How to conceive of a South Africa – no, a world – without Nelson Mandela, our Madiba, whose matchless humanity was bountiful enough for us to share with the world? For myself, I can only be infinitely grateful that I knew him personally, that he touched my life.
He knew beyond question that the struggle for freedom from the subjection by whites, which began in the 17th century and reached grim culmination as apartheid, could be achieved only by blacks themselves, as both a political battle and an inward escape from victimhood.
He also recognized the indivisibility of human freedom, and the dedication to this which confirmed the necessity and right of whites to serve within the struggle for justice against racism. There were the greats – leaders such as Joe Slovo, Helen Joseph, Ruth First, Ronnie Kasrils, Beyers Naudé – and there were others, like myself, who associated, at some risk, with the African National Congress in the movement toward the ultimate integrity. As George Steiner put it, “Men are accomplices to that which leaves them indifferent.”
I met Nelson Mandela during the first treason trial, which ended in 1961, introduced by Anthony Sampson, the friend and British journalist who later wrote the first and best biography of the man. There were some tasks I could do for him and the ANC, as a writer and as an African whose skin colour was not a definition in his eyes. Seen by me in hindsight, they were never enough.
Mr. Mandela was like that for South Africans of all colours. He came from way up in the hierarchy of traditional African society. But, unlike others on that ancestral level, he did not see that reverence and respect for this meant distorting its relevance by opposing the laws of our democratic Constitution with traditional law.
He maintained a deep sense of the African self in synergy with an understanding of Africa’s place in the contemporary world, evolving along with it. You do not emerge from the isolation of racism to confine your country to some other, chosen isolation.
Mr. Mandela responded – with his life – unsparingly to what cultural critic Edward Said called “a kind of historical necessity,” the radical “spontaneity” that French colonial thinker Frantz Fanon saw in Africa’s oppressed masses. He was never afraid of speaking out when confronted with something he considered wrong.
Even in his “retirement” after serving as president, he risked appearing disloyal to his country by tearing away the veil of “political correctness” to decry the government’s inadequate response to the epidemic of HIV-AIDS decimating its population.
A great leader, moral world leader as Madiba became, is seen, rightly and in awe, as one who has put the lives of others, his people, first, before any life of his own. All this means that such a man belongs to his people in an emotional dimension as well.
Mr. Mandela did this uncompromisingly. For example, little is known of the immense sorrow he endured when, after 27 years of imprisonment, he was faced with the fact that the life with the woman he so loved and longed for was no longer there to be taken up. I happen to have been with him then, privately one day, and was privy to his desolation. Nelson Mandela was a whole man, who experienced keenly all of human being. It was part of his strength.
To remember him, not only in homage but lovingly and on a lighter note, he would not wish his indestructible sense of humour forgotten. On his marriage to Graça Machel, which brought him happiness late in life, he was asked by a journalist whether he objected to her decision to keep the name of her late husband, Mozambique’s first post-colonial president.
His response? Mock relief: “Oh, I’m so glad she didn’t ask me to change my name to hers!”
A sly bow to the feminists? To yet another of human justice?