Zukiswa Wanner, co-author of 8115: A Prisoner’s Home, a biography of the first Mandela home, writes here in her personal and “irreverent capacity”, concluding our special tribute to Africa’s greatest icon on a light-hearted note. Nelson Mandela was, after all, renowned for his hearty sense of humour.
Commissioned to write a biography, I walk into the Midrand, South Africa offices of one of my interview subjects. Immediately I am struck by two things that make me smile in the workplace of this well-travelled sophisticate and hard-hitting businessman: an almost life-sized photographic portrait of this man with Nelson Mandela on the wall, and a copy of Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom on the table. When I open the book, it is autographed with that famous NM signature and yet I can see it is so clean as to never have been read.
But the book and the portrait have been given the same pride of place as my recently departed Sowetan grandmother gave her unautographed, well-thumbed, copy of the Bible. While my grandmother’s Bible in her living room yelled, “I am a Christian even though my evil grandchild condescended to write a feministic, agnostic book in a modern irreverent bible”, this businessman’s office states, “Nelson and I are peoples.” Forget the surname.
The portrait and the book are indication that he and uTata are on first-name terms. This man’s office is not the first time I have experienced Brand Nelson. Later on, after my interview with the businessman, I start musing on how an old man from Qunu, who would at the most have been an advisor to the Thembu chieftainship, became a brand that everyone, from this businessman to Oprah, to cocaine-sniffing supermodels wanted to have a photo opportunity with.
How did this man make an uncool thing like being labelled an international terrorist, communist, and prisoner a cool enough brand that even other well-established international brands wanted to be associated with him?
So whether you can Bend it like Beckham or you are just an ordinary Jill, Mac, or Jack, this article will tell you, in three easy steps, how he did it and maybe you too can Brand it like Nelson.
First, find a political godfather. Someone who does not care too much about the limelight. Your very own Walter Sisulu, who will not only see your political potential, but introduce you to his cousin so you can be in-laws. Mandela was introduced, not only to politics and the African National Congress, but to a cousin of Sisulu’s wife, who would become his future first wife, Evelyn. In 1944, the now politically aware Mandela joined other like-minded members of the African National Congress and formed the youth league of that organisation. A year after the apartheid government came into power, Mandela too came into his first taste of power, becoming National Organiser of the ANC. He was tasked with establishing the organisation countrywide. This would be the first step in Mandela being able to say to anyone in the ANC – although there is no record of his ever saying so – “Do you know who I am?!”
Get divorced. Every hero needs a flaw. Then get married to a more beautiful, younger wife. In 1958, Mandela got divorced from Evelyn and a few months later, married a well-known beauty from Bizana, Winnie Madikizela, who would become as much the face of the anti-apartheid struggle from outside Robben Island as her husband was on it.
The trial for treason would last five years, leading to acquittal on March 29, 1961. A day later, Mandela went underground and he got on the way to earning his media moniker of the “Black Pimpernel”. The ANC at this time had decided that the time for non-violent protest was over and Mandela would be instructed by the leadership of the ANC to source support outside the country for future guerilla warfare training. In a whirlwind tour, he would travel to Botswana, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Ghana, Egypt, England, and Morocco. During that time, he received military training in Algeria from the Algerian Revolutionary Army and Ethiopia. While in England, he caught up with the now-exiled Oliver Tambo and on the way back, he met the first 21 uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK) recruits who were on their way to train in Ethiopia. Brand Nelson had gone beyond the South African borders and was now becoming international.
Get arrested and go to prison for many years for your convictions. Ideally leave behind an articulate and beautiful spouse and children who will also be harassed by police and maybe even be banished to some village. Getting arrested is not enough – you do not see Oprah and everyone else pushing and shoving to get a photo with Aung San Suu Kyi, do you? Mandela was arrested soon after returning to South Africa, for leaving the country illegally and for incitement. He was convicted and sent to five years imprisonment at Robben Island. A few short months after starting to serve his sentence, he was recalled to Johannesburg to take part in a trial now historically known as the Rivonia Trial. The trial lasted eight months and instead of asking his lawyer to cross-examine him, the Rivonia Trialists decided that Mandela would read a statement. The statement ended with these historic words:
“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.”
With the world’s attention focused on the southernmost tip of the African continent during that trial, it would have been foolhardy for the apartheid regime to give the Rivonia Trialists a death sentence.
They did not want to risk making martyrs of these men. Had they known that in giving them a life sentence, they were giving the world its most famous prisoner of the 20th century, they might have thought twice.
Sure, Margaret Thatcher might have called him a terrorist, but when he emerged from prison 27 years after getting his life sentence, even she wanted a photo opportunity with him.
Nelson to Maggie: “Stop it. Stop following me. I don’t want a photo with you. You are terrorising me.” No, not really. But would it not have been lovely if he had been caught on tape by the world media saying that to her? Why did he have to be so lacking in vindictiveness?
Post-1994 elections, the one-term presidency approach, on a continent of life presidents, just helped to cement an already well-established brand. On the day Mandela was released from prison, a Soweto high school student was asked on one of the South African radio stations, “What is Mandela’s first name?” His answer was “Free”.
While this poor student would soon know his mistake, one would be hard-pressed to find anyone in the world who has not heard of Nelson Mandela. In rugby-loving Australia, when I tell people I am a South African, before they talk about Springboks they say with a knowing smile, “Ah-ha. Mandela”. In the Kenyan town of Kisumu some woman hopes to sell her fish at one of many lakeside restaurants by calling her restaurant “Mandela Hotel”. And in the American state of California where sometimes a Masters student thinks Africa is a country, some student believes Mandela was president of the whole continent.
So there you have it. Now we can on endeavour Brand It Like Nelson. But what I hope you learnt from it is that YOU CANNOT…BECAUSE THERE WAS ONLY ONE NELSON MANDELA!
There were those who were lucky and were able to get a photograph with him and increase their stock value, like the businessman in my interview. If you are one of those who did not, you could resort to being like South African musician Arthur Mafokate and just name your child Mandela.