Bill Bryson starts his hilarious travelogue about the American Midwest, The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America, thus: “I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to.” It is early on Sunday morning, 26 February 1990, and three of us, photographer Cedric, friend Anna, and journalist me, are doing the inverse with a South African city, which by all accounts isn’t dissimilar to Bryson’s home town. We’re going to Bloemfontein. Somebody had to.
Bloemfontein is the capital of South Africa’s Free State province, a sparsely populated region so flat some say you can see tumbleweeds, tax-collectors, and other troubles coming towards you two days away. So what were we wild-haired radicals doing heading into the rural heartland to crew-cut Bloemfontein on a Sunday morning, instead of sleeping off our hangovers? We actually wanted to go to Bloemfontein, along with thousands of others, mainly people from surrounding black townships and poor mineworkers from the province’s rich gold mines, because the man who 15 days earlier was released from prison after 27 years of incarceration by the apartheid state, Nelson Mandela, was speaking at an ANC rally there. We were not going to miss that for the world!
The New South Africa, as my country was dubbed after the ANC’s unbanning, Mandela’s release, and the end of apartheid, was to understate greatly, an unusual place where the ironies were frequent and tasty. One such delicious irony was the venue for the Mandela rally later that afternoon: The Free State Rugby Stadium in the heart of white, militaristic and militarised Bloemfontein. The area housed apartheid supporters who at the time a mere four years before an ANC democratically took over the government in 1994 still thought that the cracks at their power-base could simply be fixed with a bit of solid ideological cement. And rugby was the symbol for white South Africa of its presumed physical superior strength and dominance over the country’s black population. So as I walked into the stadium for the Mandela rally, I had a flashback to the last time I was at the Free State Stadium, 10 years earlier. Like most 18-year-old white boys at the time, I wasn’t brave enough to dodge two years of compulsory military conscription after school, and so I found myself based in Bloemfontein.
One Saturday morning in mid-winter, the platoon sergeant barked into our bungalow: “File in, you’re gonna watch rugby!” They marched us to the stadium with its all-white crowd, where we froze our butts off watching third-rate rugby. Ten years fast forward to 1990 and it was, as they say, a different ball game. This time I wanted to be in the stadium to see one of my ultimate heroes. This time, there were very few white faces in the 30,000-strong crowd. Of those few were seven grumpy-looking, thick-necked white guys sitting on their own, looking like an impersonation of the Free State rugby team’s forwards, except they’re a day late and a member short for the previous day’s match (rugby union has eight forwards). Although wearing civilian clothes, their droopy moustaches were a give-away those guys never did undercover very well and the ANC marshals politely asked them to leave. Pity they didn’t stay, because Mandela delivered a message of peace and hope that afternoon that stuck with me ever since. He said that Afrikaners didn’t need to fear for their future under a non-racial ANC government. I could hear from the conviction in his voice that he meant it. And with hindsight of course, he proved it.
At the end of the proceedings everyone stood and started singing the hauntingly beautiful liberation anthem, “Nkosi Sikelel’I Afrika” (God bless Africa). As we prepared to leave, one of the ANC leaders came across the rugby field towards us and asked us three Johannesburgers to follow him to the stage where Mandela was waiting. As we approached he came down the steps straight towards me with an outstretched hand! Shaking my hand he said: “We appreciate the respect you show to our anthem. I saw other journalists moving around while we were singing “Nkosi Sikelel’I Afrika”, but you sang along with the necessary respect.” For a full two minutes he told us how welcome we as whites were in the new South Africa, and that we should never fear the country once the ANC was in charge. Flabbergasted, I couldn’t utter a word. I became, like many before me and millions after me, a Mandela groupie. As I stumbled away with a happy grin on my face, I wondered what my platoon sergeant would’ve said.
Last month Nelson Mandela turned 87. Someone like him doesn’t just have a one-day party, blow out the candles, and its over. When you are Nelson Mandela, everyone wants to celebrate with you, a fact the organisation that is responsible for what they term his ‘living legacy’, the Nelson Mandela Foundation, is well aware of. The firm I now work for was responsible for organising a whole range of media events around Mandel’as birthday. It was also to be a good test for me to see if the previous 16 years in newsrooms and a year in communications, both hotbeds of cynicism, were enough to cure me of my Mandela groupie-dom.
At the first event of his birthday week, Mandela introduced some of his new ‘46664 Ambassadors’ to the media. This project is named after his prisoner number, 46664, given to him where he spent the largest part of his imprisonment on Robben Island off the Cape Town coast. Now, his 46664 Ambassadors are well-known, respected people from the fields of politics, entertainment, and sports. Part of their mission is to carry his message of AIDS awareness to the public at large.
This event was the first time in about a year that I saw Mandela in person again, and it was a massive shock. He looked frail. He shuffled slowly, his ankles looked swollen and his hoarse voice tapered off when he spoke to the media. The ends of his sentences were blown away by a light, chilly wind. Alas, Mandela looked mortal. Since my dear dad’s death early this year, I’ve become big softie when it comes to people I care about. Luckily the media conference was outside, and fortunately my glasses become tinted in sunlight, so I don’t think too many hard-arsed journalists could see me cry. But I know I wasn’t the only person there who feigned a sniffy cold when they saw Mandela looking old and fragile.
A few days after the 46664 media conference, I was sitting in the reception area of the Nelson Mandela Foundation’s offices waiting for a meeting to begin. Mandela walked past with a few aides, saw me, gave me that beautiful smile, and waved. I became rubber and managed to mumble an ineloquent “Hello Madiba” (his clan name), before dropping my papers all over the floor. One may think one can be prepared to meet such a man, but believe me, in his presence, one will be awestruck.
That same afternoon it was the old Mandela who charmed the media at the launch of an exhibition which included his Nobel Peace Prize scroll and medal, other gifts and awards from famous people, governments and international institutions, as well as a wide range of letters, presents, and art works from ordinary people from across the world. “The exhibition is not about me,” he said. “The giving does not come from a belief on their part that I needed things. Rather, it comes from a need to express emotion and feeling. We respect that need, and we receive its expression with a sense of humility and profound gratitude. We receive these gifts on behalf of the many who have contributed to the struggle for justice in South Africa. Our country represents a powerful symbol of reconciliation and hope in the world.”
Next up was the annual Nelson Mandela Lecture, this time delivered by the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner, Professor Wangari Maathai, to a select audience in Johannesburg. “Madiba, you are a source of great joy and pride for all of us in Africa and indeed in the whole world,” she said, as his close friend, Bill Clinton, repeated her words to him in his good ear. “Thank you for your dedication and commitment for the cause of freedom and human dignity.” He nodded in acknowledgement and gave us his incredible smile, but he looked tired, like it was way past his bedtime.
Four days pass. Officially it is mid-winter in Johannesburg, but we’re basking in a pleasant sunny afternoon. Not that I can see much of the sun as I’m wiping the tears from my eyes and trying to swallow a lump from my throat. We are singing our anthem, “Nkosi Sikelel’I Afrika”, fused with the official anthem of the apartheid government, “Die Stem” (Afrikaans for “The Call”). This uneasy vocal combination of two eras, namely apartheid and post-apartheid, became our national anthem, as a token of reconciliation by the ANC when they won the first democratic election in 1994. On this clear day I’m attending “the Mandela Challenge”, an annual rugby match between South Africa and Australia, here in the packed Ellis Park Stadium in Johannesburg with a dear friend, Carl.
Carl was there as a member when the ANC’s decision-making body, its national executive committee, decided to accept this merger of anthems. In fact, he was very strongly opposed and made it clear. But Mandela called him aside during a tea break and said “my boy, I know you will vote right”. Carl voted for the anthem merger, because not too many people opposed the old man, especially when he was President. Mandela was no autocrat but he had a moral authority that just made it difficult to go against him. Carl was Mandela’s spokesperson when the latter was our first democratic president—trust Mandela to appoint in such a position a white Afrikaner, albeit a progressive one!
Ironically, Carl came from a traditionally conservative Afrikaner family. But when he found religion, it didn’t take him down the perilous route to Biblical justification for apartheid, which so often happened in Afrikanerdom. Like many Afrikaners who see the light through liberation theology, Carl didn’t hover half-way, but went all the way into the ANC’s underground army. That was the 1980s and the apartheid government’s repression of resistance was at its most brutal. Well, the most brutal was saved for those from within who went without: those like Carl. His ANC underground cell planned to blow up an empty, but functioning gas station as a guerrilla attack. One of the cell members was a police spy who grassed them to the security police before they could execute their attack. Carl was sentenced to nine years in prison after a much-publicised trial.
It is not surprising that Carl still has strong views on the “Die Stem” part of the anthem. During his imprisonment the security police used to force him to sing this song over and over again, because he was a white Afrikaner who first joined the then banned “terrorist” ANC, and was then arrested for an unsuccessful attempt to blow up an empty gas factory. “That part of the anthem still gets stuck in my throat,” Carl said wearily, so many years later.
But now, we should be cheerful, because the Springboks, as the national team is called, have an unprecedented total of nine black players in a 22-man squad. The multi-racial crowd in the stands also reflects the fact that rugby is no longer the domain of white South Africa. And to crown it all, our hero, Nelson Mandela, is present here at Ellis Park to wield his Madiba Magic so that we can beat our arch-enemy on the sports field, the Aussies. It is clear the crowd in the packed stadium believe in that magic - they explode as the old man does a lap of honour in a golf cart around the field before kick-off. After shaking each player’s hand, Mandela is taken to his seat and the whistle blows for the kick-off.
“I had to do a terrible thing,” says Carl, who is no longer in politics, as he watches the game, “Earlier his year, the government approached me to organise Madiba’s funeral it is all in place should it happen.” We sit there in silence - if that is possible with 60,000 people roaring their approval as the Springboks play like a team possessed. I don’t want to hear that my hero is mortal, even if all the signs are there that Mandela won’t be with us forever. “That’s terrible,” I overstate. More silence. “Let’s get a beer,” I said.
Back on the field, the Springboks are playing with a skill and passion that are slowly bringing smiles back to our faces. “Yes!,” we shout as one of the black Springboks tackle an Aussie so that his hair literally stands on end. Fifteen years ago that would not have happened at the Free State Stadium. There were no black Springboks then and South Africa’s sporting teams were justifiably isolated because of a sports boycott against the apartheid regime. We have Mandela to thank even for this Saturday afternoon pleasure. And what a pleasure, when our guys whip Aussie ass.
During his birthday month there was a series of talks in South Africa on the Meaning of Mandela. So what is his “meaning”? He is no great orator and even though he has a sharp intellect, he doesn’t pretend to be an intellectual. Mandela had a simple blueprint called the reconstruction and development plan (RDP) during his tenure to house, give water, electricity, provide education, and develop infrastructure for the black townships so as to uplift his country’s downtrodden. Even though he was never a communist, his plans were clearly socialist, because that is what this unequal country needed.
Mandela’s vision was shared by most South Africans, white and black, rich and poor. But because Mandela, unlike many old guard African leaders, knew when it was time to go (many say too soon after just one term) the RDP was slowly but surely replaced by his successor, Thabo Mbeki, and his economically more conservative neo-liberal approach. Mbeki’s policies are viewed favourably by capitalists across the globe. Mbeki doesn’t seem to have much time for the Mandelian cross-racial reconciliatory symbolism. No man of the people, his message to South Africa seems to be: Welcome to the real world, the world of cut-throat politics, backroom decision-making, and elite-driven and beneficiating economics.
But it is not only in the ideal of the RDP, which some may say was a bit too idealistic, where Mandela has meaning to me. It’s his sense of humour, humanity, his humbleness and generosity of spirit that have made him the great man that he is. He uplifted the lives and spirits of black South Africans, who are the largest part of his constituency. Mandela also did the unthinkable by giving humanity back to his brutal white oppressors and jailors by forgiving them. Unlike some of the so-called world leaders of today, whose legacy is intolerance, spilt blood, invasions, wars, pollution and an unstable world, Mandela prevented bloodshed, and brought friendship, healing, and peace in his land that was ripe to explode into anarchy.
As his friend Bill Clinton said last month: “Madiba’s triumph is not that he brought democracy to South Africa, but that he triumphed over his own anger and bitterness.”