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I first met Mandela in 1991 in Johannesburg at the offices of the ANC during my visit to South Africa, guest of the Congress of South African writers to talk at various community centÎÒÿØ lucinda.jordaan¦°¥H¦L¦ÿÿ`T˜ersres, sharing ideas and experiences in the unfolding post-apartheid democratic process. ÎÒÿØ carlo.mercorio¦êwH¥Â"aÿÿÐS˜]Mandela had just resumed the presidency of ANC after 27 years in prison.\[lucinda.jordaan\]P
I could never have imagined that my very first engagement in the country would be with the legend of the struggle.
I was told about the meeting a few hours before it took place
I did not know what to expect. Mandela had been part of my literary and political imagination since his days as the Black Pimpernel who, time and again, made a fool of the pursuing apartheid police.
A Makerere student at the time, I had just read ÎÒÿØ lucinda.jordaan¦°¥H¦L¦ÿÿÐW˜ OrcyÕs Baroness Orczy’s novel The Scarlet Pimpernel set during the French Revolution and it was easy to equate the French reign of terror with apartheid; and Mandela, with the Percy character, the elusive master of disguiseÎÒÿØ lucinda.jordaanêwH¥Â"aÿÿpZ˜s and elusive moves.
The real Mandela of the Rivonia trial, Robben Island
ÎÒÿØ lucinda.jordaan¦°¥H¦L¦ÿÿ`X˜, and worldwide celebrity, added to the legend. He had been the subject of poetry, politics and popular performance.
In London I had worked with the ANC in exile, even met the hardworking Oliver Tambo, Mandela’s legal partner, the one that held togetherÎÒÿØ lucinda.jordaan¦°¥H¦L¦ÿÿg˜, a party then dubbed terrorist by the West.
So Mandela’s name was alwaysÎÒÿØ lucinda.jordaan¦°¥H¦L¦ÿÿ`T˜ in on the horizon of my being, and now, at last, I was going to meet the man.
I expected him to talk about his prison days, or ask me about Kenya politics, or simply voice his dreams for a South Africa whose leadership he would soon assume.
He didn’t. He talked mostly about books, what African writers had meant to him and his fellow political prisoners, how books had played a role in buoying ÎÒÿØ lucinda.jordaan¦°¥H¦L¦ÿÿ0T˜up their spirits.
Books, yes, and more books.
We sat one on one, at eye level, but I didn’t reali ÎÒÿØ lucinda.jordaan¦°¥H¦L¦ÿÿÐW˜zse that he grew on me by the second, a towering presence because he did not try to be towering. Before I knew it, an hour-and-a-half had goneÎÒÿØ lucinda.jordaan¦°¥H¦L¦ÿÿÀU˜,; he was ready to receive the next visitor.
What stayed with me, as I left for ÎÒÿØ lucinda.jordaan¦°¥H¦L¦ÿÿ@˜KwaZululand, was his soft, introspective tone. An incident in my first workshop at a library would make me revisit the tone. After the library event a few miles from Durban we were to drive to the graveyard of Albert Luthuli, the former president of the ANC, to pay respects to his memory.
I was in the midst of telling the Kamirithu story, the open air theatre, the involvement of workers, small farmers, the landless, the jobless and the power of an awakened consciousness, when suddenly I saw commotion in the audience.
The ANC chief of security who had accompanied us hurried out of the room, unbuttoning his jacket. They had arrested an Inkatha gunman about to enter the hall. They disarmed him in the nick of time.
My workshop ended abruptly. Our visit to Luthuli’s grave was cancelled. All those present, including an American envoy, drove in a convoy back to Durban.
It was then that I realiÎÒÿØ lucinda.jordaan¦°¥H¦L¦ÿÿS˜zsed that my driver was in ANC security and he told me that his own brother had been murdered by thugs, allegedly Inkatha Freedom Party men, the week before.
This brought home to me the meaning of Mandela’s introspective tone. The country was literally on the verge of a bloodÎÒÿØ lucinda.jordaan¦°¥H¦L¦ÿÿg˜ pbath and he knew it; he held the key to its stabilityÎÒÿØ lucinda.jordaan¦°¥H¦L¦ÿÿ0T˜;. Despite his calm demeanour, this must have weighed on him.
But he held the nation together, the five years that he was president, guided by the realiÎÒÿØ lucinda.jordaan¦°¥H¦L¦ÿÿT˜zsation that there is no room for vengeance in good politics.ÎÒÿØ lucinda.jordaanêwH¥Â"aÿÿÐS˜% It was easier to tear than to build.
Even in serving one term, he showed his faith in the ANC and the people.
I would meet him again after my 2003 Steve Biko Memorial Lecture. The meeting was in Johannesburg again, this time in the offices of his Foundation.
By then he had left office, and Thabo Mbeki had taken over.
He was different than the first meeting, a little bit more effusive.
He talked about the contribution of Cuba and African states to the struggle. He talked a little bit about his continuing contact with leaders of the world, Bush and Blair in particular. He reminisced over Biko, paying tribute to the role of the black conscious movement and indeed that of the other political parties in the liberation struggle, mentioning Robert Sobukwe by name.
Again so generous in his inclusiveness. The question of his giving a Steve Biko lecture came up and indeed he gave one, the following year.
As we were leaving, he stood up and placed his hand on my shoulder. Thus we walked to the door where we left him.
I told Xolela Mangcu, my host, how touching that was: he walking us to the door, his hand on my shoulder, a gesture almost reminiscent of the image of his long walk to freedom. Xolela laughed.
Sorry, nothing personal. He does that with people. For support.
Yes, he was clearly more frail than the first time we met but his spirits were still up, once again his charisma and his towering presence commanding awe and respect rather than demanding it.
The third time would have been in 2004 when he, Ali Mazrui and I were to be accorded honorary doctorates to mark the renaming and re-launching of the former University of Transkei as Walter Sisulu University.
Walter Sisulu, one of the ANC stalwarts, was also Mandela’s political and spiritual mentor.
My wife, Njeeri and our two children Mumbi and Thiongo, were less excited about my doctorate than the fact that they were going to meet Mandela.
It was an emotional moment for me because I was returning to Kenya for the first time after ÎÒÿØ lucinda.jordaan¦°¥H¦L¦ÿÿT˜twenty-two 22 years of forced exile.
Alas we never met him: he was down with something, he could not make it to the ceremony, and he would be given his robes at his home.
His passing on, though expected, shocked me: at the back of my mind was always a hope that the man who had cheated death many times would once more rebound.
But he remains a towering figure in African and world politics.
When Mandela was released from prison captured in the iconic picture of his walking hand in hand with Winnie Mandela, I wrote an article in Gikuyu, Kungu Baba Mandela; Welcome home Father Mandela, because I could not see myself recording this moment in any but an African language.
A day after news of his passing on, a poem came to me in Gikuyu, in which I tried to capture the resilience of a fighting spirit that Mandela represents:
Thaai thayu Mandela
O na aria tene mamwitaga gitoi
Riu maroiga aari muruiri wiyathi
Aria tene mendaga kumweheria thi ino
Riu maraarira tondu ni ehera thi ino
Ma yerirwo ndikuuaga
Ma ndithikikaga marimaini
Maageririe kumiratha na buruburu
Ma ikimatiga makiyuria yahonokera ku
Makigeria kumioha na nyororo
Makimihingira gacigirira ka utunyani Rob’em
Makimihuurithia mahiga miaka mirongo iiri na mugwanja
Makiminyarira ni guo Ma ikue ngoro ati
Ma yoere maheeni mooko na iguru
Matiamenyaga ni mwiri marahuurithia mahiga ati
Ma yatinirie mabingu na thigingi o gatene na ati
Ma ni yo yatongoragia mbaara ya wiyathi
Ma yaniriire ruria rwanainwo ni akinyiri Ma na Kihooto
Tutiuragia guthamio kana gutwarwo njeera
Kana gutwarwo icigirira
Amu tutigatiga gutetera wiyathi…
Mandela Madiba Rolihlahla muriu wa muhiriga wa Thembu na Abirika
Mwiri waku ni guo wathii kumaama kigunyiini gia thayu mutheru
Ma iria maaikagiria buruburu
Ma iria mohaga na mabingu na nyegerere
Ma iria maaguikiirie njeera na ithamirio
Ma iyo igutuura na muingi tene na tene
Ma ngoroini ya akinyiri ma na kihooto thi ng’ima
(Blessed Peace, Mandela
Even those that then called him a terrorist
Now acclaim him a freedom fighter
Those that once wanted him gone
Are now shedding tears that he’s gone
It is said that truth never dies
It cannot be buried in a hole
They tried to kill it with bullets
They wondered how did it escape?
They put it in chains
They sent it to Robben Island
They made it break stones twenty seven years
They tortured it to make truth give up hope
They tried all to make truth surrender to lies
They did not realiÎÒÿØ lucinda.jordaan¦°¥H¦L¦ÿÿÐS˜zse it was the body breaking stones
That truth cut thru the handcuffs and barbed wires long ago
That it was truth that guided the armed struggle
Singing that which had been sung by other seekers of freedom
You can send us to exile and prisons
Or confine us to islands
But we shall never stop struggling for freedom…
Mandela Madiba Rolihlahla of Thembu and African clan
Your body that has gone to rest under the shades of holy peace
The truth they tried to shoot down with bullets
The truth they put in hand and leg chains
The truth for which they put you in jail and detention
That truth lives on among the people for ever
In the hearts of all fighters for truth and justice the world over.)
* Wa Thiong’o is Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature, University of California, Irvine.