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Madiba and me

This is a guest post by Ami

There is a line in the excellent Scottsboro Boys which I saw last weekend that had particular resonance at this time. The beaming New York lawyer has some words of encouragement for the anxious boys on death row. The good news is: “you are making a lot of people up North feel good about themselves.”

When asked last Thursday night to do a post for Harry’s Place about the passing of Mandela, I demurred, anticipating with dread the tsunami of words in which any contribution by me could only end up sounding banal and cliched, and I didn’t feel up to making people feel good about themselves.

I never met Mandela, although I worked for the firm of attorneys who were Mandela’s closest legal and personal advisors for many decades in the Struggle and into the New South Africa. (Until they latterly fell into extreme disfavour over allegations that the head of the firm misused funds from one of the money spinning Mandela artworks ventures. He has since got revenge by representing one faction of the heirs in accusations of maladministration against another ancient retainer, a loyal and trusted senior advocate. )

My husband DH, an advocate who made several visits to Robben Island in the course of his representing Mandela, is alas one of those tightlipped Bletchley Park-carry-the secrets -to- the- grave types, governed by principles of legal confidentiality. All I can glean is that the consultations were austere occasions devoted to the legal business at hand, with a regal demeanour conveying that the services rendered were Mandela’s due, nothing more and nothing less.

(Mandela’s mystique during his incarceration was enhanced by the prohibition of any photos of him. DH secured the acquittal of one activist on a charge of possession of a calender displaying his photo, by successfully arguing the Prosecution couldn’t prove it was Mandela’s photo as there were none to say what Mandela looked like.) “You won’t find people who really knew him, like P, spouting on in public”, DH harrumphed.

I googled P, a legal colleague and dear comrade who was also close to Mandela. True, I found no statements by her; only a flurry of entries on specialist auction sites of several of her Mandela memorabilia, such as a brief note to her from Robben Island. (She must be kicking herself at the timing: this went for a record $10,500 just 2 weeks before he died.)

So no twinkly anecdotes, then.

We left South Africa in 1988 when things looked bleak, so never shared first hand the euphoria of the early days of the new era.

I tried to mine the experience of friends with whom I had shared the uphill years. One described how she attended a huge gathering addressed by Mandela at Wits University just a few days after he was freed. She was taken aback at the belligerent way he responded to awkward questions from journalists about his association with people like Arafat et al. His response ranged from: you people are not going to tell us who to associate with, you don’t know what you are talking about, or just plain “Shut up!”

I heard from another how her colleague on Codesa (the Constitutional negotiations) said how when Mandela came in and shifted his glasses to the end of his nose, their hearts sank at what crackpot notion he would now propose, such as giving 14 year olds the vote. (It took a great deal of arm-twisting as he stubbornly persisted with that one.)

And yet, from this apparently rancid anthology emerges Mandela’s great Virtue, in the strict Roman sense which he admired. He had to school himself, with discipline, a word he used often, to attain the self control and other attributes of Virtue which did not come naturally to him, until he had fully internalised them. This was not hypocrisy: Virtue is about public conduct, not the private sphere. As David Beresford says in his superb obit, the best among the plethora: “Mandela saw the need, donned the mask that the role demanded and gave his life for his people. There lies his greatness..”

From Beresford to Bathos: my dread was amply fulfilled. Prize for most Solopsistic Response incorporating Bathos goes to Lily Cole, for “Mission Impossible: Lily Cole’s life lessons from Nelson Mandela” in the Evening Standard:

“I was walking around the art fair when I received a text to say Nelson Mandela had passed away. The news took my breath away The next day on the hotel lobby mirror was scrawled his infamous quote: ‘It always seems impossible until it is done.’”

Seems a Cambs double first in art history is no guarantee you can use the word infamous correctly.

Huffington Post carried a breathless account headed The Day I Was Supposed to Meet Nelson Mandela. He was due to appear at a dinner for Black Leaders in London, but unfortunately was ill. But the writer did get to meet Naomi Campbell and Ian Wright.

Hey! I can do that: DH and I were flown out as guests to the inaugural banquet of South Africa’s first black chief justice, a very dear friend, mentor and colleague. He was loath to take on the post , as it would mean living in the judicial capital, Bloemfontein, the heartland of apartheid, which held many traumatic memories for him, but he couldn’t ignore the call, coming as it did at Mandela’s urgent behest. Arriving at the Judge’s chambers from the airport our first visit in the new SA, my first introduction to the new spirit was the excitement of the Judge’s personal assistant, an Afrikaans woman, as she greeted us with the news that “Our Pressident will be there tonight!” Alas, the President called in sick. I read later in a small item in the paper that he in fact attended a minor local event at the time he was meant to be at the banquet.

I won’t name the author of that piece as someone indignantly told me she is a very inspiring person from Zimbabwe who does good works. I still think her next project is ill judged: An anthology of what Mandela means to random people. But the burden of meaning he carries is impossible for any human being to sustain. He becomes a Rorschach blot, to be hitched to any passing bandwagon (if you can hitch a blot to a bandwagon). There is a problem even with qualified hagiography: “He had his flaws, but outweighed by his greatness.”

One person’s inspiration is another person’s flaw: Mehdi Hassan finds flaws, but thinks Mandela’s attack on America and Israel is what is wonderful about him:

David Beresford again: “Sometimes Mandela was like a stage magician, forced to perform by his followers’ passionate belief that he was the real thing”. But as Beresford concluded, there was a life and death need for this illusion. I can also see the utility of this kind of “inspiration” for people like Joyce Banda, President of Malawi, who said at the memorial ceremony how she drew on this when faced with having to work in coalition with people who had tried to assassinate her.

Peace does not ensue effortlessly from “inspiration” It requires schooling: The phrase is Lo yilmedu od milchama; most aptly translated as ain’t gonna study war no more.

Unless then you had a personal stake in the outcome of the risks which South Africa took, or are facing dilemmas in the cause of a greater good like Banda’s; if “inspiration” means nothing more costly than a warm fuzzy thumbs up to this rare instance in the hard world where personal bitterness was subsumed, then I can’t see the point of a book about what Mandela “means” to you.

Am I being the Grinch who stole the fuzzy feeling? Coveting for an elite few the right to be moved by Mandela? Facile inspiration matters because there comes a time when symbolism is not enough. It becomes a detriment to the country. Charles van Onselen, a contemporary firebrand on campus as I recall him, is now a renowned historian. He says:

Perhaps people learnt the wrong things from Mandela, There was so much symbolism; indeed Mandela was almost nothing but symbolism.
“And there were so many anniversaries to celebrate — Sharpeville the Treason Trial ..
“The ANC loved nothing better than such symbolic celebration. So they got used to living in a sort of fairyland where people could be appointed to key jobs — which they couldn’t do — because they were symbolic. The result has been a complete dissociation between merit and achievement or appointment, with many of the most competent people put out of jobs because they’ve got the wrong skin colour. You can’t really run a complex society like that.

So how can I make this all about Mandela and Me? Well, I do remember where I was when I heard the News. I was in disputation with a commenter on this site about the AMA boycott.

He cited “black South Africans I knew while I was living in Israel who thought that things were worse there than under apartheid in South Africa”. I asked in what way, and whether they were old enough to have experienced apartheid themselves. He didn’t know, admitting he didn’t know these people very well. I responded:

Replying to you was eclipsed by the news of the death of Madiba last night. ..I did listen all night to the vox pops from SA and one voice in particular called out to me, a black man grateful to Mandela for being delivered from the years of suffering. His voice was intense with anguish: No one who was not there, he cried, can have any idea of the nature of our suffering under apartheid; nothing can compare with it. And I thought of the black South Africans in Israel whom you cited. You have since backtracked, saying they prove nothing but you are the one who raised their relevance. Now it seems you didn’t even meet them, as you have no idea how old they are. But I am guessing they are too young to have known the suffering of the man giving testimony last night. Please, out of respect for the millions this man gave voice to, do not belittle, diminish or compare their unique suffering with the Palestinian situation. Do not use the word apartheid for other contexts. It is an insult to those who experienced it. Deal with the problems in Israel/Palestine on its own terms. Do not apply glib analogies and seek similar remedies, like boycotts, which in any event, any serious study will show you was not the cause of the dismantling of the Apartheid state.