I’m Not Dead Yet Says Nelson

Last Friday, on Facebook, I killed Nelson Mandela and I’m really, really sorry.

Like much of the world’s media, I read the former South African president’s confinement in a Johannesburg hospital as a sign the end was nigh. At 92, a collapsed lung is a serious matter, a legacy of the tuberculosis he suffered while a prisoner on Robben Island where he spent 18 years of his 27-year imprisonment.

Mandela had experienced breathing difficulties and was taken to hospital by ambulance. The stream of earnest dignitaries visiting Mandela raised suspicion which was strengthened by the sight of former wife Winnie leaving the hospital in tears. By lunchtime Friday, the obituary writers were dusting off the life and times pieces. The South African nation prayed for their saviour. The President Jacob Zuma called for calm, always a sign in Africa that all hell is about to break loose.

Then, quite inconveniently, he got better. He was released from hospital and was said to be laughing, joking and in high spirits. By that time it was too late to delete my mawkish farewell post on FB.

So why do we rush to consign our “heroes” to the grave? Maybe it’s because we would like to remember them in their prime, not as a frail old people stripped of their superhuman powers. In death, Mandela’s legend could grow even larger. We will air brush over the faults, the transgressions that remind us that the 20th century’s greatest icon of peace was in fact a man.

While Mandela is alive, he reminds us that he was prepared to wage armed struggle to beat the evil of apartheid.  We want to deify Mandela, ignoring the fact that he was imprisoned for his role in a bombing campaign against the apartheid regime. We want to forget that he lingered in jail for an extra five years because he refused to renounce violence.

Even when he was released in 1990 he remained steadfast saying: “the factors which necessitated the armed struggle still exist today. We have no option but to continue. We express the hope that a climate conducive to a negotiated settlement would be created soon, so that there may no longer be the need for the armed struggle.”

Sometimes you have to fight. He believed that to turn the other cheek would have been to surrender to the wickedness of apartheid. In reality, had he not talked tough, Mandela risked losing many African National Congress supporters to the more radical Pan-Africanist Congress which was ready for a showdown with the whites.

As president, he made sure his role in the ANC armed struggle was not glossed over in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that followed his election. Unlike his counterpart in Zimbabwe Robert Mugabe, he did not fear the judgement of the people. Confident in his motives, he welcomed critical analysis of his methods.  

There is certainly a magic about the man, and not just because of the mystique around his long imprisonment.

On May 10 1994, the newly inaugurated President Mandela was hosting a function for the ANC veterans of the apartheid struggle. A marquee had been set up in the grounds of the presidential palace in Pretoria where 300 guests waited for the appearance of the President.

I was there with a TV crew from the Nine Network lined up with local and international media. Being a bumptious Aussie, I was determined to meet Mandela and the protocol could go hang. I whispered to the cameraman Jimmy Chrystal and sound man Nick Nezval that as Mandela walked down to the marquee we would break ranks and try to get an “exclusive interview” even just a couple of words before the gaggle of bodyguards shuffled us away. Mandela had retained the white bodyguards of former president FW de Klerk who all looked like Springbok rugby forwards (but with concealed weapons). In hindsight, it was a stupid thing to do. There were fears that hardline Afrikaners might still try to assassinate Mandela and so the goons no doubt were on alert. The loss of one TV crew meant nothing compared to the security of the world’s prince of peace. Anyway, when he was about 30 metres away I told the crew it was time to move.

As we approached the group, Mandela appeared to be floating in his black and white checked batik shirt, his arm linked with that of a priest. When the security detail drew in close around him, the thought crossed my mind that this could have ended badly. I stopped and raised a hand weakly as if to excuse my rudeness and began to withdraw. Then Mandela raised his hand and waved us over. The security phalanx melted away instantly and I shook his hand and walked with him to the marquee. Fortunately, I had a question prepared on the off-chance I did get to speak him, some drivel about the chance for regional co—operation in southern Africa now that his country had ceased to support insurgency in the so-called Frontline States of Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Angola, Botswana and Zambia.

“Of course regional co-operation is there…” he began but I barely heard a word, distracted by the clicking of camera shutters and the swelling applause and ululation of the waiting crowd. I congratulated him on his new recent relationship with Graca Machel, the widow of Mozambican freedom fighter Samora Machel. He smiled and gripped my hand once more before moving into the marquee. I can still feel his cool smooth hand today and I remember thinking he had baby soft skin for someone who had worked in a lime quarry on Robben Island for all those years.         

He gave a beautiful off-the-cuff speech about the challenges ahead, the need to reconcile with the former white oppressors and the creation of a new rainbow nation. There was laughter and singing, I had never seen a politician who could evoke the kind of joy before (or since). It was already scorching hot outside and the packed audience under canvas was sweltering but Mandela was impossibly cool.  He knew most of the faces in the room and singled each out for their contribution. At the end of the function, he made a point of shaking the hand of each and every person and exchanging a few words. So I got my second moment with the great man. He asked about cricket in Australia and the health of Sir Donald Bradman. When he left, I exhorted him to: “keep going” and it seems he took my advice. There were failures. It’s understood he protected ex-wife Winnie from the full force of the law when she deserved a long jail term for the kidnap and murder of a 14-year old boy. A six-year sentence was miraculously reduced to a fine.

Mandela’s government also failed to respond adequately to the HIV/AIDS epidemic which cost hundreds of thousands of lives. There were broken promises like a pledge to build 1 million houses for the poor under a Reconstruction and Development Programme. In 1996, I went to film the results of the housing programme in the Johannesburg township of Alexandra and got car-jacked at gun point. The love was clearly wearing thin in Alex by then.

But despite these flaws, or in fact because of them, Mandela remains a colossal figure. A man of principle prepared to die for what he believed in but always a man, not a god. So, once again, let me apologise, sorry for the premature send-off. You keep going as long as you want.  I heard his inauguration speech on that hot and bright day in 1994 and his message of personal responsibility for liberty and equality still rings true.     

“Our daily deeds as ordinary South Africans must produce an actual South African reality that will reinforce humanity’s belief in justice, strengthen its confidence in the nobility of the human soul and sustain all our hopes for a glorious life for all. “

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One thought on “I’m Not Dead Yet Says Nelson

  1. I really enjoyed this columnn Adam. I used to worry what might happen in South Africa when Nelson Mandela died, but not any more. He seems to have been preparing the public way for his own exit for years. It’ll be a sad day, though.

    (I didn’t realise he kept de Klerk’s bodyguards … The man is a giant!)

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