Via Mandela

R.W. Johnson

  • Higher than Hope: ‘Rolihlahla we love you’ by Fatima Meer
    Skotaville, 328 pp, rand 15.00, July 1988, ISBN 0 947009 59 0

Nelson Mandela, incarcerated for over a quarter of a century, writes frequently to his wife, Winnie, about his vivid and often rather frightening dreams.

  I dreamt I was with the young men of the kraal. They gave me herbs to strengthen me against you. They were saying that I should fight with you so that you would run away. And you were shouting at me to throw away those leaves, they were bad medicine. A whole audience was listening to this conversation. I threw the leaves away.

  On the night of 21/9 you and I were driving the Olds at corner of Eloff and Market when you rushed out and spewed out porridge. It was hard and old with a crust on top. Your whole body quivered as each lump came out and you complained of a sharp pain on your right shoulder. I held you tight against my body, unmindful of the curious crowd and the traffic jam.

  All the wonderful thrills I have missed. A lady sat on the floor with her legs stretched out as our mothers used to relax in the old days. Though I can’t remember the actual words, she sang with a golden voice, the face radiating all the affection and fire a woman can give a man. She turned and twisted her arms. That lady was none other than our darling Mum.

‘I don’t know how to interpret these dreams,’ Mandela writes. ‘But at least they indicate that there is far less steel in me than I had thought, that distance and two decades of separation have not strengthened the steel in me.’ There is a terrible sadness to many of his letters. ‘I’ve plans, wishes and hopes,’ he writes at another point. ‘I dream and build castles. But one has to be realistic.’ Or again: ‘Sometimes I feel like one who is on the sidelines, who has missed life itself.’

Mandela may be released soon. If so, a new biography, with his full co-operation, may be possible. Fatima Meer’s book is full of interest, but it is not worthy of the man: it stops and starts several times, is full of gaps and factual errors and is clearly a rushed job. Mis-spellings and errors litter the pages to such a degree that one wonders if the book was proof-read at all – one word is spelled three different ways in the space of ten lines. Mrs Meer also writes in an over-heated style. Of the Government’s actions in 1953, for example, she says: ‘The Nationalists, insatiable in their need to dominate and mad with anxiety that they might not be able to do so eternally, extended the frontier of oppression.’ This sort of thing is simply nonsense – the Government could hardly be said to be mad with anxiety even today, let alone in 1953. But the book contains hundreds of Mandela’s letters, has benefited from Winnie’s full co-operation, contains many photographs, and for all its faults, is pretty much compulsory reading for anyone who wants to understand this tragic and remarkable man. Most people are aware of the major public landmarks of Mandela’s life: his role as ANC organiser, the Treason Trial, the Defiance Campaign, the Rivonia Trial and his long incarceration on Robben Island and at Pollsmoor. The private man is less known.

Mandela was born the son of Nosekeni, one of the four wives of a Tembu chief, Henry Gadla. He lived in Nosekeni’s hut, sleeping on mats, eating mealie meal and playing in the dust like any other little African country boy. He cannot have seen his father much, since Henry Gadla had to divide his time between his four families and in any case died when Nelson was only ten. Nosekeni was worried about her son – the chieftaincy would go to a son of the first wife. Paramount Chief Jongintaba stepped in, assumed fatherly responsibilities and decreed that since Nelson could not be a chief, he had better at least get a good education. Jongintaba paid for everything, coaxed and urged Nelson along, and set him on the road which led to his establishing (with Oliver Tambo) the first African law partnership in South Africa. Little wonder that Mandela has always looked back so fondly on his rural roots or that in 1962 he could speak so lovingly from the dock of the rural idyll of Tembuland before the British came. ‘Then, our people lived peacefully under the democratic [sic] rule of their kings and moved freely and confidently up and down the country without let or hindrance. Then the country was our own.’ To read of Mandela’s concern for the conservative countryside and the world of the chieftaincies is to marvel at Pretoria’s squandered luck at having so moderate a man to deal with. Despite what the British had done to Tembuland, Mandela remained something of an Anglophile: ‘I regard the British Parliament as the most democratic institution in the world,’ he said at his trial. (Mandela had visited the Commons to meet Hugh Gaitskell and Jo Grimond on a secret trip out of South Africa in 1962.)

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