Nelson Mandela: A Humanity Forged In Jail

By Rhoda Kadalie, The Guardian

South Africa – If there is one thing I won’t be able to brag about to my grandchildren, it is being there the day Nelson Mandela walked to freedom 20 years ago today. I was in another province recovering from some personal trauma, watching the release on television – and was happy to be far from the crowds that became quite unruly as they waited three hours for the legend to become flesh.

But as Mandela mounted the steps of City Hall in Cape Town, we realised that a ball had been set in motion that could not be rolled back. The awareness that apartheid would soon end began to sink into our consciousness. The prospect of a democratic South Africa no longer seemed a remote possibility. Sweeter still, the prospect of casting my vote for the first time (I was 36 at the time), seemed imminent, though unreal.

Mandela came to embody all the freedoms denied black South Africans since 1948. More intriguingly, he made reconciliation and forgiveness central to the new era, neutralising any feelings of revenge. He met his accusers; had tea with the wife of the architect of apartheid; embraced “coloured” people” and made them feel part of the rich tapestry of the country; and reassured the majority that never would divisions and racial domination be part of the new regime.

The more we got to know the great Madiba as president, the more many of us secretly came to appreciate his imprisonment. Dare I say this? Prison saved Mandela from the mess of liberation. He had none of the paranoia, vengefulness and entitlement that subsequent administrations, led by the “exilers”, came to epitomise. His regime was truly open, transparent, consultative and embracing. His advisers were from every part of the racial spectrum, and Mandela led with authority because he did not have to prove anything.

Thabo Mbeki, on the other hand, suffered from Prince Charles syndrome. Born into succession, Mbeki spent most of his presidential life trying to prove that he could be a president: hence his nasty remarks about not wanting to fill Mandela’s “ugly” shoes. His regime was supposed to transform the economy, bolster black economic empowerment, and push for an African renaissance – nothing more than a glorified ­euphemism for African nationalism.

In contrast, Mandela was much more of a modern constitutional democrat, eschewing any political ideologies, but eager to make the country work. Unlike Mbeki, he was neither a technocrat nor driven by grand schemes that needed to be engineered through parliament. For us, it was wonderful to bask in the reflected glory of Mandela while travelling abroad to conferences. But this rare feeling of patriotism was short-lived and reversed by Mbeki’s disastrous views on HIV/Aids. The HIV debacle required us to deconstruct our president to audiences abroad who were dismayed by this sudden turn of events.

Jacob Zuma’s defeat of the Machiavellian Mbeki at the  Polokwane conference  in 2007 was welcomed by many, not so much to hail a new president, as to get rid of a leader who spent his time scheming and conniving to get rid of political rivals. The honeymoon with Zuma is about to end as disgust with his sexual indiscretions has reached national proportions.

Our former political prisoners, of whom Madiba is king, are a much nicer bunch than those who went into exile. My favourite recent story of Mandela was when I, as chair of the street renaming committee, called his office to inform him of the calls for Hertzog Boulevard to be renamed after him. His response was: “I shan’t replace any former Afrikaner political hero, thank you very much.” And that was that.

Dare we conclude that 27 years of prison preserved Mandela’s humanity in ways that exile could never have. Or is this too sacrilegious a thought?