After the Bell: What would Nelson Mandela think of the state we’re in right now?
Tuesday, 18 July was Mandela Day and as always on this day, the question arose: What would Mandela think of the state we are in now? In both the world and in SA? And also perhaps: What do we think of Mandela and his legacy?
A little diversion first: There is a dialogue from the 2005 film Charlie Wilson’s War about US support, coordinated by Wilson, for the mujahideen in Afghanistan. (Hard to believe, but that did happen.)
Wilson, played by Tom Hanks, is celebrating the victory of the mujahideen over the Soviet army, which had just been hounded out of Afghanistan in 1988 – as the US would be 35 years later. He is in conversation with a CIA spy named Gust Avrakotos, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman.
In the midst of Wilson’s celebration, Avrakotos tells a story that goes like this: There’s a little boy and on his 14th birthday he gets a horse; everybody in the village says, “How wonderful. The boy got a horse.” And the Zen master says, “We’ll see.” Two years later, the boy falls off the horse, breaks his leg, and everyone in the village says, “How terrible.” And the Zen master says, “We’ll see.” Then a war breaks out and all the young men have to go off and fight, except for the boy, who can’t, since his leg is all messed up; everybody in the village says, “How wonderful.”
Charlie Wilson interjects, resignedly, “Then the Zen master says, ‘We’ll see’.”
And isn’t that just history? Friends become enemies; enemies become friends. Things change; we see the same historical event from different points of view at different times. So how has our view of Mandela changed?
There are a lot of people who, obviously, knew Nelson Mandela better than I did. But I was the political correspondent for Business Day during Mandela’s presidency, based in Parliament. We met perhaps once a week during parliamentary sessions; there were interviews and foreign trips and masses of political speeches over the five years. So, not in the inner sanctum but not entirely outside the circle.
These are my impressions – make of them what you will:
This is not going to surprise you, but I think Mandela would be extremely angry about where SA is today. Extremely. I mean really, properly angry.
Mandela was well known as a gentleman, which of course he was. But he also had a hot temper. His temper was rarely on display because he was extremely controlled and disciplined, especially in public. But every now and then it would just pop out.
I suspect his temper was motivated by the two great desires of his life: he wanted the ANC to be the celebrated, moral guiding force he had devoted his life to constructing. And he wanted SA to succeed. And those two aims overwhelmed everything else. They overwhelmed the long and painful years of his compatriots’ oppression and his own years in prison. They overwhelmed even his relationship with his then wife.
Mandela is known for his great stature as a figure of courage and conviction, but also for the idea of forgiveness. And yet, I don’t think forgiveness is precisely the right description; he was not Martin Luther King. His values were heavily influenced by his role as a descendant of Thembu royalty. In Mandela’s mind, there was always a proper way. His ghostwriter Richard Stengel, with whom he wrote Long Walk to Freedom, describes his values as “Victorian-era”, and I’m not sure that is entirely correct either. But I know what he is talking about; it was a sense of self-discipline and restraint, honesty and integrity, and above all, what was proper.
That makes him sound so serious, but that would be a mischaracterisation too. He was a delight to be around. Always. Listen to the tapes Stengel made while writing the book; they are often hilarious, and both of them cracked up at Mandela’s mimicry of people around him.
All of this is reflected in his political history. I remember being asked, more or less out of the blue, whether I had time to conduct an interview at Tuynhuys. Oddly enough, I wasn’t doing anything at the time. During the interview, in 1997, Mandela casually announced he did not intend to stand as the ANC’s leader for the presidency in the 1999 elections. Why? Because he didn’t think octogenarians should be presidents. I wonder whether anyone has told Joe Biden or Donald Trump that story.
But the decision was also intended as a message to other African and world leaders who overstayed their terms of office. Mandela was 75 when he became president and he died at 95. He could have served three more terms if the Constitution had allowed it. But he was providing an example because… it was the proper thing to do.
Mandela embraced non-racialism much more actively than his party did. And yet, I think that too is over-stated: it was more that he expected all citizens to respect the flag in the present, and if they did, that was enough. Tactically, he recognised his goal for the country to succeed needed to overwhelm the issue of race and history and colonialism, and all the notionally grander issues of the day.
I remember another reporter asking him what surprised him most about South Africa after his release, and he pointed to how many white people supported the ANC. With Mandela you never quite knew whether this was tactics or principle; rather like the Rugby World Cup victory moment. But of course, it was both.
Fast-forward to today. I think Mandela would be appalled by the disappearance of the idea of non-racialism in the ANC; the gratuitous consumption (and corruption) of leading politicians; their absence of a culture of hard work; their infighting; their lack of discipline; and their general selfishness.
If you ask me for one moment that encapsulates Mandela, it would be the look of shock on the face of an Indonesian hotel cleaner when she opened Mandela’s hotel suite during a state visit and discovered that he had made his own bed. She thought she must have done something wrong, and rushed off to tell the concierge. But it was just Mandela. He made his own bed.
There was a moment when Mandela, effectively, led the world by the sheer force of his moral righteousness. I think we need a pinch of that now.
But you know who needs it most of all? His own party. DM