A tiger for our time

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Mandela: A tiger for our time

Published in the Mail & Guardian, Vol.15, No.22, 4 June 1999

'He walked free and, with him, a nation began the walk to freedom. He became head of state, and it seemed as if patience and justice had created a new politics for the people, one without bigotry or repression. Now, the era of Nelson Mandela is about to close'. - Renowned South African writer Andre Brink looks back at the life of a man who has been much more than a great leader, he has become a saintly icon for the world.

One year in the late 1960s, the play chosen for performance at Christmas by inmates of South Africa's notorious Robben Island prison was Antigone. In Athol Fugard's memorable version of the event in The Island, Sophocles was given a new lease of life, with particular and poignant relevance to the struggle for liberation from apartheid in South Africa. In the Robben Island production, the man who volunteered to play Creon had very little stage experience, his only prior role of some note having been, significantly, that of John Wilkes Booth, president Abraham Lincoln's assassin, in a college show. That man was Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela. Although, like his fellow actors, he primarily identified with Antigone, he brought to the interpretation of Creon what must have been, in retrospect, a peculiar insight:

"Of course you cannot know a man completely, his character, his principles, sense of judgment, not till he's shown his colour, ruling the people, making laws. Experience, there's the test."

At the end of the millennium, when the world's media are trying to pick a "man of the century", their leader of leaders, it is interesting to see how the same names keep cropping up, and illuminating to apply the Creon test to them. Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle, David ben Gurion, Dwight D Eisenhower - these names linger in the mind because of their inspirational roles in times of war; but their achievements in peacetime government invariably turned out to be, putting it generously, less impressive, if not downright embarrassing. And the other names? John F Kennedy was saved by assassination. So was Che Guevara. The ones who do stand out as exemplary - Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr - rose to eminence in their campaigns for liberation against all odds, and then fell victim to violence, their moral greatness intact, without ever being submitted to the ultimate test: succeeding in their struggle and coping with power themselves.

In this respect, Mandela must be exceptional, if not unique; which makes his withdrawal from the scene after the elections in South Africa an event certain to reverberate through the country and the world. Even if there is a danger of simplification in trying to read any era through the glass of a single personality, there can be little doubt about Mandela's fingerprints on the past decade. And he himself has made the equation between the events of his life and those of his nation. Which can, of course, be a dangerous business.

Such claims in the past - L'ÁƒÂ¢Á¢Â‚¬Á…¡tat c'est moi (I am the state) -have often proved disastrous. The difference, in Mandela's case, is that there has never been any hint of self-aggrandisement in the move: it has always been balanced by his own observation that, "I don't think there is much history can say about me."

During his trial for treason in 1962, one that would lead to 27 years in prison, Mandela didn't play the hero. Many years later, he observed, simply, "I was the symbol of justice in the court of the oppressor, the representative of the great ideals of freedom, fairness and democracy in a society that dishonoured those virtues." What he defined in these words, taken from his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, was the extent of his responsibility, not the measure of his importance. And in his address to the court, upon assuming his own defence, he outlined the parameters of his case as "a trial of the aspirations of the African people".

If there was a hint of De Gaulle in this, there was also the calm assurance of a man who had suffered for his convictions, and was prepared to suffer more.

Behind Mandela's remark was already looming that ringing statement from the dock that was to conclude his appearance - words destined to inspire generations of oppressed people: "During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. 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."

Long before Mandela came to power, it was becoming clear that he would mark his epoch as few others could. But now that epoch is drawing to an end, it is already evident that the Thabo Mbeki era that lies ahead cannot but be profoundly different. So where are we now? What has been Mandela's role on the road to freedom?

There are many, both in South Africa and abroad, who have become openly sceptical about the kind of change South Africa has undergone between the first democratic elections of April 1994 and the second elections. There is one story doing the rounds that the day after Mandela walked from jail, a black woman street vendor in an Eastern Cape town was approached by a reporter. Asked what she thought of the news, she replied, "I still have trouble selling my fruit."

Today, critics are harsher. In their view, the country seems to be sinking into a morass of corruption, waste, violent crime, ebbing business confidence, a resurgence of racism (both white and black), and the abuse of power. They point at the many unfulfilled promises from the previous elections: not nearly enough houses built for the destitute, not enough jobs, a shaky economy and a steadily weakening currency, declining standards in education and health care, a lack of transparency in public affairs and a near absence of democratic procedures in the appointment of leaders in the provinces.

Opposition parties, not one of which is believed to command more than 10% of the expected vote, are vociferous in denouncing the dangers of a one-party state should the African National Congress obtain a two-thirds majority. It is sobering to recall Mandela's own reaction, as set out in his autobiography, to the lack of such a majority in the previous elections: "I was relieved; had we won two-thirds of the vote and been able to write a Constitution unfettered by input from others, people would argue that we had created an ANC Constitution, not a South African Constitution. I wanted a true government of national unity."

So, what has happened to the euphoria generated by the simple yet momentous discovery - apparent on April 27 1994, when millions of South Africans came together to vote for the first time in history - that all South Africans belong in the same country? Was it a dream? Did Mandela, for all those years revered as a god, somehow become tainted in his transformation into a mortal? Has he failed the Creon test?

On a blazing, late-summer morning in March this year, I went to tea at the president's Cape Town residence, Genadendal. Mandela was in an expansive, almost jovial, mood, stimulated by the triumphal farewell tour that had just taken him through Holland and Scandinavia. Exuberantly, he commented on the latest confirmation of the South African miracle: the transformation of the country's image. Within a decade, it had changed from pariah of the world to a position of moral and political import.

"That is all your fault," I reminded him.

It is part of Mandela's charm that he can be humble without a hint of false modesty. He did not refute my observation, but insisted on placing it in context: if he had influenced the situation, it was because the country itself, and its people, had changed. We were no leopard incapable of changing its black spots. And that was what reminded me of the tiger.

In Long Walk to Freedom, there is an almost incidental passage that is, nevertheless, almost emblematic of the country's predicament, and Mandela's outlook. It concerns a recurring argument among the political prisoners on Robben Island, on the question of tigers in Africa. One group insisted that tigers were native to India and Asia, and quite exotic to Africa. The others were just as adamant about Africa as the tiger's natural habitat. In fact, they would argue, there were still many of them around; some went so far as to vouch that they had seen tigers in the African jungles with their own eyes. Mandela's view was particularly illuminating:

"I maintained that while there were no tigers to be found in contemporary Africa, there was a Xhosa word for tiger, a word different from the one for leopard, and that if the word existed in our language, the creature must once have existed in Africa. Otherwise, why would there be a name for it?"

These interminable discussions had an unexpected consequence when, one day in the quarry, prisoners got so carried away by this argument that they stopped working. The Afrikaner warder in charge shouted at them, "You talk too much, but you work too few!"

Whereupon they collapsed with laughter, as a result of which the commanding officer was summoned and Mandela and his main opponent in the debate were hauled away, handcuffed, to solitary confinement. In this way, an argument about facts ballooned into a philosophical enquiry, and ended up as a confrontation with crude reality. All three stages of the process had to be negotiated; and Mandela coped with the whole series -adding, in fact, in his account of the episode, a fourth chapter, that of memory. All of these would, years later, become indispensable to his handling of the incomparably more complicated affairs of state.

In attempting to assess where South Africa finds itself today and what Mandela has contributed to it, no one should underestimate the situation he inherited from the apartheid regime. It has become fashionable among South African whites to sneer at the ANC's stock reaction to criticism by blaming everything that has gone wrong on apartheid. But it is worth recalling the shape the country was in during the 1980s. Already, the process of forgetting has begun. Now, I find that many no longer remember - or wish to remember - the full extent of the daily horror apartheid caused in the lives of most South Africans.

Not just the almost unspeakable atrocities brought to light by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but the small indignities of everyday life - the decayed offcuts of meat flung, unwrapped, at black customers at a butcher's, the preferential treatment of whites in a post office queue, the delays in paying out old-age pensions to blacks, the man humiliated in front of his small son, the woman addressed as "girl" by a shop assistant half her age who would not allow her to try on clothes before purchasing them, the neglect of black patients in a hospital, the insolence or outright brutality of adolescent white boys in police uniform dealing with the most ordinary of enquiries or terrible of calamities in the lives of blacks, the inferior pay, the charitable dispensing of second-hand clothes or leftover food to the "maid" in the kitchen.

All of this occurred within the larger evolution of apartheid politics: the Old Testament-like rigidity of leaders such as DF Malan after he came to power in 1948; the more extremist harshness of the McCarthyist JG Strijdom; the terrifying logic-gone-mad of the seemingly avuncular Hendrik Verwoerd; the dour bluntness of John Vorster, who dominated the 1970s with the simplistic reliance on might-is-right; then PWBotha of the uncontrollable temper and phallic forefinger, who could smile and smile and be a damned villain; and, finally, FW de Klerk, weakest but slickest in the line.

Cracks were beginning to appear in the Afrikaner monolith, with grumblings on the campuses, among army conscripts, in big business, even among younger members of Parliament. When at one point in the late 1980s a delegation of some 60 Afrikaner leaders from the fields of politics, culture, education and business slipped out of the country to have talks with the exiled ANC, led by Thabo Mbeki, in Senegal, Botha had to restrain his initial impulse - to have us all arrested. By then, even his myopic eyes could make out the writing on the wall. Yet government uneasiness was hidden behind the series of states of emergency that punctuated the 1980s, leaving the security forces to play an almost unchecked terrorist role in dealing with "enemies of the state".

When Botha was struck down by illness, De Klerk unceremoniously swept him aside - and promptly found himself facing a new challenge. No longer able to play the hawkish role that had prompted him to take charge of some of the harshest legislation of the later apartheid years, De Klerk was perceptive enough to realise what any politician with a modicum of intelligence in his position should have grasped: that there was no future in apartheid. He reluctantly began to play the reformist game in order to wring approval from a world only too eager to be duped -because it also served their interests.

Such was the stage on to which, after years of patient preparation, Mandela made his public debut. In our conversation in March, he dwelled at length on those delicate contacts behind the scenes. I was surprised to discover how much wry fondness he continues to feel for Botha. In spite of the ex-president's blustering ways, Mandela detected in him a genuine wish to break the stalemate (which I'm not sure he still believes about De Klerk).

This goes beyond the conviction, reiterated in Long Walk, "that all men, even the most seemingly cold-blooded, have a core of decency, and that if their heart is touched, they are capable of changing". He had witnessed this in even the most hardened warders on Robben Island; and behind Botha's sound and fury, Mandela appeared to detect a dedication to the process of finding a solution for the future. This may well confirm a belief I have held for a long time: that much of South Africa's hope for the future is bound up with what two of the key groups in the country, black Africans and white Afrikaners, have in common - their ferocious attachment to the continent of Africa, their memories of a nomadic, tribal, peasant past, their experience of a struggle for survival. In the urbane and detribalised De Klerk this may not be so obvious; in Botha, Mandela could still sense it - in spite of whatever might divide them. And he felt the same, he assured me, about Afrikaner leaders even from the extreme right - not only ex-general Constand Viljoen, but even the firebrand Eugene Terre'Blanche and others of his ilk.

Something else about those early negotiations with Botha still lingers in Mandela's mind: the enormous personal risk he himself was taking in initiating the meetings. He knew only too well, he told me, even more emphatically than he'd intimated in his writings, that he was really duty-bound to obtain permission from the ANC leadership first before embarking on such a radical initiative. But he also knew that the ANC would never consent. And so he had to place his own future at risk, knowing that if the endeavour failed, or ever became known too early, any future role he might have hoped to play would be forfeited. "There are times," he asserts in Long Walk, "when a leader must move out ahead of the flock, go off in a new direction, confident that he is leading his people the right way." What in some people, or in some situations, would amount to megalomania, may in others turn out to be a visionary decision.

Without being aware of it, of course, Mandela's overtures came at roughly the juncture when the ANC leadership in exile was cautiously beginning to edge in the same direction: Mandela's first moves were made in 1985; the Dakar encounter took place in 1987.

The country was tired of blood, of fear, of uncertainty. Over the years, Mandela had in his absence grown into a presence that was larger than life. This defined both the possibilities and the dangers inherent in the role he could play when he emerged from Victor Verster prison on February 10 1990 -having determined both the place and the manner of his release himself, overruling arrangements the government had already made.

In the minds of the long-suffering black majority, Mandela had become a messiah. But a messiah who turns out to be human can have a devastatingly counterproductive effect. Which is why Mandela himself insisted so emphatically, in his very first address to the crowd massed on the Parade in Cape Town after his release, that he was not a messiah, "but an ordinary man who had become a leader because of extraordinary circumstances". He has never deviated from this self-description; and his "ordinariness" may be the most vital clue to his stature.

If he impresses the world as exceptional - as exceptional as a tiger in Africa - his own conviction remains that tigers are native to Africa. (There may well have been something prophetic in the poster he and his co-accused attached to the bars of the cage in which they made their court appearances: Do Not Feed.)

I know of no other person in a position of power, with the possible exception of Mandela's compatriot, Desmond Tutu, who so amply demonstrates the Xhosa dictum, "I am human through other humans." Many anecdotes illustrate this. One of my favourites dates from shortly after Mandela's investiture as president, when there was a reception at his Cape Town residence. One journalist, having misread the invitation, turned up at 6pm, instead of eight. Finding no guards at the gate or at the front door - a far cry from the military security of the apartheid days -he ambled inside and found the president in the kitchen. "I'm just fixing me a sandwich," Mandela said. "Would you care to join me?" And so, the story has it, they enjoyed a relaxed cup of tea together before the guests arrived. If there may be a touch of legend to it, it is nevertheless perfectly in keeping with the image he has established in the public mind over the nine years since his release from prison.

When Mandela tells a small child he has just met, "I am very honoured to meet you," it is neither posturing nor condescension, but the genuine feeling of a man whose greatest privation during nearly 30 years in prison was the absence of children. Being forced to relinquish an ordinary family life may well have been the most painful sacrifice his dedication to the struggle for liberation has exacted. And literally paying homage to the children he meets nowadays becomes an expression of faith in the future.

Another small preoccupation, which in Mandela's world acquires a larger meaning, is highlighted by the persistent references in his autobiography to his attempts at gardening on Robben Island, and later in Pollsmoor prison:

"A garden was one of the few things in prison that one could control. To plant a seed, watch it grow, to tend it and then harvest it, offered a simple but enduring satisfaction. The sense of being the custodian of this small patch of earth offered a small taste of freedom."

How often have I seen friends emerging from prison after years of solitary confinement, and then be unable to cope with more than one or two persons at a time; a state of anxiety and agoraphobia that might last for weeks, for months, sometimes for years. Yet within an hour or so after Mandela strode into the unmitigating sunshine of that summer's day in February 1990, he had to address a crowd of 100 000 or more -and for the next nine years it has been a rare day indeed, starting at 5am, when he was not required to deal with a near-endless succession of people, from kings and presidents to workers and children, politicians, bankers, businessmen, trade unionists, boxers, artists and entertainers of one kind or another. How does he manage?

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In retrospect, it would seem that his first 72 years - as a herd-boy in the rural hinterland of Transkei, a rebellious student at Fort Hare College, a young lawyer in Johannesburg, a prime mover in the early programmes of non-violent resistance, a youth leader in the struggle, an accused in the infamous Treason Trial of the 1950s, as the Black Pimpernel on the run from the police, and as the world's most famous prisoner -were spent preparing himself physically, mentally, emotionally, philosophically and morally for the task he was eventually to assume. This meant developing some innate qualities or emulating others in people he respected; it also meant self-discipline, and a meticulous process of honing the self, of stripping away all that was redundant, unworthy, impure or in any way inessential.

Underpinning the lessons of that long experience has been a sense of history -inculcated first by the stories from the African past told by his father, amplified by his first contact with Egypt when he was travelling through Africa to undergo training in guerrilla warfare. And the pride derived from this awareness of how far back the history of Africa reaches is embedded in a recognition of the continent, its geography, its metaphysical, nurturing presence. This became the touchstone of the dignity that impresses all who meet Mandela.

His is a dignity rooted in a profound sense of self, based not on contempt for one's enemy but on an acknowledgement of a shared humanity. It is a self-worth acknowledged with both pride and humility, and which from an early age prompted him to deal with others (including, specifically, whites, at a time when he was "merely" a black) on an equal footing, and with what he himself has called his "stubborn sense of fairness", never in terms of inferiority and superiority.

This attitude also implies that one never humiliates an opponent, or gloats on the fall or death of an adversary. It is, ultimately, a profound acknowledgement that a common humanity also means a shared mortality. If no one is immortal, no regime can last for ever; and from this springs an almost childlike reverence of life.

Which does not mean a passive submission to life. Mandela himself recounts how, in spite of the prophetic name he had been given at birth - Rolihlahla, "troublemaker" - he tended to be timid as a child: when a friend snubbed a white magistrate who sent him on an errand, young Nelson confesses that if he had been the boy involved he would simply have obeyed; and when in his first job special cups were set out for the two black members of staff, his colleague made a show of drinking from a "white" cup, while Mandela evaded the problem by not taking tea at all

But the Antigone streak that was to become in a way his trademark soon asserted itself -whether in defying his guardian by refusing the bride assigned to him, or in standing up to police, prison warders or the leaders of the apartheid regime by refusing to obey orders he regarded as unfair. These occasions never demonstrated a mere disregard for authority, but a considered refusal to condone the abuse of power; an assertion of personal dignity that not even the harshest punishment in prison could dent.

In the actions that marked and shaped Mandela's life, principle was always important, but never ideology. In Long Walk, he constantly asserts that his advocacy of non-violence in the early years of the struggle, before state violence imposed the recourse to violence in response, was never an ideological decision but a purely strategic measure. The realistic assessment of options, extensive debate with colleagues in order to arrive at consensus, and informed, pragmatic decisions defined his approach to politics.

One suspects, in the wake of his recent angry condemnation of both Slobodan Milosevic and Nato, that Mandela has become more inclined towards non-violence as a principle than previously - but even that may be the outcome of practical experience. Having witnessed what peaceful negotiations could achieve in a dead-end situation in South Africa, and given the respect for life that has consistently informed his own choices, one can understand that violence must remain an absolutely last resort.

On the surface, indeed, there has not been much change in the lives of many South Africans, particularly those already dispossessed by apartheid. But there is more to it than surface discontent, dismay or disillusionment. The violence is terrible, the corruption pervasive, the arrogance demonstrated by those in power reprehensible, the autocratic and censorious mentality of many leaders sickeningly reminiscent of the previous regime.

A turning point in my own regard for the ANC came with the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee report last year, when the spontaneous reaction of the ANC was to stop it in the courts in order to censor unfavourable comments about conditions in its prison camps during the struggle. It is noteworthy, however, that Mandela accepted the report without demurral. Which serves as a reminder that Mandela is not necessarily the ANC.

Not that he has not made mistakes himself. It is almost reassuring to note among the blemishes on his track record the reneging on solemn promises made to the Inkatha Freedom Party before the previous elections to invite foreign mediation in the problem of endemic violence in KwaZulu-Natal; his blindness towards the transgressions of friends, ranging from Fidel Castro to Minister of Health Nkosazana Zuma; last year's rash invasion of Lesotho; his suspected interference in the judicial process during the trial of Alan Boesak (although he was quick to apologise).

Of course, not every alleged blunder turned out to have been an error of judgment;for years, the West blamed Mandela for his loyalty to his old ally, Colonel Moammar Gadaffi; then came the resolution of the Lockerbie impasse ... The human side to Mandela's stumblings is revealed by an account one of his private secretaries gave of his recent visit to Scandinavia: it seems that every night, after retiring, he would summon his three secretaries to his bedroom where he would ask them, "Now tell me what I have done wrong today, because I don't want to make the same mistakes tomorrow."

There is indeed reason to be concerned about the situation in South Africa at the end of the Mandela era. Measures must be taken -soon - to address the many things that have gone so seriously wrong. Yet the question must be asked whether these phenomena, repugnant as they may be, are not almost inevitable in any society in transition from draconian rule towards democracy. One need only take a small step back to compare South Africa today with the country of less than a decade ago to realise how much has been achieved. If programmes for housing, health care, job creation or the reconstruction of education still lag behind the forecasts of five years ago, at least the groundwork has been done, the infrastructure provided, on which the real edifice can now take shape.

And over it all still looms that tiger, tiger burning bright: what seemed unthinkable in the most recent past - that black and white societies divided by centuries of colonial devastation and the inhumanities of apartheid could demonstrate the will to move towards each other - is already beginning to happen. Mandela himself is setting the example. Having started his life as a Thembu member of the Xhosa people, he has steadily moved towards an ever more inclusive notion of his identity as a South African, as a human being.

On emerging from prison, he defined the task he'd set himself as one of "reconciliation, of binding the wounds of the country, of engendering trust and confidence". He has dedicated the years of his presidency to one overarching aim: "To liberate the oppressed and the oppressor both." And this meant leading the way along a precarious route between white fears and black hopes. In this respect, he has taken the country a long way indeed.

"Not alone," he insisted, like so often before, on our splendid March morning together. "I have been fortunate in the people of this country. I am old. They will live on."

When I left Genadendal, its high walls shimmering white through the oak trees, there was just a hint of yellow in the dark green foliage, I became aware that summer was drawing to an end. A common mortality. But there was something strangely reassuring in the thought. Antigone had triumphed, not Creon. The tiger has come home to claim his natural habitat in Africa. Nelson Mandela has achieved the impossible. It is now up to Thabo Mbeki to address the possible.

Article Source: anc.org.za

Last updated : 31-Mar-2011

This article was produced by South African History Online on 31-Mar-2011

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