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Nelson Mandela: A Reflection

The genial image of the world’s wise grandfather hid a core of steely independence, writes Ray Hartley

It was a balmy day in Wellington, in November 1995. New Zealand Prime Minister Jim Bolger had been standing on the dais before his parliament building for 20 minutes, waiting for President Nelson Mandela to arrive on an official visit. Before him stood throngs of New Zealanders who had come to see Mandela, thousands more than had been in attendance when Queen Elizabeth paid her respects a week before.

Slowly, the Bentley bearing Mandela made its way into the courtyard. The  rear door was opened by an official, and Mandela stepped out. His back was bowed and he was showing his 77 years. After glancing at the waiting prime minister and the guard of honour, and then at the flag-waving school children behind a barricade, Mandela made up his mind. Turning his back on the red carpet, he walked stiffly towards the children. A roar erupted as he bent down to shake the small hands reaching up to him. “How old are you?” he asked. “Five,” came the reply, and Mandela moved on. “How old are you?” he asked the next child. “Eight,” came the reply. At this the old man’s face hardened and he straightened up. “Why are you not at school?” he asked. While the child stood speechless, Mandela turned abruptly and headed for the podium.

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More than his lunch time speech to New Zealand society assembled inside the government building, more than his speech to Commonwealth heads of government days before, this moment of parental rectitude captured Mandela’s essence. His values, beliefs and understanding of human nature had been shaped in an earlier time and frozen by 27 years of imprisonment, to emerge in 1990 into a world in which gentility and the strong-minded individual had been replaced by a less sentimental and more materialistic breed. Emerging from Victor Verster prison in February 1990, Mandela had stepped into a country much changed from the one he had been forced to leave in 1963.

In 1963, no one had stepped on the moon, the Vietnam war had not yet been fought, and South Africa was in the grip of its biggest security clampdown to date. The reception that Mandela enjoyed on the world stage had a certainty and a simplicity that he would struggle to replicate at home as rising crime, unemployment and the South African habit of expecting the worst even in good times drew him into the cut and thrust of politics. He quickly became the most observed, photographed and recorded man to stride the South African stage. But the more he was exposed to the limelight, the more blurred and exaggerated his image became.

Mandela embodied a great paradox: he was the uncontested father of South African democracy and, at the same time, its most strikingly individualistic and opinionated product. This paradox, in turn, points to a conflict within Mandela — between the desire to defer to collective leadership and his instinct to take matters into his own hands, for better or worse. As Mandela’s presidency unfolded, his personality came to dominate and he emerged as a transcendent figure, still loyal to the ANC but governed increasingly by his own political instincts. When Mandela left prison in  1990, he was photographed with then president FW de Klerk. Both men wore suits and ties, the politicians’ uniform.

This  image, rich with the promise of a smooth and polite transition, held true in the months following Mandela’s release. To the public he appeared as a genial, reconciliatory aristocrat, transported from a more gentle age to a strange new land where he would need the guidance of the kind man who had saved him from obscurity. But the Mandela-De Klerk relationship was to shatter in dramatic circumstances, giving the nation its first glimpse of a different Mandela, a man whose pride was easily wounded and who was more than comfortable with wielding the political axe.

In a nationally televised fit of pique, Mandela tore a strip off De Klerk for using his position as the final speaker at the constitutional negotiations plenary session in 1992 to criticise the ANC’s armed wing. The intervention marked the moment when the political initiative moved from De Klerk to Mandela —  no longer an ageing elder statesman but a powerful, brooding president-in-waiting. It was the first of many occasions when Mandela  departed from the script, allowing public expression to his inner feelings.

In parliament as president years later, he would deliver prepared speeches and then, taking off his glasses, launch into an unplanned personal addendum. When this happened, his media aide, the late Parks Mankahlana, would sit with his head in his hands  as a swarm of uncontrolled sound bites swirled about the national assembly.

At an ANC caucus meeting he reduced MP Thenjiwe Mtintso to tears for speaking out in favour of the removal of Afrikaans as a language of instruction in the SA National Defence Force. It was the same unexpected swipe De Klerk had experienced at Codesa. Mandela was loyal until he felt himself being challenged. Then he  struck  back with venom,  surprising the victim and observers alike. Bantu Holomisa, the homeland leader turned ANC convert, was at Mandela’s side throughout the 1994 elections, but when Holomisa implied that Mandela had accepted money for the ANC’s election coffers from dubious sources, Mandela orchestrated Holomisa’s dismissal from the party. Upright, authoritative and not suffering fools lightly, Mandela strode  the world  unapologetically.

At the 1995 Commonwealth conference, he took on the mantle of elder statesman, leading the organisation to take its toughest action against a member state. In the early hours of an Auckland morning, he heard of the execution of dissident Ken Saro-Wiwa and nine others on the orders of the Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha. He summoned the then foreign minister, the late Alfred Nzo, to his suite and initiated a spectacular diplomatic coup. Until that point, the summit had been a bland pastiche of clubby consensus led by the archetypal grey man, the then British prime minister, John Major.

By that afternoon, Mandela had commandeered the traditional heads of state meeting and won support for a plan to suspend Nigeria from the Commonwealth. On one occasion, Mandela spoke off the cuff about how he would like to be remembered when he was dead, sending the rand into a tailspin and prompting weeks of speculation on his health. On another, he reached out to Inkatha leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi in the first of many speeches about there being “good men and women” in every political party. And, in a famous interlude that deeply wounded De Klerk, by then leader of the opposition, Mandela turned to him in parliament and said: “You don’t care about black lives.”

Mandela’s ability to size up the moment and make a personal contribution that overshadowed  his carefully prepared political script appeared to have been carried within him for decades. At the Rivonia trial in 1963 he uttered the words that became the foundation of South Africa’s new democratic tradition: “I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. “It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

This statement, long thought to have been the product of a political strategy, was  in fact a personal contribution made after he had finished his five-hour speech. By the end of 1996, the genie of Mandela’s personality had escaped completely from its political confinement, never to be recaptured.

The suits that used to hang uncomfortably from his shoulders were gone for all but the most solemn occasions. Mandela had created a new personal space, which  stayed with him wherever he went. In that  space he acted  out his political duties, but always  allowed his instincts to rule. To the nation he was no longer the saint who had been released from prison, but that did not damage his reputation; his human weaknesses made him all the more admired.

In his new space, Mandela shrugged off the rules of the collective and became himself — eccentric, irascible and decisive. He  became, on the one hand, the guiding patriarch, and, on the other, once more the boxer of his youth, probing for weaknesses then thundering home a quick succession of punches. There was about the other world leaders an air of dazed confusion as the measures were formulated and passed under the supervision of Mandela.

Later in Auckland, thousands of kilometres from home, Mandela addressed a massive crowd of 250 000 people at a public gathering, shaking hands — to the consternation of those who thought themselves more important — with each  of a choir that had sung in his honour.

In Trafalgar Square the next year, the same scene played itself out, again in the heat of summer. From the balcony overlooking the square, Mandela addressed a crowd of more than 100 000. In the Royal Albert Hall, he rose to do the Madiba jive and  inspired a grin and a wiggle from the queen  as she succumbed to his magnetic charisma. Showing scant interest in the republicanism of his comrades back home, he made friends with Queen Elizabeth. As a mark of respect, he dropped his golden paisley for a black shirt edged with mother-of-pearl sequins and buttoned to the collar for a banquet at Buckingham Palace.

He was, without question, the man of the moment, and those within his radius, even royalty, beamed in admiration. In the halls of Westminster, Mandela had delivered a speech that had rasped against the sensibilities of the gathered establishment, challenging the colonial legacy of the British empire. For this he received a standing ovation at the first assembly for a head of state in the hallowed hall since Charles de Gaulle decades before.

In Paris the following  week, Mandela was guest of honour on Bastille Day, the Champs-Élysées lined with French and South African flags. On the podium with French President Jacques Chirac, who took the salute as French battle vehicles, each bearing the name of an engagement, drove solemnly past. At a banquet in his honour at the Élysée  Palace, Mandela rose to deliver his most upbeat speech. He talked of Paris in the springtime, the flowers and the magic of the sunshine. The secret of Mandela’s Parisian delight remained untold until the Sunday Times published details of how he had secretly spent his evenings in the company of Graça Machel, widow of the late Mozambican president Samora Machel. Machel had  flown to Paris, where she stayed at the residence of ambassador Barbara Masekela for the duration of Mandela’s tour.

At night, the meetings with French officials over, Mandela and Machel appeared together for the first time to a close circle of friends and political associates at Masekela’s residence, taking the first delicate step towards publicly acknowledging their relationship. The man of the moment would receive the same welcome in Washington, in Moscow, in Beijing.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1997, he found himself in less celebratory circumstances. He was brokering a peace deal between the then dictator of Zaire,  Mobutu Sese Seko, and his usurper, Laurent Kabila, aboard the battleship Outeniqua — the only neutral venue the two sides would accept. In his cramped quarters high on the command level of the ship, Mandela used his satellite phone to plead, cajole and finally insist with a paternal tone that the two sides get together. Eventually, when all seemed lost, he succeeded in his mission, getting the Congolese leaders to sit for a photo session after talking them into accepting a peaceful transition.

The military destruction of Kinshasa was averted, although Kabila would  soon become another Mobutu. By the beginning of 1999, Mandela was yearning to complete the transition from the world stage to the boundaries of his family household. In an interview in the dimly lit lounge of his Houghton home, he complained about the plumbing and the cracking masonry and of how he longed for more contact with his grandchildren. 

As he spoke, the phone rang and he took a call from the president of France. Entering the final year of his presidency in 1999, Mandela had all but given up his role in government. But after handing over the reins to President Thabo Mbeki, Mandela was unable to resist the push and pull of politics, taking on the mantle of African peacekeeper. In Burundi, he cajoled, jostled and threatened reluctant ethnic factions into a shaky peace deal that had eluded the country for decades.

As a global statesman, as a nation builder, a democrat and an individualist at once, and, finally, as a doting grandfather, Mandela was the founder of the new South Africa.

A life in cartoons

Nelson Mandela Childrens Fund

In 1995 the Nelson Mandela Children's Fund was established,with the vision of improving the lives of children and the youth. The fund also operates in four other countries. Learn more here