Charmed by the ‘Black Pimpernel’

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Durban - Buthi Msimang was 17 when Nelson Mandela slipped into a Pietermaritzburg hall in March 1961, to address the all-in conference.

It would be nearly three decades after the “Black Pimpernel” was arrested, 3km outside Howick, that Msimang, from Sobantu village, would lay eyes on Mandela again.

“I’ve been a member of the ANC since I was boy, since 1957. The way we were oppressed, there was nothing else except to think of how to free ourselves,” Msimang said.

“That time we were not yet saying Amandla, it was not yet the slogan for the ANC – it was ‘Africa!’. In that particular year that Mandela came to Pietermaritzburg, it was announced by Mfenendala Xaba (an MK veteran who died in 2009). The hall that was organised for Mandela to speak in was an Indian church.”

The occasion was the all-in conference, where Mandela, whose ban was expiring, was secretly scheduled to give the keynote address.

The day before he departed for Pietermaritzburg, it was decided that Mandela would go underground full-time if not convicted of treason the following Monday. Either way, he would not be returning home.

On March 25, 1961, conference delegates representing 150 religious, social, cultural and political bodies met at the Plessislaer Arya Samaj hall.

Mandela gave his last public speech before going on the run, calling for a national convention in which black, white, Indian and coloured South Africans would create a democratic constitution.

“As usual he came before we even knew he was among us,” Msimang said. “I was lucky just to peek and look at him. We were supposed to be outside, because we were youngsters.

“Oh, I was impressed by that man. He told us the struggle would not fail.”

In 1962, after travelling through Africa enlisting support for the ANC and then going to Ethiopia for military training, Mandela was summoned back to South Africa and came to Durban to brief Albert Luthuli about his trip.

Mandela (posing as a chauffeur) and Cecil Williams, an MK member and theatre director, started the ill-fated drive back to Joburg from Durban on the afternoon of August 5, 1962.

At Cedara, outside Howick, a Ford V-8 sped past the Austin carrying Mandela, with Wiliams at the wheel. Behind them were another two cars with police reinforcements, the Ford V8 brought them to a stop, and a sleep-deprived looking man came to the passenger window.

He introduced himself as Sergeant Vorster of the Pietermaritzburg police.

Mandela had been on the run for 17 months before he was captured.

The next time Msimang (now chairman of the ANC’s Edendale branch) was to see Mandela in the flesh, was after his release from Robben Island.

“Early (one) morning I got a message. Baba Gwala (ANC stalwart Harry Gwala) sent one of his bodyguards to tell me that I must come to his house immediately. There was Baba Gwala sitting, and Mandela. Tall Mandela.”

Recalling the meeting, Msimang almost sings his narrative.

“Oh Mandela. I love Mandela too much. There were four of us (including a priest whose name Msimang cannot remember). And we drank coffee together. There was happiness. To see him, we saw freedom. He asked me about my parents. We talked about a few things, not politics much. He said we had done a good job in Pietermaritzburg. Very kind man, Mandela. Very tall, very kind, very clever.”

In April 1997, Mandela returned to Pietermaritzburg when he was awarded the freedom of the city. He also visited Plessislaer Arya Samaj hall, which was renamed Manayi Hall.

Source: Long Walk to Freedom

The Mercury

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