ONE of the most profound things about Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela’s release in February 1990, after 27 years of incarceration, was that it opened us to the world after 46 years of isolation. From being the world’s number one nasty nation, we suddenly gained moral credibility and international acceptability.
Our green passport, something of a curse until then, became the invitation to formerly forbidden territories. For me, as a South African journalist, it meant being assigned to conflict, disaster and famine in Africa, the Middle East and Asia.
As a stringer who’d covered the anti-apartheid movement and Mandela’s release, I suddenly found my South African-ness no longer a liability. It was refreshingly liberating to no longer have the monkey of apartheid on my back. No longer would I be detained at Nairobi airport.
I was a photographer in those days and I realise now just how privileged I was to enjoy a bird’s eye view of our icon. I was an anonymous face in the media pack, for sure, but it did allow me to get closer than most to the towering presence that was Madiba – his clan name by which everybody grew to fondly call him.
It was noticeable right from the beginning that he had a special aura about him – it was something beyond his dignity, discipline and old-fashioned courtesy. For that reason I will never forget Madiba’s press conference the morning after his release at the residence of Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu.
On that day he was a 70 year-old, the world’s most famous political prisoner, catapulted from the sedate analogue 1960’s into the hurly-burly of the digital 1990’s. I can recall him looking quizzically at the booms of the TV sound men. He admitted later that he’d never seen such things before.
But what Madiba did that morning in a few moments was to win over the world. When journalists identified themselves, he would engage with them, calling them by their names and saying he was pleased to meet them as he’d enjoyed reading their reports.
Much has since been said about his fondness to engage with people, but perhaps not so much about the steely side of his character. I saw this in a brief, but unguarded, moment at parliament when he and FW De Klerk were set make a joint announcement about CODESA, the negotiations to end apartheid.
I was ducking under the front-row of seats to get a shot before the briefing when I witnessed an exchange between him and FW De Klerk. No disrespect to FW, but I could see who was in charge.
For behind the bonhomie, it was clear Madiba was a hard man you did not want to trifle with. In fact, De Klerk would meet the stinging wrath of Mandela in January 1994 on the issue of “Third-Force” violence, said to have been instigated by the Afrikaner Nationalist government, in the townships.
However, it was when I was abroad that I began to truly appreciate the impact that Madiba had – particularly in parts of the world where people were suffering. For them, our seemingly impossible victory over apartheid was a miracle against the odds that they could embrace as a beacon of hope for themselves.
We sometimes forget that they saw clearly the egotistical brinkmanship of the Inkatha Freedom Party’s Chief Buthelezi (who only agreed to participate in the 1994 elections eight days beforehand), the right wing military threat of the generals, the assassination of Chris Hani and “Third Force” violence – all elements recognisable in their politics.
It is not for nothing either that Palestinians have embraced the idea of the Free Marwan Barghouti and All Palestinian Prisoners Campaign in the mould of the anti-apartheid movement’s Free Mandela Campaign of the 1980’s. Madiba’s well-known sentiment, that South Africans would not be truly free until Palestinians were liberated, epitomises his celebrated sense of humanity.
In fact, we have much to think about in terms of Madiba’s contribution to humanity, something that endeared him to so many. Because he was sincere, people believed him. He would sing “Twinkle, twinkle little star” and children would love him. No public figure of modern times can claim to have enjoyed as much universal trust as Madiba.
So when he visited the Awwal mosque in the Bo-Kaap in 1994 to thank Muslims for their contribution to the struggle, and knelt when the Qur’an was recited, he melted one billion Muslim hearts around the world. And in a new South Africa where religions now enjoyed equality, he visited synagogues, churches and temples with the same decorum.
To enumerate the instances I’ve heard ordinary people on foreign shores expressing their admiration for Madiba is impossible. The word “Mandela” has caused smiles from Cairo to Cochin – and, at times, has even opened some difficult doors.
I experienced yet another example of Madiba’s vast sphere of influence in Pakistan in October this year. I met a law student – our guide and interpreter – who was interested in going into politics. Pakistan is a country beset by huge developmental challenges not dissimilar to South Africa’s, and when I asked him why his passion for public life, his confident answer was “Mandela”.
One thing that Madiba clearly understood was the command of the symbolic gesture. His wearing of Francois Pienaar’s no 6 jersey at the 1995 Rugby World Cup, his tea with Betsy Verwoed, the widow of apartheid master Hendrik Verwoed, have proved to be far more eloquent moments than thousands of well-crafted speeches.
ut the most profound thing I’ve witnessed about Madiba on
my travels was that whenever he was seen embracing a child in South Africa, he was
felt to be embracing another one in Gaza, an earthquake victim in Iran, an
orphan in Darfur, a prisoner of conscience in Central Africa, an AIDS victim in
Uganda and a bereaved mother in Somalia.
Indeed, to understand the whole of “Madiba Magic” we need to understand its parts and the fact that by one simple action, one man had the ability to inspire and reach out to so many people in so many different parts of the world.