South African journalist and writer Fred Khumalo, opens our special tribute to the innimitable legend, that was Nelson Mandela. He examines the life and times of the anti-apartheid hero who passed away on 5th December 2013, and asks one of the most vital question everybody is seeking answers to: What happens now after death of the icon?
In his native Xhosa language, which is known for its poetry, his middle name Rolihlahla means “the one who drags a tree branch, leaving dust in his wake” – in other words, a troublemaker. Indeed, from the time he was a child, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela would live up to the name: stirring trouble within his own family, in the community he grew up in – and finally in the land of apartheid that robbed him of 27 years of his productive life.
But the man who passed away at the age of 95, on 5 December 2013, would be remembered as the first president of a free South Africa, a man who saved that country from a full-scale racial civil war; a man who, for generations to come, will remain an iconic presence in the firmament of influential personalities the world over.
Mandela touched different people, at different times, in different but profound ways, not unlike his idol, Mahatma Gandhi.
For me, he has been like a box of chocolates – full of surprises and… disappointments. You never knew what you were going to get, as Forrest Gump would have said in that movie of the same name.
My first disappointment was when, in my early teens, I learned that Mandela was of Xhosa stock. Thanks to the tales of valour that we listened to from our grandmothers, all the heroes that we were told of were Zulu. These tales were, unwittingly, grist to the mill of the apartheid machinery of ethnic chauvinism, and the divide-and-rule strategy.
I open this piece by invoking my childhood for the simple reason that it is when we are young and innocent that we are honest about the reality around us. There is no political correctness when you are young. You relate to the world as it impacts upon you. But, as I said, your worldview is influenced by your own upbringing, the prejudices and stereotypes that you inherit. With my own political awakening, I began to appreciate myself not as a Zulu, but as a black South African. And later, simply as a South African – thanks to Mandela’s activism and infectious optimism.
When Mandela walked out of prison in 1990, he not only experienced his own freedom from jail, but he led the South African nation to its own freedom, in all its manifestations. As my humble contribution in the celebration of this hero, I propose to look at his legacy by reflecting on a handful of core values that informed Mandela’s life – at least from my own point of view. These are the values that we should take from him and cherish.
Mandela did not consciously stand on a mountaintop and say: “These are the values that I stand for, and these are the values which you as my people should aspire to.” He was, in fact, an embodiment of these values. We were able to discern these values through the manner in which he conducted his life.
As a public speaker, I have on numerous occasions been asked to summarise the core values that Madiba embodied, and that we can learn from. Without fail, I always find myself gravitating to the following list: humility, courage, perseverance, honesty, forgiveness, reconciliation, a strong work ethic.
When Mandela first left his home in Qunu, in the Eastern Cape, it was not under glamorous circumstances. Because he was a son of a councillor to the chief of the abaThembu clan of the then Transkei, Mandela was supposed to ascend the throne of chieftainship. In this regard, the elders of his clan made preparations for his coronation; they had already chosen a bride for him. But he had bigger dreams. He did not want to be circumscribed to a minor chieftaincy created by the authorities of the time. He wanted to become part of a bigger, liberated South Africa.
By this time, Mandela had had a stint at Fort Hare University. But he had been expelled from there in 1940 without finishing his studies. On arrival in Johannesburg, he did a number of jobs. At one stage, he was a security guard at the mines. Here was a man with the potential to earn a huge salary as a chief, have as many wives as he wanted to as custom dictated, be the head of the abaThembu people, and do less stressful things. But he decided to humble himself in the face of all these temptations, and lead the life of an ordinary black person, travailing under the yoke of apartheid.
As a child growing up, one was familiar with posters that read Free Mandela. As children, we did not know much about him then, except that he was fighting for the liberation of our nation. But when I first saw that iconic picture of him, I was slightly disappointed.
As children, we tend to put a high premium on what an important person looks like, how they dress, and behave. So, when I saw a picture of Mandela, he looked like some dumb guy, with his hair parted in an old-fashioned way that reminded me of pictures of my maternal grandpa. As if that were not enough, I soon learned that his first name was actually not Free (as in Free Mandela) but Nelson. As I grew up, I learned that on his arrival in Johannesburg, Mandela hooked up with Walter Sisulu, who soon became his mentor both politically and otherwise. It was Sisulu who got Mandela involved in politics.
At Sisulu’s behest, Mandela went back to university to finish his law studies. At that time, Mandela was staying in Dark City, the poorest section of Alexandra township, with no electricity. He was still staying here in Alexandra when he finished his BA degree through correspondence. In 1943, he enrolled at the University of the Witwatersrand Law Faculty. Here, he met students of all races and was exposed to radical liberal and Africanist thought, as well as racism directed at him personally. He was at Wits between 1943 and 1948. During that time – in 1944 to be specific – Mandela had joined the ANC. That same year he got married to Evelyn Mase.
In the intervening years, Mandela got embroiled in many fights. As is the case today, there were serious tensions between the leadership of the ANC, and the leadership of the ANC Youth League. Mandela was a hothead at the helm of the Youth League. Even though he differed with leadership, he did manage to temper these differences with respect for his leaders. As a trained boxer, he could hold his own physically, but he avoided physical confrontations with his detractors. By the time the ANC was banned in 1960, Mandela had been through countless confrontations with the authorities and jailed numerous times. Through all this hardship, he emerged a courageous leader who was focused, always leading from the front.
In the aftermath of the banning of the ANC, Mandela and his comrades decided that they had to take the struggle to another level. Their attempts at negotiating powersharing with the Afrikaner state had failed. They were left with no alternative. They resorted to the armed struggle, and formed Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the ANC. In 1963, Mandela, Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Ahmed Kathrada, Rusty Bernstein, Dennis Goldberg, James Kantor, Andrew Mlangeni, Elias Motsoaledi and Raymond Mhlaba were charged with sabotage and attempting to overthrow the state violently.
The following year Mandela and all the other accused, except Rusty Bernstein, were found guilty of sabotage and sentenced to life imprisonment. They were later condemned to Robben Island. It was on Robben Island that Mandela’s true mantle as a leader once again confirmed itself. The conditions there were harsh, but Mandela, through his leadership, taught his comrades the value of perseverance.
When they first arrived on Robben Island, black prisoners were supplied with shorts and shirts. Only coloured and Indian prisoners were allowed to wear trousers. Mandela and the other prisoners over the years worked hard at having the harsh jail conditions readjusted and made more humane. In 1973, the government offered to release him to Transkei, but having consulted the likes of Govan Mbeki, Raymond Mhlaba, Walter Sisulu – all of whom were vehemently opposed to the idea – he deferred to his comrades.
While Mandela was experiencing all these hardships on Robben Island, his wife, Winnie was not spared the troubles. She was in and out of jail. An assailant even tried to strangle her in her house in Orlando while she slept.
It is often said that the mark of a true leader, apart from courage and bravery, is honesty. Honesty to his comrades, and honesty to his own cause, but most importantly, honesty to even admit defeat. One of the most honest moments in Mandela’s life must surely be the statement he delivered from the dock at the opening of the defence case in the Rivonia Trial, at the Pretoria Supreme Court on 20 April 1964. It is a 13-page speech which, to my mind, sums up what Mandela was all about – both as a disciplined member of the ANC, and as an individual impelled by a number of set values.
Somewhere in the speech, he makes this powerful statement: “I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
This was not posturing or empty sloganeering. Over the years, Mandela proved his honesty by allowing this declaration to be his life’s mission: to fight for a truly non-racial society. It was an honest declaration. Honesty was the touchstone of the Mandela legacy.
When Mandela was finally released from prison in 1990, there was a lot of uncertainty in the country. There were rumours of a war between the races looming on the horizon. Many expected Mandela to be bitter, and ready to exact vengeance on the whites who had robbed him of 27 years of his life. When Mandela was released, the country was reeling from a wave of violence. Members of the ANC were at war against members of the Inkatha Freedom Party. The two sides were fighting for political domination.
One of Mandela’s major missions was to get the two warring sides to smoke the peace pipe. As a result, there was a series of meetings between him and the leader of the IFP, Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi. I specifically recall one of these peace initiatives. I was already a journalist at this time. A year after his release, at the height of violence in my ancestral province of KwaZulu Natal, Mandela came to Durban. We took buses, trains, kombis, or walked to the rally. We wanted to share the company of this man, to eat out of the hand that had wrestled with the apartheid monster for so long.
He was tall and majestic – just like the fighter he was made out to be. Addressing a huge crowd at Kingspark stadium, he spoke in slow measured tones, just like all wise men. But then he told us to throw our guns, pangas, and other weapons into the sea! Many people who had been steeped in the culture of violence were disappointed by Mandela.
Having lost relatives and friends in the violence, having personally been beaten and left for dead by Inkatha, I must today confess that I was disappointed with Mandela that day. Speaking a few weeks later, Mandela’s comrade and former Robben Island inmate, Harry Gwala, spoke our language when he asked rhetorically: “When these Inkatha people come to our houses, should we give them Bibles? It’s easy for Nelson to preach peace because he is now drinking tea with Gatsha [Buthelezi, the Inkatha leader].” There was a man after my heart, I thought at the time.
Needless to point out, Mandela was not deterred by those caustic remarks from his own friend and comrade. History, as we now have come to realise, has given Mandela a pride of place in as far as a memorable legacy is concerned. We are reaping the benefits of the seeds of peace he planted back then, in the face of harsh criticism, even from his own circle. It is not a personal legacy; it is a national asset.
Reconciliation & strong work ethic
On 27 April 1994, Mandela cast his vote at the small seaside settlement of Inanda, north of Durban. The symbolism was strong: Inanda was the home of John Langalibalele Dube the first president of the ANC, then called the South African Native Congress (SANNC). The election would mark the end of apartheid and the ushering in of the first ever non-racial and truly representative government in South Africa. In Mandela’s state-of-the-nation speech to parliament, he announced that R2.5 billion would be allocated in the 1994-95 budget for the government’s Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP).
Having toyed with the nationalisation of some sectors of the economy, he later embraced a more pragmatic economic policy which made him even more popular. There were debates, still raging today, that he had been sold a pig in a sack by the capitalists who failed to fulfill their end of the bargain by increasing their investment in the country, thus helping economic growth and creating jobs.
Gaining international acceptance – he had once been known in some Western countries as a “terrorist” – domestically, he worked hard in drawing the right-wing into the negotiation process. He even held a breakthrough meeting with the leader of the Conservative Party, Ferdi Hartzenberg.
In his speech of January 1995, at the annual conference of the influential Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), he called on the labour movement to transform itself from a liberation movement into one which would assist in the building of a new South Africa. He warned that workers would lose their jobs if production costs rose because of unnecessary labour unrest, and he called on workers to assist in making the ANC’s RDP a success.
Almost a decade and a half after he left office, the ANC has metamorphosed from a party driven by one vision of a true, nonracial and egalitarian society, to a party grappling with its own identity, a party squandering its historical moral high ground. The frenzied search for this identity has expectedly wrought untold tensions in the general society and within the ruling party itself and the broader tripartite alliance that rules the country.
As these tensions bubble to the surface, new personalities are rising forth. These personalities have their own agendas, beliefs and strategies. But are these agendas consistent with what South Africans want as a nation? Are they what Mandela helped appreciate?
South Africans will be failing Mandela if following his death, they were to look the other way and hope the problems within the governing party – corruption, nepotism, poor governance, and other ills that he fought against – will simply vanish. As South Africans sit back to unravel the tensions at the core of their country, they would be better advised to have a serious look at Mandela’s values and decide how, as individual citizens, as elected officials, they will give life and sustenance to the values Mandela lived by.
When the man bravely steered this wagon called South Africa from the precipice of a full-on racial conflagration in the early 1990s, when in the face of derision even from his own comrades he met Betsie Verwoerd, when he further stopped the bloodletting between the IFP and the ANC, when he once again calmed the churning waves of anger that had consumed the country in the wake of the murder of Chris Hani, Mandela had, at great personal risk to himself, laid a firm foundation for a culture of understanding and tolerance across cultural, racial and other divides. It is a foundation that South Africans can only build on, and not use as a springboard to self-destruction.
But Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela is gone. Where does South Africa go from here? After Mandela, what?