My first real understanding of Nelson Mandela’s importance was due to his absence.
It was in 1988, and I was in Johannesburg Central Train Station, having come down to South Africa from my job high in the mountains of Lesotho. In the deep valley where I was living and working, there was no TV or radio reception, so we were starved of news from the outside world. Whenever I got a period of leave, I would devour Time and Newsweek to learn what was going on beyond the valley walls.
On this occasion, I’d hitch-hiked up the N1 motorway, and was staying in the YMCA a short walk away from the station. After dropping my rucksack off, I’d made straight for the newsagent in the station, and was examining Time. This edition happened to have a story about Nelson Mandela (perhaps this one?), which included a picture. Only, the picture was missing – there was just a hole in the page. Not understanding at first, I checked the other copies in the pile. In every one, the picture of Mandela had been neatly cut out.
I went to southern Africa as a 17 year-old; I was so naïve and unworldly that, looking back, I cringe. The year I spent there taught me a great deal.
It was my first exposure to unreasoning racial hatred. In the foyer of the YMCA was a small lounge with board games; I used to play chess with other guests, chatting away about our experiences. I vividly remember the shock I felt while playing against a young working-class Afrikaner; he was a really nice guy, intelligent and friendly – and without any warning announced that he’d love to take a machine gun down to Soweto and “blow the Kaffirs away”. In Lesotho, I worked part of the time with Jo’burg gold miners, both black and white; the whites would refuse to mix with the blacks, and even dragged their mattresses out of their shared dormitories to sleep in the open rather than sleep in the same room as people of a different race. One white miner ran away, making a break for the border; enduring a mixed-race training program was too much. I heard tales of guns being pulled in previous years. A white British colleague had formal complaints made against him by clients simply for mentioning that his girlfriend at home was black. And yet, Afrikaners were incredibly generous and welcoming to me, extending invitations to stay, or to join barbeques on the basis of just a chance meeting.
It was my first exposure to the arbitrariness of a police state, and the ways – both overt and subtle – in which fear was imposed, and control exercised. The first time I crossed the border from Lesotho into South Africa, I was with Wayne, a white South African colleague. We joined the long queue of Basotho who were waiting to have their passports checked. It was a high-security area, contained by fences and corridors of razor wire, with no shelter from the mid-day sun. Ahead of us was the checkpoint, a small hut with a shady stoep, or veranda. In the shade, looking over the queue, sat a fat white policeman; feet up on a table, one hand on a pump-action shotgun, a pistol on his belt. The very picture of racial arrogance, he saw Wayne and I far back in the queue and called us out. “Hey, you, the white men. You don’t need to wait – come through“. Looking back, I’m proud that we did stay in the queue, and waited our turn. That small act of refusal didn’t achieve anything other than perhaps sunburn – but at least my conscience was consoled.
Later on, hitch-hiking back from Swaziland through the Transvaal, I saw something interesting – I forget now what it was – and took a picture as we drove by. To my surprise, black South Africans who were in shot started shouting and chasing the car; the driver giving me the lift had to accelerate away. It was only later that the penny dropped: taking pictures from moving cars was a sign of a plain-clothes policeman, or the security services – the surveillance state. Like I say, I was naïve. These experiences were comparatively small beer, I know – friends from the UK who were working in South Africa itself at the same time got caught up in riots, and were tear-gassed – but they left a lasting impression of what state-sponsored oppression means.
As for non-white South Africans, who might be expected to have been bitter and hostile to whites, I only ever experienced friendliness and kindness. In a volunteer job, I only earned a small amount of pocket-money, so when I travelled into South Africa I couldn’t afford “white” transport – air-conditioned coaches, hire cars, and so on. Instead, I hitched – or took “black” transport: “kombi” minibus taxis; or miners’ coaches, where the black passengers (and me) were locked into the back by steel doors, separating them from the Afrikaner drivers. We often passed through remote shanty villages on the veld, far away from anyone who knew I existed – but I never felt in the slightest danger. In fact, when I once nearly boarded a bus that was going to Soweto (then a very dangerous place), rather than central Johannesburg, it was local Sotho people who pulled me away and walked me across a vast bus park to the correct stop. What difference would it have made to them to shrug and let a stupid tourist go? None – but out of kindness they helped me.
I also learned that the world is a complicated place. South Africa actively, institutionally, discriminated against people with a black skin. You wouldn’t expect black people from other countries to move there, becoming second-class citizens as a result- and yet I met two black Britons who’d done just that. One had fallen in love with a Zulu woman. The other I met in passing in a small-town café somewhere near Pietermaritzburg, but never got his story.
South Africa also gave me my first real experience of the wonder of multi-cultural societies – in Durban, where Indian women in saris, Zulus in tribal costume, and blond white surfers rubbed shoulders as they shopped for tropical fruit in the market.
As my time there wore on, it did feel as though the mood was darkening. The township protests were ongoing, with Winnie Mandela praising the use of ‘necklaces’ – petrol-filled tyres placed around victims’ necks and set alight. Clashes between the ANC on the one hand and the police, and the army on the other, as well as between the ANC and the Zulu Inkatha Freedom Party, were increasing in violence. The arrival of F.W. de Klerk to lead the ruling National Party led to the rise of a rival, the more hardline Conservative Party. The neo-nazi AWB were becoming more violent and vociferous. It seemed that the pressure could only be released by blood; the future seemed to hold only more and worse violence.
Yet, it didn’t happen.
How did such an abundant land, filled with warm and generous people of all races, reach such a fever pitch of hate and violence? Mandela’s achievement was to see that at the base was a fear of loss – specifically, the fear of Afrikaners that they would lose everything. The Afrikaners aren’t traditional colonists. They’re the descendants of Dutch and Huguenot bonded servants, who struck out away from the Cape Colony in search of freedom from their rich European masters. Cut off from Europe, they became the “white tribe of Africa”; unlike the settlers of British descent, they had no other homeland, nowhere else to go. They fought the British Empire for independence – and lost. When the Empire faltered, they took the opportunity to create a state that would protect their culture and interests – a state that created a racial hierarchy with themselves at the top.
It was unfair, and unjust – but there seemed no other way, perhaps. As the protests and resistance to apartheid grew stronger, so did the Afrikaners feel their backs to the wall, and their defence of what they saw as theirs became more bitter and violent. It seemed to have become a zero-sum struggle, with the losers facing annihilation. What Mandela achieved was to see the fear that was driving his opponents and find a solution that would allow the Afrikaners a secure place in a democratic state. Through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, he found a way to draw out the accumulated poisons of fear, hate and anger, allowing those on both sides who had believed themselves to be in a life or death battle to start again as productive members of the new society.
It was this understanding that so much unfairness and violence is driven not by evil, but by fear; his ability to reassure and inspire people that they could do the right thing in the face of that fear, and achieve reconciliation, that was Mandela’s greatest achievement. It was this that established him as a secular saint.
And yet: Nelson Mandela was no Martin Luther King, no Gandhi. When he accepted that the apartheid state could not be reformed, he took up the gun and the bomb, as a founder of Umkhonto We Sizwe – the armed resistance group that waged war against the apparatus of that state. If putting down the gun and extending the hand of friendship was his greatest achievement, picking up the gun in the first place was what brought him to that place. He had a young family; he knew the likely consequences of his actions – but, in defence of his principles and his people, he refused to be passive or to accept injustice for the sake of a peaceful life.
So while we justly commemorate the life of this remarkable man and mark his passing, we must not admire only his statesmanship; we must remember that when it counted, when it seemed hopeless, he risked everything to stand up for justice and fight back against a system that set one group above another. We should ask ourselves: would I be brave enough to do the same? Am I also able to put aside my bitterness and hatred to those who have wronged me? Would we, like F. W. de Klerk and the other Afrikaner leaders, be brave enough to accept that our own privilege is gained at others’ expense, and willingly give it up?
Title picture: Nelson Mandela, “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison” by symphony of love, on Flickr.
Other images from Wikipedia. All used under Creative Commons licenses.