Mandela at 85: A visionary hero - but not a saint

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The Independent Online

I have known Nelson Mandela for more than 50 years, the half-century over which this remarkable man has emerged all the more clearly as a heroic statesman not only in South African but also in world affairs.

And it is a heroism that was and remains the expression in large measure of a generous, self-effacing view of the collective efforts of others, a keenness to recognise greatness and achievement elsewhere and apportion credit accordingly, to play his part as one among many and to consider the interests of the many in playing his singular part.

Of course, he is mortal, and his humanity is as complex and even at times as contradictory as any other man's. The Mandela mythology has often not done justice to the real Madiba.

Yet it is his virtues, more than any kind of imperiousness, that have made it difficult for people to see him as anything less than a flawless hero.

I have written before about the challenge of seeing the man more clearly as he is, a man who has more charisma and charm and more of a commanding presence than one's next-door neighbour, yet whose saint-like qualities of forbearance and generosity and tolerance do not make him a saint. He has his weaknesses and failings.

On the occasion of his 80th birthday, I penned a biographical essay in which I tried to express the sum of the human Mandela by describing what I believe to be an uncommon amalgam of the peasant and the aristocrat; the quintessential democrat who none the less possesses something of the autocrat; the traditionalist who is also an innovator; a man who is at once proud but also simple; soft and tenacious; determinedly obstinate and flexible; vain and shy; cool and impatient.

My sense of these things, of the true character of this 20th-century hero, derives from an always respectful, sometimes difficult and frustrating, but enduringly rewarding relationship that spans my life. In 1958 - Madiba was a practising attorney by then - he was the defence lawyer in a case, and I had occasion one day to visit the court to discuss something with him. Though I wasn't there for long, I would, in the next few days, remember something rather important from this brief visit.

The very next Saturday - and it was typical for Saturdays - we had a bit of a party in the flat. At the end of the evening, I had gone downstairs with some friends - I was going to drive them home - when I noticed a man sitting on the opposite pavement. I asked him what he was waiting for, and it turned out he was waiting for a bus. It was far too late and there were no buses running at that hour, and just as I was telling him this, it suddenly struck me I had seen him before: he was the prosecutor in the trial in which Madiba was acting.

It is terrible to say so now, but we thought to ourselves, this man is probably a Nat; let's destroy him. So I offered him a lift, and he accepted. We asked if he wanted another drink, and he said he did. But then he added: "What I'd really like is a black woman."

Well, we saw our opportunity. We said we'd arrange it, but what we had in mind was arranging a photographer, too.

We persuaded a woman to play along, assuring her we would not allow anything to happen, and raced over to the Sunday Express, where the night editor was very excited about the story. The prosecutor was very drunk by now, but we got our picture, and then took him home. First thing the next morning, I went out to Orlando to tell Mandela about our coup.

I didn't expect what he had to say. "Agreed, he is a prosecutor," Madiba said, "and he may even be a Nat. But he's a good chap, as a prosecutor."

It turned out that this man had shown some understanding for the accused in the trial, and that had made an impression on Madiba. Joe Slovo and Harold Wolpe, both lawyers, agreed with him. So, with Slovo, I went back to the Sunday Express and asked them to destroy the pictures, which they did.

I was, of course, disappointed that we were not able to destroy this man. But, in retrospect, and thanks to the maturity of Mandela, Slovo and Wolpe, we did not. Their advice was correct.

This kind of response to individuals comes up over and over again in the records of Mandela's dealings with people: his magnanimity and his willingness to see each individual in his or her own right.

In political matters, he was unhesitatingly selfless. I witnessed this as a fellow accused in the three big trials of the 1950s and 1960s, the Defiance Campaign trial, the marathon Treason Trial and, finally, the Rivonia Trial. There followed the long years of imprisonment, years in which those of us who were with him witnessed time and again his courage, foresight and wisdom.

Then, in 1986, Mandela was taken away and kept alone, away from us. Instinctively, we wanted to protest, but he told us - not in these words - cool it, chaps. As new developments came to light, it became clear that Madiba had made up his mind it was time to take the initiative in talking to the enemy. Of course, he expected opposition from us, and did not want it. He wanted to present us with a fait accompli.

And when he was eventually allowed to see us, one by one, two of the four agreed with him. Walter Sisulu hesitated, and I was entirely against. Madiba, of course, was right. When the news spread that Madiba had been isolated from the four of us, first at Pollsmoor (from 1986 until 1988) and then at Victor Verster prison, near Franschhoek, from 1988 to 1990, it gave rise to rumours, both in the country and abroad.

Some within South Africa went as far as suggesting that he was selling out, and cautioned against visiting him. But in response to an enquiry from the ANC leadership in exile, Madiba explained that all he was trying to do was to persuade the enemy to start talking to the leadership in exile. Through this, and smuggled messages to the leadership, the air was cleared, and he was given the go-ahead.

The fact is that he had foreseen the moment, the possibilities, and must have known others had not. And so, understanding what it meant - not for him, or not him alone, but the people - he acted alone. It was the masterstroke of a visionary, and it changed everything. It was, you might say, a truly heroic impulse.

Ahmed Kathrada, who was imprisoned with Mandela, is chairman of the board of the Robben Island Museum