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Writing Presumes an Audience

Struggling to Dance as Mandela Did

By Charlene Smith (c) 2013

“How we danced,” retired judge Albie Sachs said remembering the years of Nelson Mandela’s presidency.
Sachs lost an arm to apartheid bombers then became a Constitutional Court judge in a democratic South Africa. One of the world's most liberal constitutions, it was the first to enshrine gay rights.
Tributes will be paid to Nelson Rohihlahla Mandela when he joins his beloved old comrades in a place of eternal peace. Many will say ‘the world has lost a great man,’ indeed in this age of mediocrity, Mandela appears to take the patent for greatness with him. There will be profound grief in South Africa, because Mandela’s death is a reminder of how, after three hundred years of conquest and bullying, South Africa was given the rainbow and the pot of gold, but after Mandela left office in 1999, the gold was pillaged and the rainbow sold.

On February 11, 1990, Mandela walked out of prison clasping the hand of his wife, Winnie Madikizela Mandela.
Rightwing death squads were planting bombs and assassinating, and black leaders, smelling the riches to come, were engaged in vicious fighting. Some weekends as many as 200 people were slaughtered in villages in KwaZulu Natal and townships fringing Johannesburg.
Nelson Mandela stepped into a country where colonialism and apartheid controlled people by dividing them and encouraging fear. The constant companion of fear is violence, most often clothed as defense.
Mandela returned to Soweto, to the small house he had left when he went to jail; he refused to live in Winnie’s palace on the hill. All of Soweto, it seemed, walked to his home, they sat on the streets, or squatted on sun-bleached hills, waiting, waiting, for the freedom his release promised.
A week later 75,000 filled a stadium, just outside Soweto, sweating in the heat. Millions more watched on television. His speech was dreadful. He peered through large owl-shaped glasses and gave a stolid message, but then music started, and that’s when freedom began: Mandela danced.
Thousands stared in amazed delight, and then started dancing. A nation filled with fifty years of apartheid resentment, threw their heads back and laughter broke through the clouds. It was going to be okay. We took the hand of the stranger next to us, our fellow-South African, and began the Mandela Jive. We were finally home.
During the Mandela years, we danced; we obeyed his plea to make our enemies our friends. We reached out tentatively and found their fingers touching ours. Oh, the emotion in that touch.
That didn’t mean challenges disappeared. Violence soared as political groups fought for supremacy. For a time Mandela openly berated his liberator, President Frederick Willem de Klerk.
The day before South Africa’s first democratic elections on April 26, 1994 I walked over pieces of human flesh no bigger than a coin in Germiston, where a rightwing bomb killed ten people. There was an arm glued to a wall, a head on a parapet, a nineteen-year-old boy helping his dad out in his supermarket was shot right through the supermarket and out where a wall had collapsed on the other side. So young to die.
These right-wing bombers congregated on a farm, they’d placed other bombs, and took a vow to shoot each other if any left. When the police finally arrived they surrendered without a word.
I flew to KwaZulu Natal where violence was anticipated because of a decade of political rivalry among black groups that had seen more than 28,000 die in a decad. Instead elderly people sat patiently on blankets on the ground, waiting to vote. Some pointed to hills, blue with distance, as their homes. They had walked for days, some without shoes, others with only a single shoe, to vote. The first day was for the elderly and pregnant women, the next day Nelson Mandela and the general public voted, most for the first time in their lives. Mandela was 76.
A white South African who had been entitled to vote, I never did, I vowed not to until all South Africans could, and so I raced to a poll in remote KwaZulu Natal, my heart pounding that I might be late and miss my first opportunity to vote. I arrived minutes before the poll closed, I was the only white person to vote at the election station and my fellow black South Africans cheered as I made a profoundly emotional first vote.
South Africans discovered each other anew in that voting process; it was an almost spiritual experience.
And Mandela’s government was different to anything we had experiended. There was no citizen-excluding security; cabinet ministers came to work in jeans and golf shirts. Mandela, accustomed to comfortable prison clothes, eschewed suits, and so the Mandela-shirt, a loose, silk shirt was born. He despised pomposity, understanding that pomp is how governments keep the governed distant.
There were no aggressive bodyguards, nor screaming black limousine convoys.
His focus was on reconciliation. South Africans, who for half a century were ashamed to say where they came from when they traveled, found strangers shaking their hand and saying: “ah Mandela!” It felt as though the whole world was applauding our bravery in reaching out to each other, in eschewing violence for the joy of friendship.
That happens no more. Fat with our ill-deserved status South Africa forgot that charity begins at home. Crime is now among the worst in the world with a rape every 26 seconds, and around 49 murders a day (Boston had 44 for all of 2010). The gap between rich and poor is worse than during apartheid.
The government of President Jacob Zuma is riddled with corruption. Two police commissioners in a row have been jailed for charges ranging from racketeering to fraud. Violent protests are routine, so are assassinations.
Nelson Mandela’s last joyous semi-public occasion was his 85th birthday, Bill and Hillary Clinton were present, so was Robert de Niro, John Cusack and Oprah. We sat at long tables, and introduced ourselves by our first names. We jived until late, and left inhaling deeply of the crisp dark air, falling in love with Africa again.
Mandela’s last decade has seen increasing ill health, and a struggle to manage the circling vultures, some of whom are family members. His name has been used by others in ways that are not always honorable. His family was his Achilles heel; he grieved that they (and hundreds of families like his) suffered because their father was a prisoner of conscience.
He loathed his successor, Thabo Mbeki, an AIDS denialist who refused to give life-extending drugs in the worst HIV-infected nation in the world. Harvard estimates some 365,000 people needlessly died, including Mandela’s son. It gave Mandela a new reason for activism.
Mandela hoped that Zuma, a man with only four years schooling when he came as a political prisoner to Robben Island, would have the common touch that Mbeki lacked. Instead, Zuma, the African National Congress’ former head of intelligence has increased spy structures, done little to improve schools, or the delivery of basic services, and become inordinately wealthy.
In his final years Mandela was often at home alone with staff. Dementia shielded Mandela from the heartbreak of seeing how South Africa disregarded his 27-year sacrifice and became a land of robber barons.
South Africans will say, when he goes, Hamba Kahle, Mkhonto – Go well, brave warrior, but there is an emptiness in that salute, we did not love him enough to honor his legacy of reconciliation, or the courage to make friends of our enemies. The greatness of those who lead inspires, but most often creates a struggle in us, the followers, who fail to perpetuate that which we most admire.
* Charlene Smith is a South African born journalist who lives in Cambridge. An authorized biographer of Nelson Mandela; her books are Mandela: In Celebration of a Great Life, and Robben Island.
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