Like many others, I have appropriated Mandela as my own

Not once in the long years on Robben Island did he bend to the will of his captors

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As a small boy in 1950s South Africa I lived with my family not far from Alexandra Township, which was home to Nelson Mandela when he first came to the Transvaal. Alex, as it was called, is about six miles from the centre of Johannesburg, although very close to the upmarket district of Sandton.

At the time Sandton sported a drag hunt – with riders in full hunting garb – and a polo club. Less than two miles away, Alex was a crowded, unsanitary slum, which few white people ever visited.

In 1957, urged on by Mandela in one of his first forays into direct action, the inhabitants of Alex boycotted the bus service into the centre of town after the fares were raised by one penny. The boycotters walked the six miles each way for months.

I remember seeing them in their tens of thousands – always, in my memory, under a haze of wood smoke rising from the township – and being impressed that many sympathetic white people were giving them lifts into town.

This protest, so close to home, made a huge impression on me, both because of the human kindness on display, and because of the sight of the endless river of protesters – flowing, unstoppably, towards town. It presaged what was going to happen all over the country. Some months later the bus company capitulated. The Black Pimpernel, as the newspaper my father worked for later dubbed Mandela, had won his first battle. From that day on, Mandela was a part of me.

Seven years later – in 1964 – Mandela began his prison sentence on Robben Island after being convicted of “sabotage”. I knew little of the detail of his life in the jail, but I never forgot him because he seemed to represent South Africa’s only hope. To see this windswept, flat and forbidding outcrop of land, just a few miles off Cape Town where I was at boarding school, was impossibly poignant. When I left for England and Oxford as a young man, Mandela was still in Robben Island and he would remain there a long time. I thought he might eventually die out there in the  Atlantic – so close yet so far.

All my life in South Africa the “political” situation was endlessly discussed, although my only attempt at radical action was farcical: with some friends I tried – drunk – to destroy a pylon with a large spanner.

I left South Africa in 1965 with great relief; arriving in Oxford I felt as though I had woken up in heaven. I had no intention of joining the closed systems of the ANC or the Communist Party which were the destinations of choice of my more radical friends, and to this day it seems to me that the absurd reverence for the jargon of comrades and cadres and the movement and the struggle obscures the simple truth that politics is not the purpose of life but a necessary compromise.

When I spent a week at the Truth and  Reconciliation Commission in 1996, I saw the appalling effects of ideology at first hand; I found it almost impossible to listen to the testaments of brutality that were delivered. They were truly heartbreaking. And I believe that in his soul Mandela was never an  ideologue, but a man who believed in fairness and equality before dogma.

Looking back on Mandela’s life, there seem to me to be two absolutely crucial moments in it. His speech from the dock in 1964 was one of these. He spoke for four hours, closing with these words: “During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all  persons live together in harmony with equal opportunities. It is an idea which I hope to live for and achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

This speech is South Africa’s Gettysburg address. The words go straight to the heart of the matter, and they speak tellingly of  Mandela’s courage. His lawyers had asked him to modify what he said, for fear that it would goad the judge into passing the death sentence, but the only concession he made was to add the words “But if needs be.”

He and his colleagues were taken off to  Robben Island in handcuffs and leg irons. Leg irons are the emblem of the slave. In a way which was to repeat itself for the next two decades, Mandela was treated differently: when he arrived in the prison he was immediately in conflict with the authorities. He fought a long campaign against wearing the demeaning short trousers of black prisoners and he fought for uncensored mail and much more. He was a Xhosa chief, a well-educated man, a lawyer and the leader of a large section of the people; he was not going to be treated as a kitchen boy. From the start he demanded respect and dignity, not only for himself but for all his comrades.

Throughout his incarceration, Mandela suffered from agonies of guilt about his family, and particularly about his wife Winnie, whom he had lived with only briefly before going under cover. Winnie’s harassment by the police and her subsequent fall from grace played on his mind, as his letters show. He was also very concerned about his two daughters. When his son by his first wife died in a car crash, the regime refused him permission to go to the funeral. It was an act of intolerable cruelty.

But Mandela had understood very clearly that the Afrikaners were themselves trapped in a system from which there was no obvious exit – something my friend Frederik Van Zyl Slabbert, himself an Afrikaner, told me would lead to a revolution, years before it happened. Mandela became fascinated by the mentality of his oppressors, and took to reading  Afrikaans newspapers and practising his  Afrikaans on the warders.

Some of these warders came to admire him. When, near the end of his imprisonment, Winnie visited him, he made her a braai – a barbecue – an almost sacramental rite for the Afrikaner. Winnie was reported to be horrified. At his presidential inauguration in 1994 and at the Rugby World Cup hosted by South Africa the following year, Mandela demonstrated an uncanny, even cynical, understanding of how to play on the Afrikaners’ sensibilities. It was done, however, in the spirit of reconciliation.

The next highly symbolic moment in his life was his release from Victor Verster Prison in 1990, about 40 miles from Cape Town. For once the term “iconic” is justified; the whole world watched as the great man – unseen for 26 years except for one fragment of CCTV – emerged, tall, slender, and gracious, holding Winnie’s hand.

It was an extraordinary moment for  Mandela, but also a very sad one. Winnie was having an affair with a young lawyer and refused to give him up for Nelson. Nadine Gordimer told me that after he was established in Johannesburg, often alone in his big house at night, Mandela would call her and invite himself to dinner. He has said that he was the loneliest man on earth at that time.

What Mandela’s long walk before the television cameras symbolised was the idea that there could be resolution, that good could triumph, that the dignity of man could be realised.

He understood clearly, despite his decades in prison, the nature and the power of the symbolic; he was not going to allow any member of the government to release him; he was simply going to be seen walking out.

As he said during his trial: “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony, with equal opportunities.” To see Mandela emerge from prison entirely his own man was to believe that the new society had arrived; to see the world made new, to see the horrors of apartheid finally ended, to see the birth of a new – and rainbow – nation.

Mandela represented everything that the world at large expected from a leader, but rarely received.

Like many others, I have appropriated Mandela as my own. This is a strange phenomenon, almost religious, suggesting that there has been some transubstantiation from Mandela to his people. South Africans have drawn enormous comfort from having a  personal relationship – however imaginary – with Mandela. But the fact was that  Mandela’s charm, wit and readiness to embrace non-racialism endeared him to the world: he had become that strange creature in history, the necessary figure.

And sadly it is the ANC itself which has brought the dream of “a society in which all persons live together in harmony with equal opportunities” to an end. South Africa and all of us who took inspiration from this remarkable, irreplaceable man need now more than ever to honour his precepts. Today I feel a terrible sadness. We are all diminished.

Justin Cartwright is the author of 18 works of fiction and non-fiction, and has been shortlisted for both the Booker Prize and Whitbread Novel Prize.

Boyd Tonkin is away

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