The announcement must have come while I was on the phone to my ageing mother. We had chatted at length about international events. “And how is Mandela?” she queried. “No real change since the last time,” I responded.
Imagine my shock when I turned on the TV to be met with the breaking news. Intellectually, I had come to terms with Madiba’s passing on the last occasion he was admitted to hospital. It had registered that it was just a matter of time. But, when the long-anticipated, inevitable moment arrived, it was emotionally wrenching. As a melancholy gripped me, here was that deep sadness, but no tears came to my eyes.
From some place, deep inside me, rose the emotions.
Gorha lomzi wakwaMthtirara!
The words sprang spontaneously from my mouth. I began to swell with pride as I reflected on this son of our South African soil whose achievements have made him more than an African hero, yet one who is so quintessentially and unmistakably African.
Nelson Mandela was among a generation of African professionals, intellectuals and workers who came into national politics during the course of World War II.
Driven by a nationalist vision that had evolved in response to colonial conquest and white domination, they met regularly in the law offices where Anton Lembede, their leading light, worked. There was something attractive about their line of reasoning.
What was new about their nationalism was the concept of sovereignty inhering in the “people” or the nation. Lembede and his colleagues held that this sovereignty was divinely ordained – in the words of the US constitution, these were “God-given rights” – and as such, inalienable.
And, since God does not play favourites, he had apportioned these inalienable rights equally, implying the principle of equality before the law also came from above.
These youthful nationalists felt they had been vindicated by the Atlantic Charter, adopted by Roosevelt and Churchill as their war aims in 1941, when they founded the ANC Youth League in 1944.
The previous December, at its national conference, the ANC had embraced The Africans’ Claims, the product of a blue ribbon committee ANC president, Dr AB Xuma, had convened to apply the principles in the Atlantic Charter to the African continent.
The “African Claims” located the system of racial oppression in a continental context, as one among many variants of colonialism. Its unequivocal call for African self-government translated into democracy in South Africa. By invoking the principle of “government by the consent of the governed”, the Africans’ Claims indicted all systems of colonialism and minority rule.
As democracy would only be achieved by overturning of the existing political order, a political strategy to displace the minority regime was required.
These principles undergirded Mandela’s political actions until he retired from active politics. They motivated him as volunteer-in-chief during the Defiance Campaign and, as he explained in his now famous statement from the dock, inspired his actions as the founding commander of Umkhonto we Sizwe.
A determination to see them realised sustained him over the next 28 years during which he became the world’s best-known political prisoner. The Rivonia Trial transformed Mandela from a South African into a world figure. I remember the scramble, soon after the raid on Liliesleaf was announced, to find suitable images of him in London.
Wolfie Kodesh, who had organised safe houses for Madiba while he was underground, had a beautiful A4- size photograph of him taken the previous year. Wolfie’s photograph of the bearded Mandela in his striped shirt was the image used for the millions of “Free Nelson Mandela” posters and other materials produced over three decades.
The 20th century probably witnessed political imprisonment on an unprecedented scale. As a century of political extremes, regimes of the right, the centre and the left employed imprisonment or the threat thereof promiscuously to intimidate their political opponents. Surprisingly, among the thousands of political prisoners of that age, a relatively obscure figure, little- known beyond South Africa’s borders in 1964, was embraced by the international community and passed away as a hero of our times 49 years later.
What was it about Nelson Mandela and the cause he represented that made him such an attractive figure? What qualities did this tall African from the rural Eastern Cape have that endeared him to a world community that could have descended into a destructive cynicism about the human family, considering the nightmarish deeds committed by people since 1945.
One could say there are two phases in Mandela story.
The first is Mandela the political prisoner. Mandela had to be skilfully marketed to an international community that had first to be made receptive to the person and the cause he represented.
There was no shortage of great and good causes during the 20th century and all of them produced outstanding figures and prominent political prisoners.
While dissident literary and cultural figures in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe were the beneficiaries of well-funded campaigns in their defence at the height of the Cold War, during the 1950s the apartheid regime had convinced the US that the liberation movement in South Africa was either communist-inspired or communist-led.
There is evidence that US intelligence operatives were implicated in Mandela’s capture outside Howick in 1962. During the 1980s Dick Cheney, who served as vice-president under George Bush, was calling for Mandela’s continued imprisonment.
The campaign to free all South African political prisoners consequently started off on a back foot in many Western countries.
Mandela became the face of an international grassroots campaign, mounted and driven by the citizens of scores of countries. It took two decades to persuade Western governments to change their policy towards apartheid.
By February 1990, the name of Nelson Mandela was known in every part of the world, because that campaign had attracted such wide-ranging support. Despite the worst efforts of his jailers and detractors, Mandela’s stature and image grew while he was in prison.
The world community embraced Madiba because so many millions felt they had made a personal contribution, however small, towards his release from prison.
He had already outgrown South Africa and become a world figure on the day he walked out of Victor Verster.
On the road campaigning for Madiba’s release during the mid-Eighties, a group of Latin American radicals approached me with a word of friendly advice. Don’t put all your eggs in the Mandela basket, they admonished, he might emerge from prison a much changed man, and disappoint all your expectations.
The Nelson Mandela who emerged from prison on February 11, 1990, affirmed and consolidated the image the political prisoner had earned. In addition to his height, which lent him a commanding presence, he exuded an effortless charisma whose magnetism was palpable. An empathetic personality that drew people to him was combined with an authority that he wore with uncommon grace.
Mandela displayed impressive political skills and a tactical acumen that took his adversaries by surprise.
His release came about because he had outmanoeuvred PW Botha.
During his Rubicon speech in 1985, Botha spoke of the renunciation of violence as conditional for negotiations, thus inadvertently giving Mandela an opening for a dialogue about negotiation. He used the opportunity to pen an outstanding letter to Botha, shifting the focus from his imprisonment to negotiating the end of apartheid.
While firmly asserting the justice of the cause of liberation, Madiba expressed his appreciation of the fears of the white minority.
Umkhonto we Sizwe had been careful not to paint itself into a corner when it mounted its first armed actions on December 16 1961 – the prospect of negotiations provided their purpose to dismantle apartheid. Mandela understood that De Klerk’s apartheid regime was in strategic retreat.
Though it would not be turned into a rout, he knew the movement could sustain the momentum by the application of steady pressure.
The negotiations had to be kept on track while the efforts of the third force to disrupt the process with random violence had to be resisted. The upshot was an ANC team that came out of the talks with what it wanted.
Madiba assumed the mantle of president twelve months before the democratic elections because of Chris Han’s assassination. It was his immense authority that contained the seething anger in the townships.
Janus Walusz ironically demonstrated that the moral right to govern the country had passed to Mandela.
In prison Mandela displayed courage, resilience and dignity. Outside, he demonstrated foresight, wisdom and compassion: Qualities humans find appealing.
He never presented himself as an angel. It is precisely his humanity, that admits to frailties and weaknesses, that has endeared Madiba to a world community that admires him for his strengths, but also loves him because he is so much like us.
Lala ngoxolo Myem-yem.
- Sunday Independent
n Jordan is a former cabinet minister and member of the ANC NEC