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.)

Arriving in Johannesburg in 1941, Mandela was quickly recruited into the ANC by the remarkable Walter Sisulu, the grandfather of a whole ANC generation. Sisulu (who, at 76, is still in jail and well worth a birthday celebration or two) was the son of a white father who had quickly abandoned his mother, a black washerwoman. He had little education, and had worked as a miner, a domestic servant, a factory worker, a baker and an estate agent. He was also endlessly genial, resourceful, and an instinctive radical. He adopted the young Mandela, put him up in his house, got him a job, got him into university, and paid his fees, while his wife, Albertina, found him a wife in their young cousin, Eveline. The other member of the trio was Mandela’s law partner, Oliver Tambo. The three men formed a tight little nucleus which dominated the ANC for decades, though, predictably enough, it was the two younger but better-educated men, Mandela and Tambo, who were to assume the leadership. ‘Tambo, I could never lay my finger on,’ a contemporary observed. ‘He was the perfect diplomat. Both he and Nelson had a way of hiding their feelings ... Walter was the most open of all of us when it came to working with other race and ideological groups.’ Only Mandela’s nephews, Kaiser and George Matanzima, were as close to Mandela as Tambo and Sisulu: to Mandela’s great pain, they were later to betray the cause by leading the Transkei Bantustan to its spurious independence.

It was to Kaiser Matanzima that poor Eveline turned for help a few years later when it was clear that her marriage was in ruins: but even he could do nothing. Part of the problem was simply that Mandela was quite overpoweringly attractive to women and enjoyed their attentions. Partly it was a matter of temperament – Eveline was a quiet, devoted and dutiful wife, while Nelson had now met the beautiful, fiery and headstrong Winnie. Nelson was himself a handsome, dynamic and athletic young man – a keen runner, boxer, golfer and baseball player – and something in Winnie’s passionate character called to him. In the end, Eveline read in the paper that Nelson was divorcing her. Tembi, the eldest of her three children, was devastated, but Eveline has always insisted that Nelson was a wonderful husband and father and that she has no reproaches. Mandela himself writes that ‘Eveline is pleasant and charming and I respected her as the marriage was crumbling. It would be quite unfair to blame her for the breakdown.’

Winnie was something of a Xhosa aristocrat, the great-grand-daughter of the ferocious Chief Madikizela. Her mother, a teacher, had come under continual heavy criticism from her mother-in-law for being too much the modern, educated woman and not enough a good African wife. Winnie, spending equal time with each woman, was acutely and unhappily aware of this tension – and aware, too, that her mother had wanted her to be a boy. Winnie responded by becoming a complete tomboy and a wilful, troublesome child, which in turn led to savage beatings. Finally, her mother died having the boy she had longed for and Winnie had to nurse this killer man-child. The terrible scars of this childhood doubtless do much to explain Winnie’s impulsive and ‘difficult’ temperament. She decided to become a social worker and at college quickly fell in with the Non-European Unity Movement (NEUM), whose root-and-branch radicalism suited her temperament. It was only after she met Nelson that she drifted into ANC circles.

It has become fairly conventional to see the politics of the Fifties as consisting essentially of the rise of ANC mass action and the state’s ever stronger resistance to it, culminating in Sharpeville. But there was another complicating factor which dogged the Mandelas. This was the ANC’s increasing embarrassment in the face of the NEUM and Pan Africanist Congress’s attacks on the support the ANC gave to white candidates who would act as Native Representatives in Parliament and to traditional rural structures – the Bunga, the Transkei chiefs’ council, the Native Representative Council – and to state institutions such as advisory boards and local councils. All of this the NEUM and PAC denounced as collaboration, alleging that the ANC’s tactics effectively handed leadership over to the small handful of white liberals and Communists willing to act as its representatives ‘within the system’. For the NEUM and PAC this was mere Uncle-Tomism and thus to be rejected: non-whites must be led by non-whites and all state structures must be de-legitimated by the practice of boycotts. The past forty years have seen the complete triumph of this line of thinking in black South African politics. Mandela, Sisulu and Tambo had no answer to the boycott strategy – and they spent many anxious hours worrying how to avoid being outflanked, as in fact they continually were.

The turning-point was Sharpeville. The massacre left Mandela trembling, sick, and bitterly aware how Uncle-Tomish it made the ANC look: how could you carry on preaching non-violence when the other side was shooting your people down in scores? The ANC set up Umkhonto we Sizwe as its armed wing – the crime for which Mandela and Sisulu went to jail – and ANC policy hardened across the board. Inevitably, part of this hardening was the ANC’s complete capitulation to the boycott psychology, to the point where today it has become the chief orchestrator of anti-apartheid boycotts of every kind right across the world. There are considerable ironies in this. The first non-white intellectuals, the Cape Coloured schoolteachers of the NEUM, decided on the boycott tactic out of weakness: if non-whites could not stop the whites from winning across the board and setting up all the structures they wanted, at least non-whites could withhold their consent from such arrangements. Thus a tactic born of impotence gradually grew into a worldwide movement, expressing itself in a whole series of anti-South African boycotts (of goods, in sport, culture etc), which have now culminated in economic sanctions – a very potent force indeed. In the process, people have forgotten that the boycott was only a tactic. Now, crazily, it has become a principle in its own right, with results that are sometimes so ludicrous that the ANC, which once saw only too well the pitfalls of the boycott tactic, can find itself having to defend what was in fact their opponents’ philosophy.

Another factor to bring much anguish to the Mandelas was the defection of Nelson’s kinsmen, the Matanzimas, and the great rural revolt of 1959 in Pondoland. Winnie’s father sided with Matanzima, while her brothers sided with the rebellious Intaba movement against him. In the bitter fighting that followed, Winnie’s grandmother was stabbed and left paralysed and her father narrowly escaped in the course of an attack on his house. Winnie relates how, just after this happened, she and Nelson had to host an ANC meeting at their home. As a woman, she was strictly relegated to the kitchen, but after a while one of the guests came through and sat chatting with her about the attack on her father’s house.

Your father is a lucky bastard, we shall get him yet. We just don’t know how he escaped through such a small window – such a big man. He must thank his lucky stars. He won’t be so lucky next time.

Poor Winnie, dogged by one traumatic event after another. She was mercilessly harassed after Nelson’s imprisonment. Between 1966 and 1969 she was charged three times and detained for a total of 491 days. In the next ten years she was charged another three times and spent another six months in jail, and in 1977 she was summarily banished to the remote Free State hamlet of Brandfort – the Police simply arrived in the early morning and started loading her furniture into a van to take it and her to a place she knew nothing about. Winnie did wonderful work at Brandfort, setting up a clinic and giving new confidence to the oppressed and demoralised black population of the town. Her house was repeatedly burgled, attacked and vandalised. On one occasion she was interrogated by the infamous Major Theunis Swanepoel while having to listen to the cries of a man being tortured in the next room. It was during this period that she learnt that her son had been killed in a car accident. Her daughter, Zindzi, who has stuck closely to her mother and says, ‘I felt I was more or less raised by the Police,’ has suffered terribly and endures continual bouts of depression. The other daughter, Zeni, has behaved more like the Xhosa aristocrat that she is and has married Prince Thumbumuzi of Swaziland.

Of all Mandela’s sufferings in jail, none was worse than his agony over what was happening to Winnie: ‘Although I always put a brave face on it,’ he writes to Winnie, ‘I never get used to you being in the cooler. Few things disorganise my whole life as much as this particular type of hardship, which seems destined to stalk us for quite some time.’ Moreover, as Mrs Meer somewhat awkwardly points out, rumours of Winnie’s alleged infidelities were and are rife. Mrs Meer knows Mandela well (indeed, she was in the select group with him on his last secret meeting before his capture) and we can probably rely on her account: Mandela, she writes, ‘blamed himself for her victimisation ... he had a keen sense of his patriarchal obligations and his impotence was unbearable, and finally because he could not experience it in reality and know its reality, he apprehended it in his mind where it took on limitless proportion, and gruesome forms.’

Mandela emerges from his letters as a very considerable figure, a man who writes well and reads widely and voraciously – visitors credit him with a striking knowledge of international affairs as well as a considerable literary and historical knowledge. He has, too, a clear independence of mind – on trial in 1959, he even declared that he personally would settle for 60 African seats in Parliament and a review of the situation after five years, adding that he didn’t know what the ANC would say, but that was what he felt all the same.

For many people Nelson Mandela has, in effect, become a living saint, and it is difficult to get a more human view of the man. The symbol he has become, the African Christ on the cross, always blots out other perceptions.

Winnie, on the other hand, is at once lionised and unpopular. She now lives in considerable style – several houses, a large silver Mercedes, and the Mandela ‘football team’. Mandela FC consists of a gang of young toughs who act as her bodyguards (and were recently alleged to have tortured, at her behest, some other young boys suspected of burning down one of her houses). Winnie repeatedly says or does things which she then has angrily to deny: the famous speech about ‘give us the matches, give us the necklaces’ is said to have been ‘misquoted’, though it exists clearly enough on videotape. Similarly, she wrote a foreword not long ago for an extreme free-market book on South Africa, only to issue a somewhat unconvincing disclaimer later on. Her attempt to hand over the rights to the use of the Mandela name to Robert Brown, a Reaganite American businessman, brought her into headlong conflict with Nelson. All this highly erratic behaviour is a large political problem for the ANC, who would much prefer that she live the exemplary life of an Albertina Sisulu. Mrs Sisulu, a more modest woman whose life is filled with good works, is widely loved and respected in a way that Winnie simply is not.

Winnie is exciting, however. She draws the crowds. When I went to hear her speak (‘The Mother of the Nation, Our First Lady’) at the launch of Mrs Meer’s book, there was standing room only, with the comrades from Mandela FC doing their war-dances in the foyer. Winnie was quickly into her stride, bringing us ‘greetings from the people’s army, Umkhonto we Sizwe’. Departing wildly from ANC policy, she spoke of attacks on ‘soft targets’ as a ‘regrettable necessity’ and went on to instance the sort of targets that were OK – hanging judges, National Party MPs and community councillors. Those who had exposed her dealings with Robert Brown, including the now-suspended Weekly Mail, on which the whole Left here relies, she condemned as ‘gutter journalists and traitors’, an open invitation to a necklacing. ‘The boiling kettle of Afrikaner domination,’ she went on, ‘has finally blown its lid ... the apartheid regime is panicking to unproportional dimensions ... the Government is manipulating our children.’ (The last of these remarks was an attempt to suggest that ordinary township youth could not have been responsible for the arson on her house: but I have not met a single person who believes the Government were behind this. The township crowd watched the fire sullenly, and although Winnie issued a statement thanking them for their assistance, the fact is that nobody gave any assistance.)

I sat through all this trying to think that anyone who had been through what Winnie had been through might act like this. When she got to the bit about bombing soft targets, an African about three feet away from me shouted: ‘Amandla!’ (The ANC cry is ‘Amandla Wethu’ – ‘Power to the People.’) I looked at this man. The strength of his features and the bitterness of his expression spoke quite clearly of the centuries of oppression, exploitation, torture and killing. What it meant was: I am so full of hatred for what has been done, and is being done, to my people that the more extreme and outrageous things you say, the more I like it. It was the sort of face you have to respect. And that is a good part of Winnie’s secret. The detail of what she says doesn’t really matter, because what she’s always saying in different ways is: ‘NO, NO, a thousand times NO.’ And after all that has been done in this country, after all the torture, the brutalisation, the denial of humanity, there is a fair-sized market for that. The whole point of the boycott psychology was that it offered a way of saying No to the whole system. That’s what made it irresistible. (I can’t help feeling Zindzi’s decision to call her son Gadafi was made in the same spirit. Who’s the guy the whites dislike most? Gadafi. Right then ...)

During Winnie’s speech, an uproar could be heard in the foyer and members of the Mandela FC were despatched to sort it out (i.e. beat people up). In the end, however, dozens of angry young Africans burst in with placards denouncing Fatima Meer. Their quarrel had to do with the Phambili school which Mrs Meer set up with US Embassy money for children expelled from township schools in the 1984-86 uprising. Mrs Meer is an old Congress hand, but she is also a Muslim and an admirer of Ayatollah Khomeini, who she believes is a force for the liberation of women. Indeed, the book launch was financed by an organisation called the Iranian Interest Section. (Yes, the US and Iran co-exist here. The competition to influence the future is open to all outsiders, even if insiders are somewhat more constrained.) One problem is that Mrs Meer, who has both a maverick and an authoritarian reputation, accepted six hundred children into a school for two hundred, and that not all of those children had been expelled from their previous schools for no reason. Before long, pupils and teachers had united against Mrs Meer and the way she ran the school, while she herself was denouncing ‘a small minority of troublemakers’ – a turn of phrase we seem to have heard before. Anyway, the angry Phambili pupils ran in, seized the microphone and started denouncing Mrs Meer. The result was a riot, with generalised fighting between the pupils and Mandela FC. Winnie then took the mike, sided strongly with her old friend Fatima Meer, denounced the pupils as a disgrace to the African race and said she’d see them afterwards. Mrs Meer closed the school down the next day, on the eve of exams, and was thereafter systematically unavailable for comment.

What sticks in my mind is not all the shenanigans at Phambili but the face of the man who shouted ‘Amandla.’ There is a lot of talk among radicals of holding Nuremberg trials here after the Changeover, and the UN has already thoughtfully provided a legal framework for this. On moral grounds, let alone those of retributive justice, such trials are clearly warranted. Up on the university campus where I taught for the past six months I looked down on what had once been the warm and vibrant African community of Cato Manor. Today some of that land is occupied by affluent white housing, but mainly it’s just bush. All those people were forcibly removed, simply so that the land they occupied could be turned back to what it was before Vasco da Gama came this way. Today they live in the modern township of Kwa Mashu, but the ferment in that township begins with the fact that the scar of forced removal has never stopped hurting. I looked down there every day, and each day I found that tears filled my eyes as I looked. What was done down there was so wicked. Why should anyone forgive? I can’t. Try the bastards who did it? Why the hell not?

One reason would be that it would be nice if a future black government decided on a new era of humanitarianism, forgiveness and reconciliation. No revenge, no more torture, no more executions. But that may be a pious hope. A stronger reason is simply that of managerial competence. Almost the most worrying thing about this country is the terrible damage done by Verwoerd’s Bantu Education Act and the simple lack of resources for African education. The result is a terrible dearth of skilled, competent blacks. I taught African students for two terms and could see only too well the size of the problems ahead. Mandela is one of the very few men of real intellectual stature in the ANC. So a future black government, if it has any sense at all, is going to want as many whites as possible to stay here and contribute their educated expertise in every area of life. But that means not holding Nuremberg trials. However well deserved they might be, they would be interpreted by most whites as an act of revenge. The result would be even greater white emigration and a drain of skills which the country simply can’t afford. One would like to think that the ANC leadership stationed in Lusaka have had a thorough look at the way a quarter of a century of independence has destroyed Zambia. A steady flow of educated Zambians are fleeing the complete disaster their country has become. Not a few are quietly coming to South Africa, preferring to put up with racism and township life rather than live with what poor leadership and a general lack of honest, competent administration have done. If a similar collapse into shambles occurred in South Africa’s far more sophisticated economy, where there is so much more to go wrong, not only would the carnage be far worse but the demoralisation of Africans about what has happened in independent Africa would be complete. It is easy in most African states to find people who look back nostalgically to the years of colonial rule when things were better run; who regret that the British or French ever left; who feel that Africans like themselves are somehow no good.

At the moment black politics in South Africa are all about resistance, defiance, struggle, about saying NO. It has to be that way. But a terrible burden rests on the black leadership of the future. Unless that leadership is of a decidedly higher calibre than we have seen elsewhere in Africa, the awful possibility looms that Africans here too might come to look back on a lost golden age of white minority rule. Which brings me back to Nelson Mandela – undoubtedly the ablest black leader of his generation. What South Africa has lost through his incarceration goes beyond injustice and personal tragedy. The country has needed Mandela as a leader. It needs him now.