Answering journalist questions about Mandela family feuds & Mandela’s Long Dying

My inbox has long lists of questions from journalists who want me to type answers to each and send them back. But I, a journalist of the old school, send my phone number, I won’t write for the cut-and-paste generation.

These are questions from just one. I post them here to save you the trouble in case you want to ask similar questions.

What do you believe Mandela’s legacy is?

A legacy, the dictionary tells us is the inheritance, usually financial, that someone leaves to others. In this instance, Mandela’s legacy was made long ago, his will is set, no doubt it will cause further discord when it is read.

But I believe most reporters want to use legacy as a synonym for inheritance or heritage. Or perhaps even, “what example did Mandela leave?” But then again s/he may want to know – what were his greatest achievements? This is a partial, very flip, response.

He led South Africans, together, as one united nation to the polls for democratic elections, the first in its history in April 1994. He was 75 when he voted for the first time, many others I interviewed at that time, and who walked barefoot for days and miles were far older. I, a white South African refused to vote until all could vote, I was in my 30s, I can’t describe the reverence it has given me for elections and the need to vote if you have the privilege.

What South Africans, and global citizens should have learnt from Mandela is the importance of persistence, commitment, tolerance, a sense of humor, sacrifice and dancing whenever, and wherever, the mood took you.

He saw value in every person. He understood that it is not the degrees behind your name, or the balance in your bank account that made you consequential, it is the way you live your life. Is it with honor? Do you show respect and compassion for others? Or are you among the wretched of the earth who think the clothes you wear and the car you drive give you status?

At any gathering he would greet the “invisible people” first – the cleaners, waiters, guards. He was truly interested in them. He cared. He didn’t have screaming black car motor cavalcades and flocks of black-suited bodyguards speaking into their earpieces; he often went and mingled with the public. He loved us. We were his family. He’d sacrificed everything for us, not just for South Africans, but also for the people of the world, because in his sacrifices and in his successes were lessons for us all.

He was not a saint and he would hate to be treated as such, because one of his most important lessons is that anyone can overcome the greatest obstacles if they take on a foe without thought of personal gain, and in the hopes of righting a great wrong that hurts many. Although it was only late in his life that he decried military solutions, he most powerfully lived Gandhi’s exhortation that we should carry suffering in our own bodies rather than destroy the body of our enemy.

Do you feel the fighting between his family members will have an effect on his legacy?

How can it? His achievements are far greater than the petty wranglings of the greedy. And not all members of this sprawling family are involved; some are deeply distressed by this situation.

How did it happen that a man known for peace keeping has a family with (apparently) so much friction?

I don’t get this question. Let he or she who lives in a family that never has discord raise their hand.

How can we blame a parent, especially one who was not there for most of the years of his children’s upbringing? His daughter Zindzi was two when he went to jail; she was 15 when he was next allowed to see her. He first touched the hand of his wife Winnie after he had been in jail for 21 years. He first saw his daughter Zenani, who he’d last seen when she was a toddler, after she married. He wasn’t allowed to go to the funeral of his mother, nor his son Thembekile, who he had last seen as a small boy, and who died in a car accident as an adult.
In his first decade or so in jail he was allowed one 500 word letter in or out every six months, he was permitted a half hour visit once a year and if either said anything the warders didn’t like it would be immediately terminated.

His second wife Winnie has severe Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome as a result of being held naked in solitary confinement for 18 months in 1969. She was arrested at her home in the early hours of one morning and forced to abandon her two small daughters, it was 18 months before she knew what had become of them.

She was allowed no visits, nor cleaning materials. She was given no sanitary towels during her periods and so the blood caked on her, and she was given nothing to clean it off. And that has left her with profoundly erratic conduct.

His daughter Makaziwe he saw last when she was an elementary school pupil and then next when she was in her forties. She and Winnie loathed each other and formed two primary factions in the family. Into this came Graca Machel, a foreigner, who married Mandela when he was 80. Some family members insultingly called a kwerekwere, a slang name for foreigner. Graca had her own burdens; she kept the name of her first husband, Mozambique’s president who died in a plane crash and maintains close ties with her homeland.

Maki was verbal about how she resented her father for not making enough time for his family. Which sounds a lot like the complaints directed toward successful parents in business and politics.

But given the challenges Mandela faced as a man, a parent, a husband, a father, a politician – and the difficulties his family faced … please think before you ask such questions.

What do you think South Africans think of the fighting?

South Africans are hurt and ashamed by the family feuds, but they also think it is symbolic for a country that has become greedy, corrupt, and grabbing. Shakespeare couldn’t have written it better.

But too, I think of the feuding Reagan children, Mark Thatcher’s checkered background, the scandals around the family of Martin Luther King, and Gandhi … In the end the families of the great, are people too. It would help if the media, of which I am one, do not treat this like Jersey Shore, we created reality shows and the nightmare of 24-hour news cycles, and tabloid nonsense, it helps if we show more compassion and less sensation toward those who truly sacrifice their lives to create a better world.

What do you think of the fighting?

I’m thrilled it is happening now because the family has opened Pandora’s Box, many of us would have died with what we know rather than dishonor Mandela. But they’ve opened it and you can bet there are already journalists nose deep funneling out the endless dirt that is there to be found, not about Madiba, but about some who disgrace the name Mandela.

Most of all I am angry that they began this while he is still alive. He has had dementia for some time, but he is not unaware of all that goes on around him. The lack of respect is disgraceful, but by their actions they have revealed themselves.

Finally, what is your official title and occupation?

Ahem, why are you writing to me if you don’t know who I am? What happened to Google?

I want to add something, in a letter to the Young of America in 1993 Mandela wrote: “A time of crisis is not just a time for tears. It gives us a chance, an opportunity to choose well or choose badly.
“The past does not dictate our choices.”

Somehow in his long dying I feel that Mandela is giving South Africa and South Africans a chance to see themselves in the mirror that the conduct of his family holds up to society. In it we all need to look at ourselves, and say, “What have we become?” Mandela gave us the golden key; we melted it and sold it. We’ve been so short term in our attitudes we forgot about the long term, the days of forever, the days of our children, I fear for their future in South Africa.



About Charlene Smith

Charlene Smith is a multi-award winning journalist, broadcaster and documentary film maker. She is the author of 14 published books, including two on Nelson Mandela. Born in South Africa, she has also lived in Japan and Argentina and currently lives and works in Boston as a communications consultant.
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One Response to Answering journalist questions about Mandela family feuds & Mandela’s Long Dying

  1. Keryn Clark says:

    When you read what Winnie went through it’s not surprising that she became controversial. Her own suffering was eclipsed by the focus on her husband.

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