Mandela, My Countryman
By Nadine Gordimer, New Yorker
To have lived one’s life at the same time, and in the same natal country, as Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was a guidance and a privilege we South Africans shared. I also knew the privilege of becoming one of his friends. I met him in 1964, during the Rivonia Trial, when he was being tried for acts of sabotage against the government, and I was present in court when he was sentenced to life imprisonment.
In 1979, I wrote a novel, “Burger’s Daughter,” on the theme of the family life of revolutionaries’ children, a life ruled by their parents’ political faith and the daily threat of imprisonment. I don’t know how the book, which was banned in South Africa when it was published, was smuggled to Mandela in Robben Island Prison. But he, the most exigent reader I could have hoped for, wrote me a letter of deep, understanding acceptance about the book.
Even when there was no news of him publicly, and no sense of what he must be thinking or planning for the continuation of the struggle to end apartheid, we had his statements, the public speeches that he had made while he had been physically present with us. For a spirit like his, “walls do not a prison make”; his spirit could not be in the custody of apartheid. We could still feel his political intellect. I was able to keep in touch with Mandela during that time, thanks to the remarkable George Bizos, his more-than-lawyer, who stayed close to him even at the distance of Robben Island.
In 1985, the apartheid President P. W. Botha offered Mandela his freedom if he unconditionally renounced all violence as a political instrument. Mandela’s reply was read out by his daughter Zindzi, at a huge stadium in Soweto: “Let him renounce violence. Let him say that he will dismantle apartheid. Let him unban the people’s organization, the African National Congress. . . . I cannot and will not give any undertaking at a time when I and you, the people, are not free.”
Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, his wife then, for whom he could not conceal his passionate love, was allowed only highly restricted visits to him, until he had been moved from Robben Island, in 1982, to a prison built for common-law prisoners on the Cape Town mainland. Finally, in 1990, Nelson Mandela was to be seen freed, hand in hand with his wife.
In 1990, President F. W. de Klerk, a very different kind of realist, saw that apartheid was a spent force, and lifted the ban on the A.N.C. and its allies and affiliates, and released the remaining political prisoners. I was somewhat disbelieving when George Bizos told me that Mandela, newly freed, wanted to see me. I suppose I thought, with a writer’s vanity, that the great man wanted to talk about “Burger’s Daughter.”
We were alone in Johannesburg, some few days later. It was not about my book that he spoke but about his discovering, on the first day of his freedom, that Winnie Mandela had a lover. This devastation was not made public until their divorce, six years later. I have never before told of it, because I believe that the depths of his sacrifice, the strength that he fearlessly revealed in the way that he lived, was not only for his political ethos. His was a way of living for the freedom of others.
The Convention for a Democratic South Africa, or CODESA, which first met the following year, was held in a building called the World Trade Centre, but there was a need for private discussion among the A.N.C. participants. There were life-and-death bargains to be struck, under the supreme leadership of Mandela, who was ready to listen to what was now the people’s power against the heavily armed apartheid forces, financed by Western allies. Along with the A.N.C., the leading comrades from the different fields of battle were the South African Communist Party, the Pan Africanist Congress, and the Inkatha Freedom Party, each with particular notions of how a democracy should be created. Their members had to find places to meet that were safe from de Klerk’s eavesdroppers. One A.N.C. leader sought out the house of my husband, Reinhold Cassirer, and me, in a white suburb of Johannesburg, as a meeting place. Of course, we were not party to what was said. I brought a tea tray onto the veranda, where the group gathered several times. Mandela was among them only once. I didn’t eavesdrop. CODESA itself was fully reported on and analyzed in the press, including in the Afrikaans papers, which swallowed hard, trying to bear with the unbelievable process out of loyalty to the apartheid leaders involved.
Mandela was—no—not then an icon to black South Africans and whites who had been in the struggle. Some Afrikaners who now condemned the racist regime were guiltily relieved, hoping for some compromise of power that would quiet the world’s condemnation of apartheid.
Mandela: not a figure carved in stone but a tall man, of flesh and blood, whose suffering had made him not vengeful but still more human—even toward the people who had created the prison that was apartheid. He was to be seen talking naturally with those who had cordoned off millions of black South Africans from taking a citizen’s part in their country. As CODESA continued, the negotiations stalled, threatened at one point by a violent standoff, between police and a group of apartheid extremists, at the entrance of the building where the talks were in session. CODESA concluded months later, in a deadlock. Its best achievement was surely paving the way for the new Constitution, establishing equal rights for all people in South Africa.
When it was announced that Nelson Mandela was to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, in 1993, the joy among some of us was slightly diminished by the Nobel committee’s decision to award the prize to F. W. de Klerk as well. There would be one ceremony in Oslo for both recipients. I was invited, along with George Bizos, to be in Mandela’s entourage. We travelled to Sweden with him and other A.N.C. leaders, and we had the unforgettable experience of seeing him receive the honor.
After the ceremony, we had another kind of experience. As part of Mandela’s entourage, we stood on a balcony of the hotel where all of us, including Madiba (as Mandela was known), were staying. We saw him being celebrated by a huge crowd of people, Scandinavians and others, all singing and chanting A.N.C. freedom songs. It was an ecstatic celebration. George and I noticed de Klerk and his wife standing on an adjoining balcony, and we were not able to credit what we saw next. The de Klerks turned their backs on the joyous crowd in the street below and retreated inside the hotel. Had de Klerk just realized that the songs were not for him?
During the last years of Madiba’s life, I visited him occasionally in the large, elegantly comfortable house that had been given to him in an affluent suburb of Johannesburg. George and I would have breakfast with him there. He rose late, a concession to old age, so it was more like a brunch. He presided at his usual seat at table, the head of the house. From an adjoining kitchen, friendly staff would bring out a lavish selection of simple food. Mandela would be shown this dish and that, for his questions and directions. Breakfast was his favorite meal, and it was his hour for receiving people.
After we ate, we would go to the living room, where Madiba sat in a special chair. Now and then, he reached for and held George’s hand. George had been with him during the trials, not just in the courts but in other situations. After Mandela had made me welcome, clasping my hand in his large, strong-fingered one, he asked George about various A.N.C. comrades who had been with him in and out of prison. He pressed for news, sometimes giving a laugh or offering a reflective comment at George’s replies.
What is missing in the general view of Mandela is his wit, his quick humor in surprising circumstances. In 1998, he married Graça Machel, a warrior in the war that was won against Portuguese colonial rule in Mozambique and the widow of Samora Machel, the President of Mozambique, who was killed in a plane crash allegedly engineered by apartheid-supporting South Africans. So Machel was a woman who had married two Presidents. At the end of the wedding ceremony, after the “I do’s” and wild congratulations, she announced that she would keep the surname Machel. Mandela, asked how he felt about this, replied, “I’m glad she didn’t want me to take her name.”
His depth of human understanding has been demonstrated in many ways. I was with Mandela in his house once when his daughter Zindzi, the younger of the two children he had with Winnie, dropped in. Father and daughter embraced, and he asked what she would like—something to eat, perhaps? She replied regretfully that she couldn’t stay—her mother was in the car waiting for her. Madiba lifted his head and shoulders, insisting, “Go and bring her in!” A few minutes later, Winnie came into the room, the smiling, welcome guest of a man with whom she had shared an unfailing love through the prisons and partings of that other marriage, the struggle for the liberation of South Africa.