In the Prison of his Days: A Miscellany for Nelson Mandela on his 70th Birthday

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On our street, in fact right across the township of Chesterville, local zealots knocked on doors, sometimes using knobkerries, demanding home dwellers to join the march. That first night, the municipal offices were set on fire. Some of the township dwellers, who for any number of reasons, felt threatened by the strike and the door-to-door campaigns, took their belongings and fled, some with comical consequences. Having loaded his terrified family into his car, the principal had tied a mattress to the roof of his car and, as the car moved, he then held on to it with his arm.

The tie-down job proved insufficient as the car picked up speed, with the result that, in the morning, the burnt out mattress was part of the debris on the roadside. Even though the strike was short-lived, called off by Mandela and the Action Committee, its effects reverberated through our township. The intimation of violence happened on June 26 There was a clip featuring Winnie Mandela commenting on life of banishment in Brandfort, Free State, her great eyes luminous with defiance. Haile Gerima, who is normally outspoken and combative, could not mask his admiration.

Erosion of respect.

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I was 14 when Mandela started serving his life sentence on Robben Island in Here, there was nothing bar the endless stretches of sugar-cane fields and snake-infested scrubland. Families were dumped with their belongings in front of four-roomed matchbox houses that were without any of the basic amenities. The floor of the front room of our new house was strewn with dead ashes and garbage, a sign of previous occupancy by workmen needing night-time heating.

I suppose one of the most unforgivable sins of apartheid is not so much the pieces of legislation enacted in pursuance of an unjust system as the erosion of respect the young have for the old. For, in the eyes of the youth, it is the parents that have allowed this state of affairs to prevail.

My father was a minister of religion, held in high esteem by his peers, but here inside this fetid house, he was reduced to a manikin. And, as usually happens with all townships, the population of a once-sparse settlement increased and in no time KwaMashu became a crime-ridden cauldron of repressed anger, which was proof that people reverted to rodent behaviour when they had their backs against the wall.

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Hardly a weekend passed without someone stumbling on a mutilated body lying in the bushes or in a culvert, whose eeriness gave the impression of having been designed exactly for that purpose. I suppose it was this recognition of how thoroughly the white world held us in contempt — and how we had internalised this scorn — that we embraced the arrival of the black consciousness movement. South Africans, who had also organised themselves in study groups where they dissected and interpreted Marxist treatises and a miscellany of revolutionary tracts, suddenly found themselves facing potentially long jail sentences for indulging in intellectual activity.

In a word, many people found themselves bereft of a crutch. The disguises and the ruses they had used to evade capture were amateurish; others, like Harold Strachan who engaged in solo-sabotage capers, had added more heat for suspects than advanced the revolutionary programme in any significant way. The torpor was further deepened by the knowledge that the price to pay for engaging in political work was high and the network of informers industrious.

The political trials were as efficient as they were ruthless, with death sentences meted out with scant regard for international indignation. Three prominent trade unionists from Port Elizabeth, Vuyisile Mini, Zinakile Mkaba and Wilson Khayinga, were executed, giving composers additional names to be invoked in poems and revolutionary songs.

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A Nazi sympathiser, he embodied, in word and gesture, everything that black people feared and held in utter contempt. Even from a young age, I suspected that white people had elevated this monstrosity to the highest office out of a need to avoid taking responsibility for anything that would be done for their benefit, much like the complex relationship between carnivorous animal rights campaigners and butchers.

One only had to see the piercing eyes glittering beneath a great beetling brow — a motif much favoured by cartoonist Jock Leyden of the Durban Daily News — to know that the road towards self-determination would be long and hard.

Trade with South Africa continued; there were angry exchanges in the various United Nations councils — and some African countries compensated for their powerlessness with laryngeal imprecations against apartheid which had no real effect. Vorster passed more laws and progressively more people were diminished by poverty and fear. The latter had frustrated OAU attempts to get him to attend meetings, pleading a fear of flying, a phobia that would miraculously disappear when he had to visit cities such as Paris or Johannesburg.

It was ironic that Vorster assiduously courted African leaders from far and wide to grant his regime some legitimacy, while rebuking the global community for meddling when it suggested he initiate dialogue with internal leaders such as Mandela.

Administrative amnesia. These forays into Darkest Africa by the Nationalist Party government were accompanied by an unstated policy of active ministration of amnesia against the leaders on Robben Island, a project that saw the government cranking up its machinery of censorship. This was a refinement of an ancient Roman practice. The senate wiped its deposed emperors from the historical record by a decree of damnatio memoriae — or condemnation of the memory — by removing their names from public inscriptions and destroying their statues.

Given his charisma and natural leadership qualities and a resonant name that sounded tailor-made for rallying around, Mandela was one person whose memory the regime strove to efface. While the majority of church leaders risked arrest by citing holy writ that championed the virtues of giving succour to the unfortunate, which involved visiting those in prison, some of the collaborationist pastors went to great lengths to remind congregants of the wisdom of giving unto Caesar what was his due.

It is an apposite and prophetic comment on what the leaders of apartheid South Africa had in mind for Mandela and his ilk.

His remembrance shall perish from the earth. And he shall have no name in the street. He shall be driven from light into darkness. And chased out of the world. Njonjo would later become minister of health in Kenya — reviled for his refusal to board a flight once he learnt that the pilot was black. There was little evidence of the previous occupancy of the university houses by these leaders, pointing to a particularly South African hesitancy to memorialise icons, as that would displease the authorities.

Trying to remove personalities from the public domain to render them forgettable merely ensures the reverse; they grow larger than life in the realm of popular imagination. Although people might choose a path that catapults them to leadership, it might be truer to say that fate takes them by the scruff of the neck and frogmarches them into history. In terms of Mandela, the ANC worked hard, once it decided he would personify its campaigns.

Further, in seeking to legitimise the ANC, the mass democratic formations led by the UDF harnessed the Mandela persona, usually indirectly. Although the message was dramatic enough, where Mandela rejected the conditional offer of release, it was the very act of speaking to the people, through his flesh and blood, that electrified the huge rally.

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On home soil, Mandela struggled somewhat at the beginning, South Africans being slow to warm to wannabe Messiahs. It is no secret that his earlier years on Robben Island were fraught with contestation; some even source his somewhat difficult relationship with his successor, Thabo Mbeki, to the low-intensity rivalry between Mandela and the more ideologically astute Govan Mbeki. One imagines that it was more these jousts with fellow inmates and comrades than the hardship endured at the hands of the prison authorities, which armed him for his future role.


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The booing by crowds in KwaZulu-Natal, when, fresh from prison, Mandela urged factional warlords to throw their weapons into the sea, echoed widespread rumblings associated with scepticism at what one person could achieve. As the political parties started campaigning during an incredibly fraught atmosphere where threats of violence abounded, where the right wing had even invaded the World Trade Centre where talks were being held, Mandela was even more destined to face insurmountable hurdles.

He went on his knees, figuratively speaking, to bring into the party people like Constand Viljoen, who was widely held in awe by the military; likewise with Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, whose mistrust of a future, ANC-led government almost scuppered the possibility of the elections of Test of courage. Even though there was exultation and hysterical outpouring of joy at the inauguration, after the first democratic elections of when Mandela took the oath as the planes flew dangerously close above the Union Buildings, it was a matter of time before Mandela was put to the test.

And in politics as well as in other aspects of life, character plays a big role in offering up the arsenal of weapons to be used to face challenges. People who became politically active in the first decades of the last century did so from real conviction, because they knew that the price for this involvement was high.

In our political classes, comparisons were sometimes made between the struggles of black Americans and the struggle against apartheid of South Africans. Leaders who were thrown up by popular will — or necessity — had to be strong, their morality unquestionable. Black people had to carry passes and, in big cities, were forbidden to walk on pavements; hundreds and hundreds were brutalised — and any white person, no matter how lowly, was boss.

Mandela lived through all that; he saw the monster of apartheid at close quarters and was not fazed. He was part of the growth and revitalisation of the ANC during its weakest moments, was imprisoned for his commitment and was ready to go to the gallows for it. He must have despaired at the many massacres, including those in Lesotho, Mozambique and Botswana.

When he came out, then, it must have been into another country; the South Africa he had been shut off from in was vastly different from the South Africa of He had to deal with the fear of white people, who, remembering how they got where they were, expected to be dislodged violently from their lofty perches of privilege. In a word he had to grapple with the implications of a mordant dictum: the future is certain; it is the past that is unpredictable. Mandela was courageous in setting up the structures to support democracy at the same time that he went about addressing the horrors of the past through the truth and reconciliation process.

Many believed — a belief that I share in — that this was a masterstroke that helped South Africa in two ways. They could — and, as the past still endures, still can — come to terms with the horror heaped on them or on others in their names. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission TRC also acted as a valve and allowed the catharsis needed by the country, which was full of the walking wounded, to breathe and thereby avoid widespread bloodshed. It was when we witnessed the public collapse of great men, in vivid colour in our living rooms, that we started understanding the huge task that had to be achieved if all of us were to be able to remain sane.

In the twilight of his years, Mandela was feted and honoured everywhere and almost by everyone. Sacred and secular leaders worldwide — and the occasional wispy supermodel or starlet — gravitated towards him and touched the hem of his saffron shirt, like the lepers of Lourdes, believing that this would be a balm for the secret wounds in their souls. Many saw him as a lucky charm, a talisman necessary for South African victories in sports; the dramatic Rugby World Cup win in was credited more to Mandela than to Francois Pienaar, who led the squad. A few commentators have railed against what they saw as the commercialisation of the Mandela brand, which they felt was a national treasure and should be at the disposal of the government.

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Here and there were murmurings of what would happen to his legacy especially whenever people were unable to go past Zelda la Grange, a white Afrikaner. There were those who felt that Mandela could not have become what he became without the ANC and the people of South Africa; and so, the logic went, he was owned by the ANC, a family heirloom. A country of extremes.