The best of South African literature
A couple of days after Madiba’s passing, I found time to see the biopic Long Walk to Freedom, based on his autobiography. Like many South Africans, this was one of the many ways I used to mourn the departure of this colossus.
At the end of the movie I was both transfixed and transmogrified. For it was nothing short of inhabiting Madiba’s life. His epic trials, tribulations and final triumph.
By the end, Madiba’s spirit inhered in all of us. We all stood up and clapped. A fitting tribute to this iconic hero of our people and the world at large. The movie had enabled us to inhabit Madiba’s life and times. And in an ineffable way, transmuted us into Madiba.
I could not sleep that night. I was buffeted and bothered, singed and seared by what I had just witnessed. Madiba’s life is well known to all of us. It’s been chronicled and documented ad nauseam. But there is something about a filmic rendition, skilfully executed, that can bring an entire life into sharp relief, in just two hours.
This movie succeeds in powerfully revivifying Madiba’s epic story, his sacrifice, tenacity and the generosity of his spirit in a way that has indelibly imprinted his example on our collective psyche.
In a way, it was Madiba’s parting gift to us. In his magisterial address to a special joint sitting of Parliament, Kgalema Motlanthe quoted from the novelist Milan Kundera: “The struggle of humanity against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”
Imagine for a moment. You are a 42-year-old swashbuckling and successful lawyer, married to the most beautiful woman in the world, more beautiful and smarter than the belle du jour of that era, Jackie Kennedy, but you choose a life of underground and danger. Think about not being allowed to touch this woman for almost 20 years, as she visits you in prison.
Ponder for a moment, the suffering inflicted on Winnie, which she met with defiance and fortitude, emerging as an eloquent spokeswoman for her imprisoned husband and a people in bondage.
We see the toll this struggle would eventually exact on her and on their marriage. We feel palpably, Tata’s pain, as he announced the end of this emblematic union. How could memory “forget” such grandeur and sacrifice?
President Jacob Zuma appropriately referred to Madiba as this country’s greatest son as he announced his passing in a sombre address to the nation at almost midnight on Thursday, December 5.
There has been, at times, equivocation and temporising around this depiction of Madiba – with some resorting to incantations of tired nostrums about the “collective leadership” in a way that seems parsimonious and churlish. Telling us that Madiba was a product of a collective is axiomatic. He did not drop from the sky, after all.
But there is no denying the fact that Madiba was sui generis (unique) in that collective.
Walter Sisulu, that humble giant of our people, who was the first to spot Madiba’s leadership valence, told all who would listen about Madiba’s special attributes. He recounted how in their first meeting, he noticed in Madiba’s personal magnetism and patrician sensibility, the portent of a champion of our people.
In an era where political activists tended to be dour and lugubrious, Madiba’s radiant smile lit up everything around him. And these are some of the qualities Sisulu understood the movement needed to connect with the masses of our people. For people love heroic figures. They are attracted to charisma and daring, flair and panache.
Programmes alone are not enough. People need leaders who can invigorate such programmes with verve and vitality. And this is what both Sisulu and Oliver Tambo, whom Madiba acknowledged as a keener intellect, sought to do – help Madiba come into his dazzling own.
They pruned some of Madiba’s rough edges, his quick temper and impatience, and in the fullness of time, an extraordinary political talent, the likes of which will never be seen again, would be forged.
It is no accident that at every pivotal moment of the rolling 1950s it was Madiba who would be at the forefront of issues.
It was he who showed up and stepped up.
Thus it was Madiba who would be the volunteer-in-chief of the Defiance Campaign in 1950, an event that electrified the masses of our people and telegraphed to the Nationalist Party, flush with victory in 1948, that the battle was joined – Izakunyathela iAfrika!
Ditto with the Treason Trial, where Madiba had a starring role, and ultimately the leadership of a new phase of struggle as the ANC embarked on armed resistance, after its banning in 1960. He became commander-in-chief of Umkhonto we Sizwe, which would earn him accused No 1 status at the Rivonia Trial. The first among equals.
Throughout these times there was Sisulu’s loving guidance and encouragement. In the movie, you see his deep admiration for his young protégé, as he cajoled and counselled Madiba into global iconography.
The love and camaraderie they shared are rare in political struggles, which are often replete with jealousy and intrigue.
Think about Thomas Sankara and Blaise Campaore in Burkina Faso, Maurice Bishop and Bernard Coard in Grenada, Joseph Stalin and Leon Trotsky in Russia and, more recently, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.
But in Walter Sisulu and Oliver Tambo, Madiba had confederates who encouraged him to soar and shine – and in the process become the global synonym for decency and heroism.
Then, the tiresome carping of the international left, who seem to have wanted Madiba to be the Lenin of a new Socialist Revolution, even as it was being rejected in those locales where it had taken root 70 years before and as socialism became a byword for economic failure, repression and intolerance.
Mandela, the newly minted graduate of the “University of Albania”, was expected to launch a new socialist offensive against capital with the new South Africa as a bridgehead.
It was thus no surprise to read in the New York Times a critique along these lines: “Mandela’s Socialist Failure” by the rock star philosopher and black-belt armchair revolutionary, Slavoj Zizek. He wrote: “We can safely surmise that… he was at the end of his life also a bitter old man, well aware how his very political triumph and elevation into a universal hero was the mask of a bitter defeat. His universal glory is also a sign that he really didn’t disturb the global order of power.”
This drivel came literally a day after Madiba’s passing. Astoundingly uncharitable, you might add.
Let’s again reflect on what Madiba went through: he led a courageous movement “that at its start had little promise of success”; faced unblinkingly the prospects of a death penalty at Rivonia; had his family torn apart, his wife persecuted and humiliated; did not see his youngest daughter till she was 16, having parted from her when she was a mere 18 months old; a man not allowed to bury his own beloved mother and son, but who would steadfastly refuse all offers of a conditional release.
But instead of wallowing in self-pity and bitterness, he would have the strategic prescience to, without the blessings of his movement, in an act of staggering courage and foresight, initiate dialogue with his jailers that would lead to the historic political settlement that would free his people.
And this is his reward from a dude who’s never done anything else in his life except bonk and bloviate? I was tempted to send the punk these two simple words, “Your mama”.
Madiba was the last of the Mohicans in a pantheon of greatness running from Chief Albert Luthuli to Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo, Govan Mbeki and the legendary Martin Tembisile (Chris) Hani.
His departure at such a critical time in our history as a nation, when a rapacious political oligarchy has declared war on decency itself, leaves us bereft and adrift.
But we glory in the fact that we lived in Madiba’s times, and were blessed to be in his moral and intellectual neighbourhood. We were enchanted and ennobled by his incandescent aura and majesty.
And hopefully, reflections on Madiba’s meaning will help summon our better angels, so we can reach for the stars again.
* Mabandla is a businessman.