Mandela did not enjoy the fawning that went on around him, writes Rhoda Kadalie.
Cape Town - When Nelson Mandela joined us after an inexorably long stint in prison, I had a sneaking suspicion he did not always like the fawning that went on around him. So one day I put it to the test.
In the early Nineties, UWC hosted a celebration of Madiba in the Great Hall. I was asked to do the vote of thanks after much praise singing. I had just read Anthony Samson’s biography and was amused to discover that when the young Nelson was a member of the ANC Youth League, he, like Peter Mokaba, who was the Malema of the 1990s, was also a hot-headed radical. Cognisant of white SA’s fears of Mokaba, I extolled all Madiba’s vices as a youth leader, and concluded by saying: “Madiba, given your past, you turned out quite okay – so there is hope for us and the youth league!”
Mandela shook with laughter and gave me a kiss on the cheek, demanding a copy of my speech. I have a photo of this event in my office, of Mandela whispering in my ear. I call it a portrait of noses, a celebration of our San heritage!
When former French president François Mitterrand visited South Africa in July 1994, Mandela invited an array of people to the lunch at Constantia Uitsig. We were asked to form a guard of honour as Madiba walked Mitterrand from the lawns to the restaurant, introducing each of us individually. And did he know all of us, not so much for what we did but for our idiosyncrasies. As he approached me, he said to Mitterrand: “Meet Rhoda Kadalie, that troublesome woman!”
When I did become troublesome, Madiba didn’t always like it. My exposés of human rights violations in Pollsmoor prison annoyed him as he least needed such negative headlines so early in his presidency. Despite this, he visited the prison with former correctional services minister, Sipho Mzimela, indicating a willingness to clean it up.
One of the highlights of my life was being invited to some of Madiba’s great banquets: they were inclusive, diverse, and festive. On one such occasion at Tuynhuys, we waited excitedly for Madiba to arrive. In he walked with a big smile, dressed in an elegant iconic black shirt, with an understated gold border around the collar. He looked every inch a chief, a king, exquisite. That evening, he walked around talking to people, shaking hands and sharing jokes, intent on deconstructing the aura around him, one his successor tried so much to cultivate.
Madiba’s love of people, women and children in particular, is understandable, given his long incarceration. From his autobiography and writings, his sense of responsibility, even guilt, about abandoning his family for the struggle is deep. And he made up for it by retiring early. As an African leader, he set a precedent few try to emulate. His early retirement was inspired not solely by personal sensibilities but also political considerations – to graciously give up the world’s most coveted presidency to make way for his older comrade Oliver Tambo’s heir apparent.
Known for his stubbornness, he knew equally well that he did not know everything, that his isolation denied him everyday knowledge of what made South Africans tick, the aspects of our socio-cultural life. Hence he made it his business to get to know people.
He told Jakes Gerwel in no uncertain terms that UWC should not only remain the home of the Left but also become the home of coloured students primarily, the more Africanised the university became. He went into Mitchells Plain to meet ordinary township folk and when a woman insulted him, Madiba readily forgave her, acknowledging her as a victim of our apartheid past. Similarly, he went into black areas. Not even there was he automatically accepted. Cognisant of the racial and tribal fissures in the country, Mandela actively crossed those divides, culminating in the visit to the wives of apartheid leaders – Betsie Verwoerd and Elise Botha.
Already in prison, Madiba made it his business to understand the Afrikaners and nationalism. His relationship with his warders, and his willingness to forgive and promote his presidency as the era of reconciliation, laid sound foundations for the constitutional democracy we have today.
As a chief, Mandela was as deeply conservative as he was a constitutional democrat, par excellence, practising tolerance for gay and women’s rights as well as the rights of minorities.
Although he wanted a government of national unity, he firmly believed in the concept of loyal opposition. His presidency was marked by lively and civilised debate in Parliament, active portfolio committee meetings and robust citizen engagement. Opening Parliament for public debate on abortion, inviting every sector and every sectarian group to participate in a highly controversial issue, Mandela demonstrated the potential this public space has in bringing citizens together, regardless of their views.
His sparring with Tony Leon, leader of the opposition at the time, was cordial, civilised, and often funny. At some point in their Parliamentary debate, Leon accused Mandela of “mickey mouse” politics. Visiting Leon after his heart surgery in hospital, Madiba hid behind the curtain of the ward. “Tony, guess who’s here?” Before Leon could answer, Madiba said: “Goofy!”
Yes, Madiba had a fine sense of humour and Jakes Gerwel was best at telling those stories.
We shall miss Madiba, but he will remain our rising star in the historical and political firmament of South Africa.
*Kadalie is a human rights activist and executive director of the Impumelelo Innovations Award Trust.
**The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.