July 19, 2018
I returned to South Africa a week before the 1994 elections — the first time in that country’s troubled history every adult would have the right to vote. Irrespective of race.
I was driven from what was still called Jan Smuts Airport in Johannesburg to The Sowetan — a newspaper for black readers — where a Zulu tradition called Ukweshwama, designed to symbolically drain away the evils of the past, was about to take place.
A bull was tethered to a pole in a courtyard, a fiercesome dagger resting nearby. Black and white management and staff jostled in anticipation. Then, after chants and prayers, a dignitary lifted the animal’s head and with a flourish, ceremoniously slit its throat. Men positioned a large bowl to capture the outpouring blood and the rapt crowd burst into Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrica — the Xhosa-Zulu hymn which now comprises the first half of South Africa’s national anthem.
One of Nelson Mandela’s signature characteristics was an ability to combine and respect traditional and modern cultures and values. As evidenced by the Ukweshwama ritual, which marked the culmination of the hated Apartheid system while heralding a democratic election.
And as Mandela brilliantly personified when, in an act which was in equal measure symbolic, strategic, political and essential, he donned the No 6 jersey of Springbok captain Francois Pienaar at the 1995 World Cup final against the All Blacks at Johannesburg’s Ellis Park Stadium and presented him with the Webb Ellis Cup. Through that ingenious master-stroke, he sent a powerful message to the country’s 35 million blacks — who detested the Springboks because of the regime they represented — that rugby was an intrinsic facet of the Afrikaans tradition and therefore needed to be accepted and respected. Equally, he sent a powerful message to the country’s 5 million whites that he, their newly elected black president, was willing to embrace their hallowed sport. The crowd of 63,000 erupted, enraptured, understanding the power of what they had witnessed.
Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela would have turned 100 yesterday. I served as chief sub-editor of The Cape Times. Mandela was incarcerated on Robben Island at the time — but he was the unspoken presence in the editorial room.
A key instrument in the government’s strategy of subjugating the black population while keeping the ruling white sector uninformed about the revolutionary movement fermenting beneath the surface was a draconian system of censorship. Mandela and other anti-Apartheid activists were not merely imprisoned, they were also banned, which meant it was forbidden for media to quote them or 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 looked like, sounded like, thought, felt or dreamed — whether that related to the right to vote or live with their families. 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 invariably by a government politician in a pejorative context in which they would be condemned.
Yet Mandela was there. Silenced. Casting a giant shadow. 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. Mandela exemplified the African notion of Ubuntu, which in Xhosa culture means “I am because we are”, one’s humanity is determined by how one interacts with others, a person is a person through other people.
His four-hour closing address at the Rivonia Trial in 1963-64 — which saw him receive a life sentence — is one of the great speeches of all time. After recounting tales he heard as a child from tribal elders and recalling the deals of the African National Congress and the indignities suffered by his people, he discarded his notes and turned to 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 qualities of leadership, character and conviction which propelled him from a timeless riverside village to a place in history for all time.