What more can one say about Nelson Mandela? What more than the detailed biographies, the reflective documentaries, and the dramatic cinema that have informed the world of this incredible life? Our image of him, that shock of grey hair, broad grin, fist in the air. That shuffle dance, another crazy shirt. Is this memory not narrative enough? Fact is, the story of Mandela’s legacy exists in the hearts of a nation. But perhaps, then, if one was to write another piece on Mandela, the heart should be the source of the content.
A boy, around four years old, stands before a group of adults. He recites a line that his teacher has taught him. “My name is Mutale,” he says. “I take this opportunity to share our gratitude to our great leader Tata Nelson Mandela. You are an inspiration to us and father to the nation.”
The boy rocks on heels, looks to his teacher for approval, not quite grasping the gravitas of his little recital. His audience, a broad mix of the South African demographic, is tearing up. It’s not what the boy has said. It is what the boy represents. At this moment, Mandela is lying in hospital, he is near the end of his life. And here is this little boy, at beginning of his, reciting what every single South African knows to be true. Mandela represents hope.
In an interview Johnny Clegg, apartheid activist and acclaimed international musician, raises his hands and exclaims, “We were prepared to see the most incredible race war erupt!” He is describing the intensity of the resentment, the heat of deep-seated anger, the dry tinder of oppression that was waiting for a single strike of the flint by one particular man.
When Mandela emerged from Victor Verster prison in 1990 he could have marched past the adoring press and into the eager embrace of Umkhontu we Sizwe (MK) – the military wing of the ANC. Mandela could have attempted to free his people by means of civil war. He chose forgiveness instead.
It wasn’t always like this. George Bizos, one of Mandela’s lawyers at the Rivonia Treason Trial remembers his early acquaintance with the man at university. “Nelson Mandela was a very articulate, very handsome and a very brave speaker,” he says.
But by 1961 Mandela was done with campus rhetoric, through with being the handsome speaker. Now the young Mandela was prepared to fight. He’d gone underground, never shaving his beard or cutting his hair in an attempt at being incognito. He operated at night. Lived in empty flats and in supporter’s houses. He disguised himself as a chauffeur or a gardener.
Now was the time of action, it was clear that a passive stance against oppression would not release the regime’s grip on people of colour. He became a leader of MK and coordinated sabotage campaigns against military and government targets under the broadly quoted manifesto of, “… there comes a time in the life of all people that you either succumb or you fight back…”
Fellow ANC member Wolfie Kadesh recalls the period, “We knew that on 16 December 1961 we were to start bombing symbolic places of apartheid, like pass offices, native magistrates courts… but we were to do it in such a way that nobody would be hurt, nobody would get killed.” In retrospect this instruction is typical of Mandela. In the palm of his raised fist there has always been the essence of forgiver. A warrior who does not harbour the desire to kill.
On August 5, 1962, Mandela was arrested. He was sentenced to five years in prison. In 1963 police swooped on the other prominent ANC leaders at Liliesleaf Farm, Rivonia. The leaders were charged with crimes equivalent to treason.
“The accused had been detained without trial for 90 days,” Bizos recalls. “The newspapers, particularly those supporting the government were drumming into people’s heads that there could be only one sentence. The death sentence. I went to see them. They brought in Nelson Mandela, wearing prison clothes. He was accused number one.”
Mandela’s statement in court conveyed a stern message to his oppressors and became an inspiration to those in resistance. “During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to the struggle of the African people. 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 for which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
In the winter of 1964 Mandela stepped on Robben Island and would remain incarcerated for 27 years. Mandela and his co-accused were marked as terrorists by the government propaganda of the time. They were to be locked away, intended to be forgotten, forced to do hard labour in a quarry.
Mandela was allowed one visitor a year for 30 minutes and could write and receive one letter every six months. But inside of this dire confinement Mandela found hope, and many inventive ways in which to contribute to the leadership of the struggle. For Mandela it was a time to learn and to grow as a thought leader. Ahmed Kathrada, ANC stalwart and co-accused at the Rivonia Treason Trial, remembers the Robben Island ethos.
“When Mandela says that Robben Island was a university it wasn’t just an academic university (correspondence study), it was also a university of human behaviour, human relations. In that situation where 25 of you are locked up for so many years… you learn human behaviour.” Mandela worked at his leadership style and inherent charm. He fed his mind and exercised his body. Instead of whittling away he grew in stature.
On the outside of Robben Island the ANC had engaged in a guerrilla war that bubbled under the thick veneer of the white South African existence. But on the inside, Mandela was working on a manifesto of racial co-existence.
“No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite,” he wrote.
Mandela emerged from prison as a mature leader, a man ready to engage in political battle for true democracy rather than bloody war. Former President FW de Klerk, the man who unbanned the ANC and released Mandela speaks of the period just prior to his release.
“The first time I met Nelson Mandela, he was brought from the prison in which he was then staying, under cover of darkness, to meet me in my presidential office… which later became his office. That first meeting was not a meeting of substance in the sense that we discussed anything serious; we were both feeling each other out.
Afterwards we wrote in our respective autobiographies that we went back to our constituencies and said to them ‘I think I can do business with this man’. My immediate impression was that he was a man of integrity, he was a man of substance, he was a good listener, he was logical in his approach and I liked what I saw… but his greatest attribute is his warmth to people. His true interest which he has in the people that he interacts with.”
This is Mandela’s remarkable legacy. His connection to people. An incredible aura that transcended prison walls, his presidential office and his status as a world icon. On the day Mandela was released Mxolisi Dwangu was working in an Eastern Cape factory. “We were so excited,” he says. “We had never seen him before, so we imagined how he looked, how tall he is, how big he is, we only knew his name.”
Kumi Naidoo, anti-apartheid activist and current head of Green Peace International, explains. “The South African state was so threatened by what Mandela represented that if a photograph of Mandela appeared in any South African publication he had to be blacked out. So none of us really knew what he looked like… but when I met him, just being in his presence was, for me it was, I’m still like in my 20’s right, and this was as close as coming to meeting God. Madiba hates people saying that, but it is true.”
Mandela is not a God. He is a man who steered a country from a potential bloodbath towards a peaceful democracy. He is a man who, as a newly elected president, was known to roam the hills of the Transkei, connecting with the people instead of spending his hours protecting a position of power. He is the man who stood before the world and propagated the spirit of forgiveness. Mandela proved that war need not precede peace.
Over the course of world history there have been many men more powerful than Nelson Mandela, but few have been so deeply connected to so many. Mandela did not incite a people into rage and lead them into battle. He never went on a multi-million dollar campaign trail to garner support. He did not perform extreme acts of martyrdom.
How then? How did he end up in the hearts of millions outside of South Africa? Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu answers the question. “Why is it that we admire people like Mother Teresa, Mahatma Ghandi, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King? The answer must be that it is because they are good. We are made for goodness.”
A young woman, Busisiwle Fledi, sits on an apple crate at the verge of a dirty pavement. Her fruit stall is balanced on two bricks. She calls out to the commuters crowding an East London taxi rank, accepting coins for bananas and apples. She was born in 1994, the year of the first democratic elections in South Africa.
“Nelson Mandela is like family,” she says. “I see us carrying out his wishes. He wanted the nation to unite. My personal dream for the future is to achieve my goal. I am studying to be an internal auditor at the Nelson Mandela University in Port Elizabeth. This stall belongs to my mother. People like me are the future of South Africa.”