“Trevor, where are my weights?” At 4 am, those must have been Mandela’s first morning words as a free man on 12 February 1990. Trevor Manuel was one of the Cape leaders of the United Democratic Front, and an organiser of the welcoming committee for Mandela’s release. This anecdote says a lot about Mandela. About his discipline to stay fit. About his fine nose for talent (six years later, President Mandela will ask the ex-political street fighter Trevor to become South Africa’s first black Minister of Finance). Without a masters degree in economics, Trevor would start as a total outsider to become an impressing, reputed and one of the longest serving Ministers of Finance at that time. At this so many’th turning point in Mandela’s life, the anecdote radiates with energy and readiness to start another one, or even three. In total, I count six lives.
“I was born free”, Mandela recalls in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom – one of Africa’s most important books. His first life started in 1918, in rural Transkei, the son of a traditional chief who owed allegiance to his tribe and to the then English King. From his father he inherited a “stubborn sense of fairness”.
Gradually, Mandela realized that he wasn’t born free at all. There was little freedom in rural South Africa, in the midst of a traditional system that had been thoroughly co-opted and perverted by bigger political and economic forces. Yet, only a distant echo of the protests by the newly formed African National Congress would occasionally break through the rural isolation.
It was only after he fled custom and the threat of a forced marriage that he would slowly begin his political life in and around Johannesburg. His autobiography provides one of the most insightful accounts of the political Bildungsgeschichte, not just that of Mandela from a rural traditionalist to a politicized urbanite, but also that of Africa’s oldest nationalist movement. The political, cultural and ethnic mélange was intense and varied. The political learning curve was steep and often painful as successful mobilization, peaceful resistance, and sensitization of the growing African middle classes and labour movement met with an ever more repressive state. Back in those days he was still a fairly hot headed activist who was skeptical about undertaking joint actions with communists and Indians. Mandela was far more sure, as he admitted, about what he “was against than what I was for”.
Soon, that is in 1950, that repression would hit hard, first South Africa’s non-racial Communist Party very hard. The de facto banning of the SACP by the two year old apartheid government would speed up the process of the non-racialization of the ANC. It would lead to more effective forms of cooperation between multiple opposition movements. It would also result in broad-based, peaceful mobilization and sensitization. Mandela was also noticed by talent scouts within the ANC. Oliver Tambo, the later ANC president in exile, noted that he had a “natural air of authority” and “couldn’t help magnetizing a crowd” and Mandela was nurtured and groomed into leadership. One electrifying idea and campaign to which he energetically contributed was to canvas citizens throughout the country – white and black – for answers to the probing question: “If you could make the laws.. what would you do?”. A Congress of the People sampled the answers into the Freedom Charter on 26 June 1955. This blueprint for a democracy was also a lasting testimony to the capacity to mobilise, organise, and channel energy through political avenues around a shared vision of a democratic and non-racial state, and… compromise, as Mandela would testify during the Treason and Rivonia trials.
For his role in starting the armed struggle, Mandela lands in jail in 1964. At 46, Mandela begins his third life, as a prisoner, with a ‘life sentence plus five years’. Robben Island then housed both common-law prisoners and a group of 20 political prisoners in Section B. These ranged from peasants from his homestead in the Transkei (who had plotted to murder Mandela’s nephew, the Chief Minister Matanzima whom Pretoria had fronted as an alley), to coloured and Indian communists and other opposition movements.
In Anthony Sampson’s masterful authorized biography of Mandela, he summarizes how in jail Mandela “learnt to control his temper and strong will, to empathize and persuade, and to extend his influence and authority, not just over the other prisoners, but over the warders.” Cloths, as we all know now, were an issue for Mandela. Back then, he was forced to wear short trousers. He managed to convince the warders to replace them with long trousers. But when the other political prisoners did not get theirs, he refused his. It would take another three years before they all wore long trousers. The pages about team spirit, self-control, rational argument and debate, camaraderie, sadness as described by Sampson and Mandela himself are utterly moving and gripping. From these pages one starts to understand that nothing came easy.
Every little improvement demanded cooperation, strategy, insight, and discussion about compromise or action. One gets an idea of how the political prisoners were continuously busy shaping and re-shaping themselves and their environment; “we had honed our debating skills while we chipped away at limestone”. Mandela learned Afrikaans, the language spoken by the oppressor, which made it much easier to make passes and entries through the defenses (and complexes) of his warders. When the Soweto riots broke out in 1976, Robben Island filled with young, angry, hot-tempered, black consciousness rebels from a new era. Most of them would leave prison after serving their sentences politicized, non-racialised, and with a sharpened sense of history, purpose and organisational tactics. Remarkable political talents were formed on the Island before, finally, the regime released all its political prisoners as of February 1990 to start negotiations on a new political dispensation for which there was no script yet, not on process, not on content.
Fourth Life – 1990-1994
During Mandela’s fourth life (1990-1994) these talents and leadership skills were mobilised to mould a negotiation machinery between the ex-prisoners, the internal opposition to apartheid and the exiled ANC. Mandela played a key role in coalition building within and outside the ANC. The line he had taken in the dock before he disappeared for more than a quarter century – that he’d fight “white domination”, but he’d do exactly the same with “black domination” – proved reassuring, the more so since the ANC was able to end the armed struggle, its part of the bargain with the Nationalist Party government. It further helped that Mandela was able to remind the public convincingly that the ANC in 1961 had started the violent struggle (albeit in homeopathic proportions) because of the state’s repressive and obstinate refusal to talk and compromise with the majority of its citizens. Mandela and his colleagues used their wit, stature and talents to ensure that compromise was neither empty nor a curse, but an essential part in a strategy to lay the foundations for a sufficiently broad based, sustainable political settlement within a constitutional democratic architecture. Pillars of it included a progressive, in-your-face Bill of Rights (that celebrates diversity, equality before the law ranging from the racially to the sexually oppressed) and a vibrant, high powered Constitutional Court, to be housed in the former Johannesburg women’s prison.
In 1994, Mandela started yet another life. In my counting, his fifth. Now as President of a non-racial, inclusive and developmental democracy. Mandela, would not tire of reminding everyone that he “was simply the sum of all those African patriots who had gone before me”. Of course there is much more to the story, as the transition was not about remarkable individuals alone, but also about institutions, organisations, and the more constructive and multiple ways that state and non-state actors interacted in a changing landscape of checks and balance arrangements, or accountability systems.
To concentrate too much political power in too narrow spaces had proven to be disastrous. So the fears about the extremes of white domination, but also of black domination, were legitimate. Mandela understood this extremely well, and turned his Presidency into a period of reconciliation, open debate and deliberations on the substance of the democratic state, not mainly its form and formalities. Although, form also did matter.
At his final speech before the final sitting of Parliament, in March 1999, Mandela congratulated the members for the hundred laws that had been passed by the legislature on average each year, and for raising difficult questions with the Executive. But he also choose this moment to warn against complacency, and against the pitfalls of South Africa’s party list electoral system that encourages members to be accountable to their party rather than to the electorate. So, at 81, rather than some lame pep talk, Mandela preferred to encourage Parliament to reflect about “whether we need to re-examine our electoral system, so as to improve the nature of our relationship, as public representatives with the voters!”
The extremely long walk of a freedom fighter has come to an end; a fit team player, a man who top journalist Pippa Green said on his birthday in July 2011 that he was already missed “for his charm, intelligence, poetic way with words”. But Pippa also pointed to some of Mandela’s legacy when she wrote a powerful and fascinating biography of a younger political leader, Trevor Manual. One could say that in Choice, Not Fate, Pippa helps us see that many others have already taken over Mandela’s weights. Or, as John Battersby pointedly concluded in Sampson’s authorized Mandela biography: “he changed himself fundamentally in the prison years and in doing so he changed South Africa, and the world, forever.”
To offer condolences to an entire nation may appear somewhat pompous, but in such a moment as this, it feels natural and appropriate to do so.
The views expressed here are those of the author, and may not necessarily represent those of ECDPM.
Good job Jan. It is a well written, informative and respectful essay which honors one of humanities greatest leaders like Ghandi,and King. Regards, Henk Muntslag