Based on reflections when former president Madiba died (December 5, 2013), contrasting with the utterly mediocre leadership that failed us this Mandela Month.
I got to know Nelson Mandela intimately, interacting with him daily in Robben Island prison, 1977 to 1982, in less than ideal conditions, often fraught with the tensions that accompany incarceration.
Extreme conditions provide opportunity for the best and worst in ourselves to emerge, as we witnessed during the ongoing unparalleled violence in our already violent country.
A day after Aubrey Mokoape, Strini Moodley and I were removed from isolation to his single-cell block, in October 1977, Madiba recounted how Neville Alexander had caused resentment among peasant inmates by using first names. His way of informing urban university students in our mid-late twenties that Madiba was preferred.
In 1978 when Zithulele Cindi (also my co-accused in the SASO/BPC trial) joined us, Madiba - realising that Zithulele would not use any clan/tribal names - deftly resorted to calling him Ou-Maat, thus enabling Zithulele to reciprocate. When certain Stalinists within the ANC objected to Madiba fermenting puzamandla to have with his porridge each morning, Zithulele was the source of Madiba’s fermented breakfast, which he clearly enjoyed.
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 triallists were denied study privileges) the question of when it was appropriate for a liberation organisation to open its membership to other races.
We noted that the ANC in exile had already taken such a decision and that BC 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.
The natural tendency in most people – and politicos are no exception – is to retain understandings that we are familiar with. Underlying some of the racial tensions in parts of KZN is this socialisation and formalisation of apartheid race classification, adding to historic divides, precluding social cohesion and nation-building.
Initially, not understanding the birth and growth of BC, Madiba grew 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, the Interim Constitution relied on this generic description of blacks – repudiating the narcissistic and demeaning term non-white – as opposed to privileged whites who had generally enjoyed and benefited from the previous apartheid system, and continue to do so.
The generational and political gaps were obvious. We respected our elders – part of our upbringing – while representing the many ways in which we perceived the world differently, which they acknowledged.
A major political difference between the ANC and us was the ANC’s four nations hypothesis; that Africans, coloureds, Indians and whites comprised the four spokes that emblazon the ANC wheel.
We held that all blacks were oppressed by a phalanx of white racist power and privilege from colonialism, and that black solidarity was paramount to overcome apartheid.
At a meeting with all Rivonia triallists a few days later, we made known our strong reservations about their impending meeting with George Matanzima and members of the Transkei Cabinet, concerning their possible release as part of the Transkei “Independence” celebrations.
This was intense, but cordial. The meeting was aborted. Transkei celebrations went ahead without anyone’s release from prison. I often wondered how being jailed for some 15 years, with the harsh prospect of serving life imprisonment, they felt about black hotheads who put principle above all else.
Madiba’s initial impression of me as a radical hothead was probably tempered over time and through various interactions.
He would often share personal and political information and felt obliged to inform the leadership of other political organisations of any developments that may impact them.
He was adamant that all our organisations had been infiltrated by apartheid agents. This the record confirms, and Zuma has yet to reveal.
If you could convince him that his position was flawed, he would not hesitate to acknowledge this. Thus, he was able to move white racists to accept the inevitability of peaceful transformation in our country. And, he led by example, making extraordinary concessions to reconciliation which, unfortunately, some in our country have taken for granted, ignoring the massive exploitation, oppression and suffering on which democracy wrought by the erstwhile apartheid system.
There was no rancour in any of our engagements. If you could convince him that his position was flawed, he would not hesitate to acknowledge this. Always direct, these grew to an easy camaraderie and deepening mutual respect.
Disagreements on political positions never degenerated into acrimony, always ending with us agreeing to disagree.
This is something that our country sorely lacks, evidenced by the tense and violence-prone current political discourse. Instant unthinking attack, blaming everyone else for self-inflicted predicaments; patent lack of introspection, insight vision, allowing one’s own anger and disability to flow into the public arena, fuelling misconceptions, increasing socio-economic uncertainty and instability.
Madiba led by example, making extraordinary concessions to reconciliation which, unfortunately, some in our country have taken for granted, while others have benefited from, ignoring the massive exploitation, oppression and suffering, which democracy inherited.
Unfortunately, there is no Madiba to lead us in this winter of our discontent. His legacy rent asunder by self-serving persons in public office, who feebly attempt to show the way, but don’t go there themselves.
* Professor Saths Cooper is a former political prisoner who was jailed with late former president Nelson Mandela on Robben Island. He was a member of the 1970s group of activists. He is now president of the Pan-African Psychology Union.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL and Independent Media.