Madiba could engage with anyone, even headstrong young ideologists, writes Saths Cooper.
Cape Town - Having spent over five years with Nelson Mandela in the same single-cell block in Robben Island Maximum Security Prison from 1977 to 1982, I had the advantage of interacting with him daily during that time.
These were less than ideal conditions, often fraught with the tensions that accompany incarceration, but such hardships provide the opportunity for the best and worst in ourselves to emerge. I’ll restrict myself to some initial interactions with our nascent democracy’s founding president.
The very next day after Aubrey Mokoape, Strini Moodley and I were moved to his block from the C Section isolation block – rarely used, save as a punishment and in some instances, when specific groups of prisoners were first admitted to the prison after their conviction – he mentioned an incident involving Neville Alexander, where the latter was wont to use first names which had apparently caused resentment amongst peasant inmates. This was his way of informing us that he preferred to be called Madiba, although we had used the respectful Ntata (Sesotho/Setswana for a male elder). He probably foresaw that, as we were urban university-student types in our late twenties and early thirties, we could lapse into using first names. Our respect for him and the older prisoners and our disquiet with using clan/tribal names, resulted in our continued usage of Ntata until it simply became Madiba.
Months later, when Zithulele Cindi and Kaborone Sedibe (also my co-accused in the SASO/BPC trial) replaced Aubrey and Strini in this cell-block, Madiba realised that Zithulele wouldn’t use any clan/tribal names. Madiba deftly resorted to calling him Ou-Maat, thus opening the door for Zithulele to reciprocate by calling Madiba Ou-Maat. Indeed, when certain Stalinists objected to Madiba fermenting puzamandla (a protein supplement that was given to black African prisoners) to have with his mealie pap each morning, Zithulele – who was beyond the Stalinists rein – was the source of Madiba’s fermented breakfast.
In our first encounter that chilly spring afternoon in 1977, he also invited us to discuss with him, when his exams were over (the SASO/BPC trialists were denied study privileges), the question of when it was appropriate for a liberation organisation to open its membership to other races. Our response was that the ANC had taken such a decision at one of its conferences in Tanzania and that our Black Consciousness Movement was founded on the testimony of all blacks – Africans, Coloureds and Indians – working together in the same formation to actively oppose apartheid. We never traversed this topic again.
We asked for, and got, a meeting with all the Rivonia trialists a few days later to make known our reservations about the impending meeting with George Matanzima and members of the Transkei cabinet, concerning their possible release as part of the Transkei anniversary celebrations. This we did the following day, amidst intense but cordial questioning.
The meeting with Matanzima was aborted, and the Transkei celebrations went ahead without anyone being released from prison. I often wonder how someone who had been in jail for some 15 years, with the harsh prospect of serving life imprisonment, would have felt of black hotheads who put principle above all else.
There was no rancour. The engagements grew to one of easy camaraderie and deepening mutual respect. Disagreements on political positions never degenerated into acrimony, which was quite rife with the influx of hundreds of post-June 1976 youth onto Robben Island.
Although he initially could not understand the birth and growth of the Black Consciousness Movement, he soon began to appreciate our standpoint and accepted the definition of black as essentially embracing all those who were not white.
I never heard him use the pejorative non-white after October 1977. Thus it perhaps is that the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa relies on this generic description of blacks, as opposed to privileged whites who had generally enjoyed and benefited from the previous apartheid system.
Since his release from prison, his accession to political power as our founding president and his retirement, my interactions with him were infrequent. I avoided being intrusive. When we did meet, it was always with great fondness and he had the knack of saying the right thing, whatever the circumstances, especially to those I was with, whether family, friends or colleagues. This quality will endear him to all those people that he has interacted with in South Africa and abroad.
Each will have their memories of being touched by a saint. Pity it is that there will be constant squabbling about his legacy. He deserves better.
* Saths Cooper, a former anti-apartheid activist, is the president: International Union of Psychological Science (IUPsyS)
* The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Independent Newspapers