By Charlene Smith
“How we danced,” retired judge Albie Sachs said remembering the years of Nelson Mandela’s presidency.
Sachs lost an arm to apartheid bombers and became the inspiration behind the artwork at South Africa’s Constitutional Court, built after the first democratic constitution was signed into law in 1996, just two years after Mandela became president, and six years after Mandela’s release from 27 years in apartheid jails. One of the most liberal constitutions in the world, it was the first to enshrine gay rights.
Tributes will be paid to Nelson Rohihlahla Mandela on his passing, many will say ‘the world has lost a great man,’ indeed in this age of mediocrity, Mandela, it seems, will take the patent for greatness with him. There will be profound grief in South Africa, because Mandela’s death will be a reminder of how, after three hundred years of conquest and bullying, South Africa was given the rainbow and the pot of gold, but after Mandela left office in 1999, the gold was pillaged and the rainbow sold.
On February 11, 1990, Mandela walked out of prison clasping the hand of his wife, Winnie Madikizela Mandela.
Rightwing death squads were planting bombs and assassinating, and some black factions were engaged in vicious fighting. Some weekends as many as 200 people were slaughtered in villages in KwaZulu Natal and townships fringing Johannesburg.
Nelson Mandela stepped into a country where colonialism and apartheid controlled people by dividing them and encouraging fear.
Mandela returned to Soweto, to the small house he had left when he went to jail; he refused to live in Winnie’s palace on the hill. All of Soweto, it seemed, walked to his home, they sat on the streets, or squatted on sun-bleached hills, waiting, waiting, for the freedom his release promised.
A week later 75,000 filled a stadium, just outside Soweto, sweating in the heat. Millions more watched on television. His speech was dreadful. He peered through large owl-shaped glasses and gave a stolid message, but then music started, and that’s when freedom began: Mandela danced.
Thousands stared in amazed delight, and then started dancing. A nation filled with fifty years of apartheid resentment, threw their heads back and laughter broke through the clouds. It was going to be okay. We took the hand of the stranger next to us, our fellow-South African, and began the Mandela Jive. We were finally home.
During the Mandela years, we danced; we obeyed his plea to make our enemies our friends. We reached out tentatively and found their fingers touching ours. Oh, the emotion in that touch.
That didn’t mean challenges disappeared. Violence soared as political groups fought for supremacy. For a time Mandela openly berated his liberator, President Frederick Willem de Klerk.
The day before South Africa’s first democratic elections on April 26, 1994 I walked over pieces of human flesh no bigger than a coin in Germiston, where a rightwing bomb killed ten people. The following day, in KwaZulu Natal where violence was anticipated, elderly people sat patiently on blankets on the ground, waiting to vote. Some pointed to hills, blue with distance, as their homes. They had walked for days, some without shoes, to vote. The first day was for the elderly and pregnant women, the next day Nelson Mandela and the general public voted, most for the first time in their lives. Mandela was 76.
South Africans discovered each other anew in those lines; it was an almost spiritual experience.
In Mandela’s government cabinet ministers came to work in jeans, Mandela, accustomed to comfortable prison clothes, eschewed suits, and so the Mandela-shirt, a loose, silk shirt was born. He despised pomposity, understanding that pomp is how governments keep the governed distant.
There were no aggressive bodyguards, nor screaming black limousine convoys.
His focus was on reconciliation. South Africans, who for half a century were ashamed to say where they came from when they traveled, found strangers shaking their hand and saying: “ah Mandela!”
That happens no more. Fat with our ill-deserved status South Africa forgot that charity begins at home. Crime is now among the worst in the world with a rape every 26 seconds, and around 49 murders a day (Boston had 44 for all of 2010). The gap between rich and poor is worse than during apartheid.
The government of President Jacob Zuma is riddled with corruption. Two police commissioners in a row have been jailed for charges ranging from racketeering to fraud. Violent protests are routine, so are assassinations.
Nelson Mandela’s last joyous semi-public occasion was his 85th birthday, Bill and Hillary Clinton were present, so was Robert de Niro, John Cusack and Oprah. We sat at long tables, and introduced ourselves by our first names. We jived until late, and left inhaling deeply of the crisp dark air, falling in love with Africa again.
Mandela’s last decade saw increasing ill health and a struggle to manage the circling vultures, some of whom are family members. His family was his Achilles heel; he grieved that they (and hundreds of families like his) suffered because their father was a prisoner of conscience.
He loathed his successor, Thabo Mbeki, an AIDS denialist who refused to give life-extending drugs in the worst HIV-infected nation in the world. Harvard estimates some 365,000 people needlessly died, including Mandela’s son. It gave Mandela a new reason for activism.
Mandela hoped that Jacob Zuma, a man with only four years schooling when he came as a political prisoner to Robben Island, would have the common touch as president, that Mbeki lacked. Instead, Zuma, the African National Congress’ former head of intelligence has increased spy structures, done little to improve schools, or the delivery of basic services, and become inordinately wealthy.
In his final years Mandela was often at home alone with staff. Dementia shielded Mandela from the heartbreak of seeing how South Africa disregarded his 27-year sacrifice and became a land of robber barons.
South Africans will say, when he goes, Hamba Kahle, Mkhonto – Go well, brave warrior.
* Charlene Smith is a South African born journalist who lives in Cambridge. An authorized biographer of Nelson Mandela; her books are Mandela: In Celebration of a Great Life, and Robben Island.