BY VIC ALHADEFF
Sydney Morning Herald
December 6, 2013
There is an incident in Nelson Mandela’s seminal autobiography, Long Walk To Freedom, which is seemingly inconsequential, yet symbolises the extraordinary calibre of leadership of a political giant whose aura bestrode the world.
So compelling is it in its profound simplicity that it encapsulates the qualities that enabled Mandela to emerge from his humble beginnings in an obscure African village, refuse to be shackled or bowed by a hideous social and political system that discriminated against people of colour and rise to become one of the genuine statesmen of the 20th century.
The year is 1962. Mandela has been sentenced to five years’ imprisonment for inciting people to strike and for leaving the country without a passport. He and three others are driven overnight from Pretoria to Cape Town, chained inside a ferry – below a port-hole through which wardens periodically urinate on to their heads – and deposited on Robben Island, a harsh limestone outcrop 30 kilometres offshore, which acquired infamy as South Africa’s Alcatraz.
The prisoners are met by armed guards and burly warders, the leader a sadistic brute who immediately abuses the prisoners, barking instructions in language commonly used to herd cattle and ordering them to run to the prison.
Mandela instinctively whispers to his fellow prisoners that if they comply and succumb to the intimidation, they will be permanently subjected to the cruel whims of their captors. Despite the warden repeatedly threatening to kill him, Mandela takes the lead and not only walks to the prison, but deliberately reduces the pace.
I served as chief subeditor of The Cape Times, Cape Town’s morning newspaper, during the apartheid era – and Nelson Rohilahla Mandela was the unspoken presence in the room.
A key instrument in the apartheid government’s strategy of subjugating the country’s black population while keeping the ruling white sector uninformed about the revolutionary movements fermenting beneath the surface was press censorship. It was illegal for newspapers to promote the aims of a “banned” organisation or to quote or publish photographs of “banned” people – and Mandela, his African National Congress and vast numbers of activists and organisations were “banned”.
That meant it was forbidden for media to report anti-apartheid activities. The deeper issue was that South Africans never heard from Mandela or his colleagues, could not read – legitimately, at least – of their grievances and aspirations, and never saw their photographs.
Generations of South Africans therefore had no idea what the leaders of the majority of the country’s population looked like, sounded like, thought, felt or wanted. Whether that related to the right to vote or basic human rights.
Unless one of the handful of progressive politicians spoke out under the protection of parliamentary privilege, those who were “banned” were effectively confined to a non-existence. Furthermore, if their names were mentioned, it was by a government politician in a pejorative context in which they would be condemned for “subversive” conduct, invariably as Communists or terrorists.
And Mandela was there. Silenced. Casting a giant shadow. Yet always there. And as one of the nation’s anti-apartheid newspapers, we were acutely aware that in our midst was a colossus whose time had to come. And when it did, it would change South Africa forever.
The four-hour closing address that Mandela gave at the Rivonia Trial – which saw him jailed for life – stands as one of the greatest speeches of all time. After movingly recounting tales he heard as a child from tribal elders, the democratic ideals of the African National Congress and the grotesque indignities suffered by his people, he discarded his notes and turned squarely to face Justice Quartus de Wet.
“During my lifetime,” he said, “I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination and against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic, free society in which all persons live together in harmony 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.”
The same quality of leadership he demonstrated on Robben Island. The same character and conviction which propelled him from a timeless riverside village to a place in history for all time.
Vic Alhadeff is former chief subeditor of The Cape Times and is now chief executive officer of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies.
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