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When heroes have gone from among us

South Africa

South Africa

When heroes have gone from among us

As South Africa learns to live without Nelson Mandela, J BROOKS SPECTOR looks back on the life of an extraordinary man – and tries to make sense of a world without him.

WHEN lilacs last in the door-yard bloom’d,

And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,

I mourn’d—and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring….

— Walt Whitman (1865)

How to measure, to embrace, to understand the greatness in a man once he is gone is a challenge that confronts us in every age. In 1865, American poet Walt Whitman had been deeply moved by the assassination of Abraham Lincoln on 15 April – just as the Northern victory in the American Civil War had been assured. Whitman had spent the war years as a nurse, coping with the near-Sisyphean task of aiding the tens of thousands of wounded soldiers who had streamed into the ad hoc hospitals using Washington DC’s government buildings.

In the first moments of mourning after Lincoln’s sudden death, Whitman had written of his heart-breaking loss in the poem, “O Captain, My Captain”. Then, weeks later, he wrote a more contemplative work, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” In speaking to an age more sentimental than our own more cynical time, Whitman drew upon the annual flowering of lilacs – the traditional flowers of mourning – to help his readers share the poet’s sense of Lincoln’s final sacrifice in the cause of freedom. Like Nelson Mandela, Abraham Lincoln had been the central figure in the moral re-creation of a nation and a society – moving it upward on the ladder of human freedom and dignity.

But unlike Lincoln who was gone even before reaching sixty, Mandela was past seventy years of age when he had his chance for immortality. And unlike Lincoln, Mandela had the luxury to enter his own promised land, following those long years of isolation and imprisonment. He eventually became South Africa’s first democratically elected president and then, he could ease into his long, dignified retirement as an increasingly beloved, internationally respected, elder, world statesman. He was appreciated, even revered around the world as a living symbol of what could be achieved on behalf of the human spirit.

Finally, he metamorphosed into an almost-mute, unassailable symbol of his own considerable achievement. Mandela’s eventual good fortune stands in contrast to the lives of figures like Abraham Lincoln, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr, or even Moses – all of whom had only been allowed to glimpse the possibilities of their respective promised lands from a scenic overlook, but never permitted to enter and savour their actual triumphs.

In the first moments after the announcement of Nelson Mandela’s passing, as that message reached around the globe, the outpouring from the powerful and the powerless, the mighty and the meek, became stunning in its intensity – like a river whose force had been pent up. The encomiums are too numerous to repeat here. Some of these words will have been the formulaic – foreign ministries all have prepared statements ready for just such occasions. But the words have come from everywhere and everybody else as well. And they will keep coming for months yet to come. There will be a stream of scholarships, roads, bridges, buildings and museums in his name still to come. But it will still be a long time before we have fully measured the gaping hole he has left behind – and it will come back again and again whenever we contemplate an issue and we think aloud – what would Mandela have said about this?

But those expressions of national and international grief that have come from everywhere in the wake of Nelson Mandela’s passing also allow the writer to think back to a half century ago, when another American president, John Kennedy also fell to an assassin’s bullet in 1963. Unlike Nelson Mandela, or even Lincoln, Kennedy was still in youthful middle age, only three years into his only presidential term.

With Kennedy’s death, as with Lincoln’s, Whitman’s words once again symbolised the cutting down of still another national leader. Any American who was beyond the cradle on that day can still recall exactly where they were, and what they were doing, when the news reached them John Kennedy was suddenly no longer their president.

This writer was in his high school algebra class, wrestling with the mystery of simultaneous equations, when there was an announcement over the intercom that the president had been shot in Dallas, Texas. Silence. Then a second announcement – the school buses would take all students home, now that the president was dead. What else could we do; where else should we be at this time of nation tragedy?

In the days that followed, people across the nation moved as if in a dreamscape. Some stayed glued to the images from their televisions and radio stations played sombre, wistful, soulful music, even on the pop stations. On the three national television networks there was but one program, and it ran from morning till night. The route of that fatal Dallas motorcade was repeated and explained, over and over again. And then it was Kennedy’s casket lying in state in the rotunda of the US Capitol building. There was the funeral procession with the rider-less horse, its rider’s boots symbolically inserted backwards in the stirrups; the burial at Arlington National Cemetery; and Kennedy’s three-year-old son’s poignant farewell salute.

All of this came unrelentingly via the television, day after day, as a nation was immersed in a numb, shared grief. And the astonishment and shock of a political assassination would be repeated again, and then yet again, after the deaths of the president’s brother, Senator Robert Kennedy, and then civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. within the next five years.

As the years have moved on, despite the stories that have come out about Kennedy’s personal frailties, the legend of that new Camelot on the Potomac that had ended before its time has only grown larger as the years pass. As with Abraham Lincoln, books and memorabilia on John Kennedy continue to pour forth to satisfy a deep thirst by an ever-eager public anxious to share, somehow, in the glories, legacies and legends of these heroes.

And now Nelson Mandela has joined this litany as the latest figure on a a roster that is part of humanity’s shared need for figures worthy of emulation and respect from our history. In years to come, beyond the flood of books, films, television series, and multi-media products that will pour forth, the tangible sites associated with Nelson Mandela – his homes, his offices, the courtrooms where he was tried, and the spot where he was arrested – will all become places of secular, civic veneration.

There will be many more songs and dramas added to a litany that already ranges from the songs Jacob Zuma led at the ANC’s National Conference to Jerry Dammers’ “Free Nelson Mandela”, Johnny Clegg’s “Asimbonanga” and Brenda Fassie’s “My Black President”, and on to that wonderfully evocative opera, “The Mandela Trilogy”. And these are just the beginning of a flood that is yet to fully break upon us.

And yet, there were also those years when Nelson Mandela’s name barely drew a ripple of recognition, at least publicly. Back in the 1950s and 60s, he was a man on the rise, a man to watch, regardless of whether one was black or white. His law practice attracted hundreds of clients who invested their hopes in his solving the personal tragedies apartheid inflicted on them, through his skills and persuasiveness. He was a genuine page-one, A-list personality whose face, words and deeds often filled the pages of publications like the popular “Drum” magazine. He was seen out and around with attractive women and he seemed clearly marked for some as-yet-undefined-but-great height.

His overwhelming political and intellectual presence – especially in the Treason Trial and then in the Rivonia Trial that followed a few years later – literally dominated the news, the conversations, the rumours and the hopes of many millions – and made international headlines as well. He was an avenging angel, the African Scarlet Pimpernel and the new Moses rolled into one.

And then came the dark. Sentenced to life imprisonment, isolated behind bars, his writings banned, his image scoured from public viewing, Nelson Mandela slowly faded from view and attention, save among close friends, relatives and former colleagues now scattered in exile – his very name taking on a wraithlike, half-remembered presence. By the time of the revolutionary events of the Soweto Uprising in 1976, the new heroes and must-reads of this new generation were the Black Consciousness hero-ideologues, South African, American and Caribbean writers, thinkers and ideologues like Bantu Stephen Biko, H Rap Brown, Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael and Franz Fanon. In that new liberation canon, at least initially, there seemed little room for the presumed philosophical leftovers from an earlier age – whose ideas and ideals had been so fuelled by the words of Nelson Mandela’s “Statement from the Dock” in the Rivonia Trial.

Meanwhile, in prison, the long, pained years ticked by for Nelson Mandela, first on Robben Island, then eventually in Pollsmoor and Victor Verster prisons. As a man, his letters and diaries attest he was deeply troubled by the impact his incarceration – and thus his absence – had had on his family. He couldn’t protect, guide, shelter or advise them – except via the pages of the infrequent, censored letter he could send to them, or the rare family visits to that island prison.

Eventually, as the government began its effort to entice Mandela into dealing with them directly in the later 1980s, Mandela’s jailors took to driving him around Cape Town on the sly. On at least one occasion, he has described a time when his escorts left him in the car unguarded while they wandered off to find a grocery store to buy snacks and soft drinks. It was, he wrote, an extraordinary moment for the prisoner when he realised he could simply open the door and slip away, but then just as quickly to have realised he had no idea where he could go, who he could seek shelter from, what he would do when – and if – he had left that car. That must have been a moment of rueful astonishment – his tormentors were courting him even as his escape from his unguarded golden cage had effectively turned impossible.

Along the way, however, instead of breaking his spirit, those long years of prison gave birth to a new, harder, toughened, heat-tempered Nelson Mandela in contrast to the flashy attorney/politician/man-about-town older people remembered from the 1950s and 60s. There is the story, for example, that while in the depths of his prison, Mandela was pursuing a post-graduate law degree by correspondence. A course in legal Latin was a requirement for the program and Mandela corresponded with UNISA registration officials, insisting he should be exempted from this antiquated requirement by virtue of his previous studies at Wits University. Or as Mandela had written to the university administrators in a letter to them in 1987:

I hereby apply for exemption from Latin 1 on the following grounds: Although I obtained a pass in this subject in the 1938 matriculation examinations, and in spite of the fact that I passed a special course in the same subject at the University of the Witwatersrand in 1944, I have forgotten practically everything about it. If I am compelled to attempt the course, I will have to start right from the beginning. At the age of 69 years this will be a very difficult undertaking indeed. I am a qualified attorney, having practiced as such for nine years prior to my arrest and conviction. If I decided to resume practice as an attorney, I would not be required first to obtain a degree course in Latin. In actual fact, I have no intention of ever practicing law again either as an attorney or as an advocate. Even if I had intended practicing law at some time in future, I am not likely ever to do so, since I am serving a sentence of life imprisonment. If you grant this application I propose to register for African Politics in place of Latin 1.”

It must be a rare political prisoner who, twenty-five years into a life sentence in prison and already past the age of retirement for most people, and when acceptance of his unfortunate reality has set in firmly, still demonstrates how much he was steeling himself for the hard years of negotiations still five years ahead, but that could only be dimly glimpsed on a distant horizon. Instead of acquiesce, those long years in prison seemed to have burned away the non-essentials and prepared this prisoner for the struggle that was ahead.

But by the late 1980s, newspapers were once again finding courage to bootleg pictures of Mandela, or rather, an artist’s interpretation of what he would look like after a quarter of a century in prison, onto their printed pages. While South Africans could not see them on their television sets, the rest of the world had begun to erupt with demonstrations, protests and mass concerts as part of the anti-Apartheid and free Mandela campaigns. US President Barack Obama has frequently spoken and written about how Mandela’s imprisonment and related anti-Apartheid activism on American university campuses was his own formative political activity – just as it became for so many other Americans, British, Australians and New Zealanders in their trade unions, at their schools, and in community activism. By 1985, The New York Times could write about him, “Nelson Mandela has been in prison since 1962 and has become, through incarceration and steadfast defiance from within the prison walls, South Africa’s leading black hero, the man, according to a recent newspaper survey, whom 90 percent of the nation’s black people want unconditionally freed.”

By the end of that decade, even in South Africa, it had become clear to most that Mandela’s release from prison was the crucial linch-pin for any negotiated settlement of South Africa’s political travails. Even though he was still in prison, one suddenly began to see banners, T-shirts and posters emblazoned with Nelson Mandela’s face – or portions of it, so as to be just, just within the law. Somewhere in my own family’s clothes closets, even now, there is a shirt entitled “Half Nelson”. It has a dozen pictures of precisely half of that iconic face, in squares fluttering down from shoulder. In those days, it was worn proudly to many political and non-political events alike to demonstrate solidarity with the man still behind the bars.

By the time it was all over, after the victory parades in South Africa, the triumphal trips abroad, the hard slog through the negotiations, the final victory lap and then the actual governing, Mandela the man had turned into an icon for many of a genial approach to world peace. There were civil and human rights campaigns in persecuted societies to support, children’s projects a home to sponsor. A photo with Nelson Mandela became the most sought after photograph for any politician’s brag wall – even years after Mandela had stepped down from the presidency, Cincinnatus-like, shrugging off all who whispered encouragement to him to stay in charge forever if he so chose.

A story. A decade ago, while eating lunch in a Johannesburg shopping mall, this writer happened to look up and see Mandela himself, walking in and out of the stores, together with just one bodyguard, apparently searching for a special present for someone. A birthday? A graduation?…. Meanwhile, another American, who was due to depart from South Africa in a week, holding her baby, asked me if that man was the man she thought he was. When I said, yes, it was; she asked if I thought it would be acceptable if she approached him to greet him and congratulate him on his work. I replied to her that rather than just shake his hand, she buy one of those portable cameras and then ask him if she could capture the moment with him and with her young child in a picture. Incredulous, she asked if that really was a possibility and I said to her – of course, he loves children. Quick, do it for your child! She did and so somewhere in America, in a favoured spot on some mantelpiece or hallway photo collection, there is the ultimate brag wall photo – a child embracing an elderly, beaming Nelson Mandela, then in the long contentment of retirement.

And here is another story. Several years ago, at the Market Theatre, the collection of letters, diary items and other short writings, the Mandela memoir, “Conversations with Myself”, was getting one of its many launches before adoring crowds. Seated in the audience were hundreds of friends, admirers – and several of his relatives. But sitting directly in front of me, next to each other, were his wife, Graca Machel, and his former wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. They both smiled and then sat down, and through the entire afternoon’s program, they were arm and arm. The man had that way about him – even when he wasn’t in the room. We are going to miss this influence on things and his ability to make everyone feel a part of a larger whole – even those who disagreed with him.

And so we will grieve for the loss of it.

How we grieve and how we mark the passing of loved ones and great leaders is an essential part of human nature, stretching back to well before the beginnings of recorded history. It seems we have a deep need to commemorate and remember those who have led us. Archaeologists have discovered, for example, that 50,000 years ago, early humans mourned their losses and marked a passage into eternity of the very young, long-cherished elders, and respected clan leaders. Their burials even included ritual placement of flowers in those Neolithic graves.

But in tribute to the burdens the living continue to bear once a genuine, even unique, hero passes from among us, this writer reaches back for comfort to Stephen Watson’s “Song of the Dawn’s Heart”, the reworking of an ancient /Xam people’s chant, first transcribed nearly a century and a half ago from those unfortunate San prisoners held at the Cape Town Castle by the colonial government. In the evening, they had sung to each other of their losses:

Because we are stars

we must walk the sky,

we, both of us stars,

things of the heavens.


But Mother, the Lynx,

is a thing of the earth,

she must walk on the earth,

go to sleep on bare ground.


But we, who are stars,

we cannot go sleeping,

we must walk the sky

unsleeping, awake.


Because we are stars,

because we walk the sky,

we must go round forever,

sleepless, unsleeping.


Things of the heavens.

stars. Heaven’s things.

And we will have much need to do the same, now that Mandela is gone for our firmament. DM

Photo by Reuters.


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