Nelson Mandela was inspired by the gallant struggle put up by the Mau Mau in Kenya to defeat colonial rule. But, as Wanjohi Kabukuru reports from Nairobi, when Mandela visited in July 1990 intending to see the grave of the Mau Mau’s legendary leader, Field Marshall Dedan Kimathi, and pay respect to the man he considered his hero, the Kenyan government, then under President Arap Moi, stopped him. Mandela went back home disappointed.
While a lot has been said about Nelson Mandela’s 27-year incarceration, his freedom struggle and guiding a racially divided South Africa from the ugly spectre of apartheid to a “rainbow nation”, little has been mentioned about what influenced him. On 11 July 1990, Mandela arrived in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, and was immediately whisked to Nairobi Hospital, suffering from a bout of pneumonia.
He was on his way to attending the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Before the summit, Mandela had been visiting Europe where he contracted a cold. Two days later, a stronger and healthier Mandela threw away all diplomatic niceties and revealed what inspired his core beliefs as a freedom fighter.
His main reason for visiting Kenya was to pay homage to the Land Freedom Army (LFA), best known as the Mau Mau, which had waged a bloody liberation war against the British between 1952 and 1963. Mandela had been drawn to Kenya by three aspects of the Mau Mau: One, he wanted to visit Field Marshall Dedan Kimathi’s grave; two, he wanted to see Kimathi’s widow, Mukami Kimathi; and three, he wanted to meet the former Mau Mau commander, General China (real name Waruhiu Itote).
His host, President Daniel Arap Moi. and his aides were embarrassed beyond words at Mandela’s request. Moi openly opposed the Mau Mau through his entire political life. But at a public rally held at the Moi International Sports Complex in Kasarani, on the outskirts of Nairobi, Mandela stung Moi with his searing comments: “In my 27 years of imprisonment, I always saw the images of fighters such as Kimathi, China and others as candles in my long and hard war against injustice. It is an honour for any freedom fighter to pay respect to such heroes.”
President Moi would never forget that day – 13 July 1990. Field Marshall Kimathi’s often-quoted statement, “It is better to die on our feet than live on our knees for fear of colonial rule”, seems to have inspired Mandela as he discarded diplomatic etiquette on that day. Mandela was angry that the Kenyan government, calling the nation independent, would ignore and actually banish the collective memory of the very heroes who made the country a beacon to other liberation movements across the globe. For his part, Moi was livid too. A week earlier, he had ordered a massive crackdown on pro-reform activists who were agitating for a re-introduction of multi-party democracy in the country. Indeed it was Moi’s worst week as Mandela disclosed his inspiration from the Mau Mau.
Mandela’s homage was not simply making a show and neither had he just decided to admire the Mau Mau and Field Marshall Kimathi for reasons of political expediency. While Moi and his aides assumed that Mandela was out to humiliate the Kenyan president, the truth is that Mandela’s admiration for the Mau Mau started long before he was incarcerated at Robben Island.
The former intelligence chief of the ANC’s armed wing, Umkhonto We Sizwe (MK), Ronnie Kasrils, gives a glimpse of what inspired Mandela during the difficult years. He recalls his first meeting with Mandela: “My moment took place in a modest room of a Durban safe house in July 1962. The Natal Command of Umkhonto We Sizwe had assembled there with no idea whom we were to meet.”
Kasrils writes in My Moment with a Legend: “Present were Cutrnick Ndlovu, the regional commander; his deputy Billy Nair; a youngish trade unionist, Bruno Mtolo, and myself. An imposing, bearded man, with a grave expression, wearing khaki trousers and shirt, was ushered in. We jumped to our feet to shake hands and pat his back. It was none other than our national commander-in-chief Nelson Mandela.”
Kasrils, who later went on to become defence minister in Mandela’s government (1994-99), goes on to reveal what appeared to have influenced Mandela’s steadfast belief in the freedom struggle. “Having disappeared the year before to prepare for the underground struggle and MK’s armed actions, the ‘Black Pimpernell’, as he was referred to in the press, had slipped back into the country after a historic visit abroad. He spoke with us for a good hour, about the independence struggles sweeping Africa, the inspiration of having met leaders of Algeria’s liberation movement, and the need to step up the armed struggle at home. He encouraged us to get physically fit, recruit the most reliable and daring cadres, focus on training and reconnaissance of targets, and step up our actions. He stressed studying the methods of guerrilla warfare such as [in] Algeria, Cuba and Cyprus, and referred to the importance of African resistance heroes such as Kenya’s Dedan Kimathi.”
This revelation by Kasrils, who later served as South Africa’s minister for intelligence between 2004-2008, reveals how deeply Mandela felt about the Kenyan freedom fighter. The 1990 visit by Mandela, who was accompanied by his wife Winnie Mandela, was an anticlimax as his hero’s grave was only known to the British. The Kenyan government and President Moi were determined to let Field Marshal Kimathi’s grave remain “unknown” in the confines of Kamiti Maximum Security Prison and “untraceable”. Moi’s aides enforced this.
Mandela left Nairobi a dejected man. None of his requests were met. He could not honour the man he admired by visiting his grave. He was not allowed to see Kimathi’s widow, and he did not meet General China. Nairobi and Pretoria were no longer buddies.
Fifteen years later, Mandela, now a retired president, visited Kenya again. This time he accompanied his wife, Graca Machel, who was leading the African Union’s Peer Review Mechanism (APRM). Kenya had a new government in place, and in 2003 President Mwai Kibaki had lifted the colonial ban on the Mau Mau and issued the war veterans with a registration certificate. Mandela found a different Kenya and his second wish to meet the widow of Kimathi was granted. Pretoria and Nairobi were now bosom friends.
“Mandela told me he is grateful for our struggles in the fight to liberate Kenya,” Mukami Kimathi, widow of the fallen freedom hero, recalls of her meeting with Mandela. “He said his experience had taught him how painful it is to fight for independence.”
At this historic meeting, Mandela also met Kimathi’s eldest son and daughter. Sadly he never saw the grave of his hero. No one knows where Field Marshall Dedan Kimathi is buried.