By Patrick Bulger
ICON: Nelson Mandela. Picture: SOWETAN
NELSON Mandela’s life stands as a warning to tyrants everywhere, with this message: underestimate at your peril the determination of one good man to take on and triumph over an unjust system.
Mandela was that one good man who stood up against apartheid and, almost miraculously — for such were the odds stacked against him — prevailed. What is more, his was a stunning victory, played out over so many years it is impossible to detail all of its highs and lows.
Mindful of the pitfalls of wisdom in hindsight, one approaches the life of Mandela with extreme caution. This is not only to avoid the temptation to mythologise and anoint him as a flawless hero, but also because it is tempting to try to make appear seamless and perfect a life whose unfolding, and whose highs and lows, belong in the realm of what became for South Africa and the world a fairy tale, complete with its own happy ending.
Yet how much of Mandela’s life was bound to happen, and how much can be ascribed to the product of his own particular personal nature and upbringing? What role circumstance, and what role personality?
When it came to capitulation, for that is what the Afrikaner nationalist handover of power was, the apartheid government was slow to realise it had become Mandela’s captive, illustrated by his insistence in the final days of his imprisonment at Victor Verster prison in Paarl on being released when and where he, and not former president FW de Klerk, wanted.
The jailers had become the jailed and Mandela, the canny draughts player, the gentleman prisoner, had made his winning move. Not a dramatic, surprise attack, but the climax of a relentless campaign that ground down, wearied and crushed his opponent just as surely as surprise would have.
There was about Mandela an aspect and a quality that brooked no tyranny from any man, no matter how ingrained the habit on the tyrant’s part. To this refusal to be bullied one could add a survival instinct that knew rather to stomach a minor setback rather than sacrifice the whole effort to a whim motivated by false pride.
Witness Mandela’s decision, in his early days in Johannesburg as a legal clerk in a white law firm, not to drink tea during tea-breaks, rather than risk a pointless controversy with his employers over teacups reserved for black employees.
But witness too the number of times he stood up to bullies in the prisons service and police, using his knowledge of the law, his impressive and imposing physique and his command of language to frighten off a hapless Afrikaner official, intimidated by his eloquence and fearful of reprimand from his own superiors.
It was inevitable that Mandela would, given the life he chose, have spent a good deal of his time coming up against Afrikaner officialdom, and it would not be an exaggeration to say that his experiences across the board taught him the strengths and weaknesses of the white Afrikaners who were supposed to make apartheid work. Like none other, Mandela developed a capacity to deal with and “handle” Afrikaners using a blend of co-operation and resistance to wear his opponent down.
On the crucial question — and one to which his own release was so often linked — of majority rule, Mandela was unflinchingly committed even if, as some argue and not that unconvincingly, he would have settled for a qualified franchise in the 1950s. While he was uncompromising on principle, Mandela understood the anxieties of the Afrikaner and the extent to which the fate of his people and that of the former oppressor were one.
In this respect, Mandela’s acute awareness of the value of political symbolism made him the one prominent African leader who could, as he did, finally agree to talks with the oppressor. This was perhaps the most important and seminal leap of faith in South Africa’s history, for it represented nothing less than the first meeting as equals of black and white in South Africa in more than 400 years, let alone the final demise of apartheid.
So Mandela’s life was not just about ending apartheid, for which he can claim much of the credit, it was also about bringing into being the possibility of a historic reconciliation between black and white, given that the latter would always remain visitors to the continent until this meeting of minds could start the healing needed after decades, centuries, of domination.
There is an important point to realise here, which is that much as Mandela was instrumental in getting the Afrikaners to the negotiating table, he was as instrumental in getting the African National Congress (ANC) — until then steeped in the doctrines of people’s war and insurrection — to agree to halt its armed struggle and to settle, in the medium term, for something less than some in the movement would have hoped for after the decades of struggle and bitterness.
It was not the first time Mandela had led the ANC on a path that for its leadership was not a first or a natural choice. Although Mandela described himself throughout his adult life as “a faithful servant of the ANC”, one would have to add that it was an ANC very much of his own making, and that he often had to force policy issues to a head, usually, but not always getting his own way, before appearing to “fall in” with the collective of which he was the unspoken master.
Though relentless in pursuit of his political objectives, they never obscured for Mandela the bigger picture he pursued — the emancipation of his people, as Africans. As the years progressed, and as the contingencies of reality, modernity and pragmatism forced on him compromise and refinement, Mandela would become the unifying figure behind the ideal of a united, nonracial and nonsexist South Africa.
At least that was the theory, even if in practice Mandela was unashamedly committed to African upliftment, a fact often disregarded by those who mistook him for a liberal in the colour-blind nonracial sense. And even he would have told you that he battled with the concept of nonsexism, a notion for which his old-style chivalry and chauvinism had ill-equipped him.
This is not to suggest Mandela was insincere in his political utterances. It merely cautions that, although a man before his time, Mandela was very much a man of his times, modern in outlook yet with a world-view informed by notions of a greater African past, an Africa of great kings and wise, benevolent rulers.
The last is important because kingliness was integral to the Mandela style. It was a quality that carried with it great wisdom, benificience, inspired determination in battle, and a tendency to incorporate, even domesticate, the vanquished rather than obliterate them.
But it was probably equally important that Mandela, while a royal by birth and perhaps by temperament, was very much a minor royal, and one whose family had fallen on unpropitious times. At an early age in Johannesburg, to which he had fled in the early 1940s, Mandela assumes the profile not of the prince in search of his bounty, but of the dislocated aristocrat.
Now among commoners, and given the disadvantages bequeathed to him by his rural upbringing, Mandela was the country bumpkin among slick urbanised folk. The words he used in an earlier context, that he had “a lot of catching up to do”, come to mind, and indeed, these were hard years for Mandela.
Mandela’s turning his back on a royal life had much to do with early family circumstances when his father, Gadla Henry Mphakanyiswa, a minor Thembu chief who traced his heritage back to the Thembu monarch Ngubengauka, lost his chieftainship in a dispute with a white magistrate, who charged and found him guilty of insubordination.
This was the first of several early encounters Mandela had with whites, and which were to leave with him lasting memories, redolent of arbitrary authority and how it could be exercised. One can see in the way Mandela would stand up to whites in later life how prominent his father’s humiliation must have ranked in his childhood memories.
Mandela’s mother was Nosekeni Fanny, one of his father’s four wives and Mandela was born on July 18 1918 at Mvezo in Transkei, moving to Qunu at an early age after his father had lost his chieftainship, to live in, as Mandela remarks in his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, “in less grand style”.
At the age of nine Mandela’s father died and he was packed off to live (in 1930) with the acting Paramount Chief of the Thembu tribe, David Dalindyebo. In this setting Mandela first witnessed a style of politics that would later inform his interactions at the end of apartheid more than 50 years later.
“My political interest was first aroused when I listened to the elders of our tribe in my village as a youth… They spoke of the good old days before the arrival of the white man. Our people lived peacefully under the democratic rule of their kings and counsellors and moved freely all over this country,” he relates in autobiographical notes written for the Sabotage Trial of 1964.
Recognised as a bright boy with potential, Mandela, who had been baptised into the Methodist (Wesleyan) church, attended school at Qunu. For reasons unclear, he was given the name Nelson to supplement (replace) his birth name, Rohihlahla, meaning the one who shakes the root or, more simply, troublemaker.
At the age of 16, Mandela, fired up with the stories of his heroic forefathers, was circumcised in the Xhosa tradition. His was a thoroughly traditional upbringing, with neither special hardship nor family controversy.
The environment in which he lived was largely cut off from the rest of the world. Of whites there was little to be seen, and what contact there was was often jarringly at odds with the notions of traditional greatness the young Mandela attributed to his elders. Of the occasional whites, Mandela remarked: “These whites appeared as gods to me, and I was aware that they were to be treated with a mixture of fear and respect. But their role in my life was a distant one, and I thought little if at all about the white man in general or relations between my own people and these curious and remote figures.”
Mandela’s schooling began in earnest when he attended the Methodist Clarkebury Institute. Later, in 1937, he was enrolled at Healdtown at Fort Beaufort. Here he witnessed in full cry the Xhosa poet Krune Mqhayi, of whose outspokenness on whites Mandela remarked: “I could hardly believe my ears. His boldness in speaking of such delicate matters in the presence of Dr Wellington (the headmaster) seemed utterly astonishing. Yet at the same time it aroused and motivated us, and began to alter my perception of men like Dr Wellington, whom I had automatically considered my benefactor.”
Later, after his expulsion from Fort Hare University in his first political dispute and his flight to Johannesburg to avoid an arranged marriage, a clear picture of Mandela emerges: bucolic by background and temperament, headstrong, acutely aware of authority and dominance, inspired by an idealistic view of Africans and their past, and refusing to bow to any man or institution.
Put another way perhaps, the Mandela we find in Johannesburg in the early 1940s is an uncertain, yet slightly cock-sure young man, wrenched from the past he knew by largely unforeseen circumstances and estranged from the mainstream of public life by the growing political confidence of white Afrikaners, now flexing their political muscle in the run-up to their whites-only general election victory of 1948.
Thus cast adrift, Mandela is rescued from an uncertain future by a fateful meeting, namely his introduction to Walter Sisulu. In later years Mandela would pay tribute to Sisulu as both a friend as a mentor, though it may have been difficult then to see the shy, retiring Sisulu as the great man’s guide.
Through Sisulu he supported himself throughout the first hard years in Johannesburg. Through Sisulu he met both his first wife, Evelyn Mase, and the ANC, to which he would later pledge lifelong allegiance.
Through Sisulu Mandela landed his first job, as an articled clerk to the firm Lazar Sidelsky, and it was through Sisulu that Mandela was able to carry on his studies and become a lawyer. By virtue of his work, his politics and later his studies at the University of the Witwatersrand, Mandela came into contact with two important and contradictory influences in his political evolution, namely that small band of whites and Indians — among them Joe Slovo, Ruth First and the Cachalias and Pahads — who were to profoundly influence his political outlook and strategy and, conversely, his association with Anton Lembede and colleagues, young and militant Africanists whose activism led to the formation of the ANC Youth League in 1944.
The Youth League revitalised an ANC whose politics of appealing to white conscience had been shown to be powerless against the juggernaut of Afrikaner nationalism and the tightening of the apartheid screw. This had become apparent in the failed campaign to stop the demolition of Sophiatown in the mid-1950s and in the ever-greater intensity of repression against which the movement had to fight.
This tightening of apartheid was matched by the growing militancy of the Congress movement, as Mandela and Sisulu, joined by Oliver Tambo, who became Mandela’s law partner, pointed the ANC in a direction they felt could best meet the climate of growing repression. At this point Mandela’s own political energies became apparent, notably in the ANC’s acceptance of the M-Plan, which sought a growing politicisation in the politics of struggle and resistance. The Defiance Campaign, in which Mandela was volunteer-in-chief, further solidified his growing political ascendancy.
Mandela, meanwhile, a man of the city and the driver of an Oldsmobile, suffered the first of the banning orders and political harassment that were to be his lot from the mid-1950s until his imprisonment for life in 1964. In this period he became the Black Pimpernel, defying the police for nearly two years as he moved around the country on tireless political activity.
Once again in the late 1950s, when the futility of more peaceful forms of protest became apparent, Mandela was instrumental in having the ANC turn to armed struggle. It illustrated Mandela’s uncanny ability to read the spirit of the times, and to pursue a new course without the upheaval that may have implied.
Over armed struggle, the ANC was persuaded to accept that while it maintained policies of nonviolence, it would not oppose the armed struggle practised by its members, this fiction allowing policy change to take place with minimum political fallout.
In this period Mandela undertook his travels abroad, undergoing military training of a sort in Algeria and learning, for the first time, just how harshly Africa judged the ANC for its decision to follow a nonracial route rather than the path of pan-Africanism as practised by its rival, the Pan Africanist Congress, which many regarded as the rightful torch-bearer of African resistance.
But resistance led to more repression, and by the time he was sentenced along with his colleagues, to life in prison, in 1964, Mandela and the ANC had exhausted all avenues of rebellion. For the next 12 years, black political resistance was almost nonexistent as the apartheid state came into its own, gathering steam under Hendrik Verwoerd, BJ Vorster and later PW Botha.
Mandela, meanwhile, would face his greatest challenge, both personal and political.
The years on Robben Island, from 1964 to 1981 before he was transferred to Pollsmoor Prison, arguably represented Mandela’s finest hour, when he overcame the temptation to despair and bitterness. Moreover he put the interlude, if 17 years can be described thus, to good use. He used it to gain an uncanny knowledge of the limited appetite of his jailers — the white Afrikaners — for tyranny, of the existence of some good among many cruel ones, and once again of the importance of standing one’s ground in the face of a stronger adversary.
Again, it was Mandela’s vision that persuaded the Black Consciousness-leaning generation of 1976 to throw in its lot with the ANC and with a nonracial programme to rid South Africa of apartheid tyranny. It was another decisive intervention on the part of Mandela.
Shortly after the 1976 uprising, the apartheid government, in the form of justice minister Jimmy Kruger, made the first of many overtures to Mandela, offering a conditional release he refused. The advances suggested to the canny Mandela that time was on his side.
By the early 1980s, when Mandela was at Pollsmoor, he made his critical overture to the apartheid government, setting out for Botha a way ahead out of the storm that gathered as the 1980s drew to a close.
Mandela’s early negotiations with the government once again provided him with the chance, indeed, the need, to swing the mainstream of the ANC behind his ideas. It was a close call, with some of Mandela’s colleagues, even Tambo in exile in Lusaka, fearing he had gone too far in appeasing the enemy.
But Mandela was not to be dissuaded and by the quirk of fate that cost Botha his throne and saw the pragmatic De Klerk come to power, South Africa was catapulted over many of the difficulties that would otherwise have impeded the transition in this, one of the world’s most intractable historical and political problems. Mandela walked out of prison in February 1990.
Ever optimistic, he perhaps overestimated the willingness with which De Klerk and the Nationalists would surrender power. Nonetheless, and in the face of considerable opposition, Mandela persuaded the ANC to halt the armed struggle before victory was certain.
By April 17 1994 it would have been hard to argue that Mandela had not gained every one of the ideals he had set himself so may years before.
He became the first black and democratically elected president of South Africa on May 10 1994, and on a glorious winter’s day at the Union Buildings Mandela’s life triumph was visible for all to see.
In the process he had had to lead his ANC on the path of compromise, all the while remaining true to his vision of liberation and emancipation.
In a life of so many contours and happenings, Mandela’s presidency passed all too briefly. Its highlights were the overall sense in which South Africa relished its return to the international stage and when the country enjoyed a Prague-Spring period of freedom it had not known before and was not likely to see again in the future. On the economic front, just as on the political front, Mandela was able to reconcile reality with idealism.
He quickly abandoned notions of nationalism, another payoff for the ascent to power that was so necessary in the attainment of longer-term goals. He preached patience, all the while pursuing the contradiction that the people were right to want progress and upliftment. To his National Party colleagues in the government of national unity he argued the compatibility of majority rule and catering to minority concerns, even if De Klerk failed to appreciate the nuance and withdrew from the government.
In South Africa, Mandela became everyone’s favourite grandfather, taking tea with Verwoerd’s widow Betsie and holding aloft the Rugby World Cup in 1995 in shining acts of political symbolism.
If the opposition parties loved Mandela, their affection did not stretch to the ANC. There was always a sense that Mandela and the ANC stood for different things, though he was at pains to deny it. Perhaps one of the most graphic illustrations of the extent to which this was true was in South Africa’s relations with the two Chinas.
Although Mandela maintained that the breakaway Taiwan was and would remain a friend of South Africa, he was forced to go back on his word and recognise China as the only China. In later years, too, Mandela found himself at odds with the ANC on the subject of HIV/AIDS, which he recognised as a killer that could undo much of the work he had led in liberating South Africa from an earlier oppressor.
An earnest and sincere man, Mandela was not by nature much of a family man, although he threw himself into affairs of the heart. His first marriage, to Evelyn, lasted until the strains of his affair with Winnie Nomzamo became too much and they divorced.
Mandela’s relationship with Winnie rates as one of the great romances of South African history, all the more tragic for his incarceration shortly after they married, and by the tragic circumstances of Winnie’s own life — her banishment to Brandfort and her misjudgments in respect of the Mandela Football Club in the early 1980s.
Mandela would find happiness once again with Graça Machel, whom he was to marry in 1998, on his 80th birthday.
What sort of a man was this, who bestrode so grandly the stage of history and in whose hands rested the fate of South Africans and their later generations? It is Mandela’s seriousness, earnestness and sense of duty and mission that shine through more than any other qualities.
This was nowhere more apparent than in his relationship with his children. Ever-loving, at times his letters from the island betray the worried father, concerned above all with his children’s welfare. At times his criticism stings, as in a 1978 letter to his daughter Maki: “I must point out how disappointed I am … in spite of all your promises you have chosen to condemn yourself to the status of an exploited and miserable social worker of moderate academic qualifications.”
An early riser and a fitness adherent all his life, Mandela practised old-fashioned virtues. Those qualities he did not possess he strived all the harder to attain. By nature domineering, he made a point of acting the democrat; naturally quick-tempered, he went out of his way to cultivate even-naturedness.
His love for children and for the less fortunate in life, his love of nature and his uncommon humanity and human intuition, make him not only one of the great historical figures of world and South African history in the 20th century, but one of the truly great people of his time.
Few will be those who will not mourn the passing of this rare and special man.
• Bulger is page-one editor at Business Day.