At the time of the 2010 Fifa World Cup, just before Nelson Mandela’s last major public appearance, a book was released that purported to separate the Madiba myth from the Madiba reality. If anything, this book served only to solidify the former president’s reputation. And so the recent revelation of his R1-million payment to Jacob Zuma has left nary a scratch. By KEVIN BLOOM.
David James Smith’s book Young Mandela, released in South Africa in June 2010, had as one of its central conceits the damage inflicted on the Mandela family as a result of its patriarch’s complete devotion to the anti-Apartheid cause. The book attempted to address the heartache at the core of both of Nelson Mandela’s families, the one he formed with his first wife Evelyn Mase and the one he formed with Winnie, but it’s most controversial aspect was by far the revelation that he may have physically abused Evelyn. This excruciating possibility, alluded to in divorce papers that Evelyn submitted to the Native Divorce Court in 1956, was not something that Smith came upon by accident. He learnt of the papers’ existence from employees of the Nelson Mandela Foundation (NMF).
The obvious question was this: what in the world would the NMF have to gain by giving such documents to an author who was known to be writing a book about a supremely sensitive time in Madiba’s life? One answer, suggested by Anthony Butler in the Business Day, was that the foundation was ordered to do so by Madiba himself. “Mandela always demonstrated great awareness about the significance of his own reputation,” wrote Butler. “Perhaps this great servant of his country has decided that the time has come to bring his own sainthood to an end?”
It was a compelling proposition, particularly because its genesis could be traced back to a series of pleas and statements that came from Mandela’s mouth – time and again, the liberation hero had insisted that he was an ordinary mortal, prone to mistakes that no saint would make. Still, if Butler was onto something, the strategy failed to take hold.
Despite Smith’s conclusion in his book that there must have been “some credence” to Evelyn Mase’s allegations – which included the claim that Mandela once threatened to kill her with an axe – the exalted image of the former South African president suffered no damage. If anything confirmed this truth, it was Madiba’s appearance at the Fifa World Cup Final a month after Smith’s book hit shelves. It will be remembered that even though Mandela was in mourning for the loss of a great-granddaughter, Fifa, according to his grandson, paid no attention to family customs and traditions, and put “extreme pressure” on him to attend.
Point being, Fifa wouldn’t have bothered to show such disregard for the feelings of a grieving old man had that old man’s reputation not been something Fifa desperately needed to attach to its own brand. So what if it was alleged that the person driving the car in which Zenani (Mandela’s great-granddaughter) had died was drunk? So what if Justin Cartwright noted in the Guardian that this detail, relating as it did to the affairs of the most famous man on Earth, “beggared belief”? So what if there was a different side to the young Mandela, a side that revealed a compulsive wanderer with a taste for fame? Fifa didn’t care. All Fifa knew was that the billions watching the World Cup Final on TV wanted to see a living legend.
As for South Africa, there were more subtle forces working to maintain the saintliness of the Mandela name. Both Mark Gevisser and Gillian Slovo, writers deeply intimate with the secrets of the pre-liberation ANC, panned Smith’s book for the reason that in attempting to separate the Mandela myth from the Mandela reality, it was guilty of the same evil it purported to dispel: sensationalism.
“Young Mandela provides its own fascination,” wrote Slovo, “not least because of the man himself and his world, which the author sometimes convincingly evokes. But its fascination with the very celebrity it pretends to scorn leaves a sour taste.”
Although in the same vein, Gevisser’s final pronouncement on the book went a bit further: “Ultimately, despite his strong research and laudable intentions, Smith falls into the mythbuster’s trap. Some people ‘won’t hear a word against’ Mandela, he writes, and so sets himself the task of finding all the ‘words against’ he can. In so doing, he sometimes loses sight of the primary reason for biography, which is to make sense of a life within its times, and to bring us closer to understanding its subject.”
The important thing about Smith, of course, is that his book managed to get reviewed by the likes of Slovo and Gevisser. For every Young Mandela, there are dozens of manuscripts, running the gamut from slightly critical to insanely conspiratorial, which will never see the light of day. The record sum fetched at the 2009 Frankfurt Book Fair for Conversations with Myself, a literary album containing personal snippets from Mandela’s life, remains the bellwether in the publishing industry – so-called exposés tend not to make it past the slush pile.
And it’s tough to argue that this isn’t as it should be. When you’ve ridden out the storms thrown at you by the Apartheid government, over-ambitious biographers, and your own family – when you have yourself insisted that your reputation is too outsized and unsullied to be sustainable – then, like it or not, you have probably arrived at the same heavenly level as the saints.
In this context, the revelation in the Mail & Guardian last Friday, demonstrating beyond doubt that in 2005 Mandela bailed out Jacob Zuma to the tune of R1 million, was never going to leave so much as a scratch. All the UK Guardian had to say about the disclosure was that it was a “surprise intervention”. William Gumede dismissed the payment as a “personal favour” designed to get Zuma to “clean up his act,” and Justice Malala, a political columnist not known for pulling his punches, said: “I think [Mandela] felt sorry for Zuma. Many people felt that Mbeki handled the firing of Zuma badly. They would much rather that it had been done in the family way.”
Other than that, a news search for “Zuma and Mandela” on Monday afternoon showed only that the president had visited the former president in hospital, and wished him well. Not counting a handful of misguided outliers, so do the rest of us. DM