues, in the scheme of things. Without verbalising it, he embodied what is credited to one-time president of the Philippines, Ferdinand Marcos, that leadership is the other side of the coin of loneliness and that, acting alone, the leader must accept everything alone.
Mandela knew fully well that the ANC was viscerally opposed to the idea of talking to the regime. By the time of the 1985 ANC consultative conference in Kabwe, Zambia, there were rumours of people in the ANC engaging in talks with Pretoria. Aware of the hostility to those talks, which were dismissed as enemy manoeuvres, OR Tambo had to steer a cautious course. But the practicalities of the times – the ouster of the ANC from Mozambique, cross-border raids in neighbouring countries and the clamour of Umkhonto weSizwe fighters that they wanted to go home – coalesced into an acceptance of the reality of a negotiated settlement. It would, of course, be accompanied by an intensification of armed actions inside the country.
Isolated from his support network, watching the carnage against defenceless people being played out on the daily news bulletins, Mandela started tentative steps towards brokering a negotiated settlement. He had consulted Walter Sisulu, Ahmed Kathrada and Govan Mbeki about this intention – and was told in no uncertain terms that this was a very bad idea. Much later, alone, Mandela went into action.
Mac Maharaj has said that Mandela was a man who took responsibility for his action. Having decided that the time had come for talks to start – an impulse no different from the moment he decided on armed action – Mandela knew he would have to go against the advice of the prison collective. In time, the collective – which also involved Oliver Tambo in Lusaka – accepted the strategy of talking to the enemy. He accepted that, in the event of the plan blowing up in his face, he would carry the can. In his own notes on leadership, Mandela has written that “the leader’s first task is to create a vision.
“His second is to create a following to help him implement the vision and to manage the process through effective teams. The people being led know where they are going because the leader has communicated the vision and the followers have bought into the goal he has set as well as the process of getting there.”
In the year of celebrating Mandela’s centenary, South Africa is still grappling with the process of getting “there”, the idealised destination no different from the Promised Land for the fabled biblical wanderers. Each generation has come up and defined its mission; land and economic transformation, twin imponderables that have been left unaddressed for centuries, stand out and cry for resolution. A new cadre of leaders asks questions and challenges the answers given as being not enough. Sometimes the questions go to the very legitimacy of the Constitution, an enduring irony given the provenance of the Constitution. What is significant is that the country has come to growth.
Mandela has left.
Many others, poets like Keorapetse Kgositsile, who were part of the generation after Mandela, have also left and many are, to use the poet’s words, in the departure lounge. The youth, dreaming dreams and hoping hopes, strives to carve out a reality that will ensure their own survival. They too will in time grow old and drag their increasingly disgruntled children into meetings and councils, to plan on how to change their lots. And Chloe, my grandniece, will not remember her hour of helplessness and hunger. The world will move on, secure in its moorings. Mauritian friend, Edouard Maunick, expresses the world’s appreciation in these lines:
I much hope to put my step in his
And in unbroken eloquent silence
Listen along a long long way
To the unique and untold saga
Of Mandela conquistador of freedom.
There is no doubt that Mandela, a modern titan, was as much the creator of history as he was its product. He could have chosen other routes to usher in the democracy that we now enjoy; he, however, chose alchemy of head and heart, logic and compassion, to coax out of a complex and volatile society, something of value. The recent transition of power that South Africa has seen, in which President Jacob Zuma – our latter-day Ozymandias – gave way to the democratic impulses entrenched in the ANC and embodied by Mandela’s close confidant, Cyril Ramaphosa, is testament to Mandela’s enduring personal triumph.