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Writing Presumes an Audience

Me and Nelson Mandela

By Charlene Smith (c)

I love to cook and so there came a point during the anti-apartheid struggle, where I gave up full-time journalism, became a full-time activist, part of the underground, and after long, endless meetings, would cook for strugglistas.
Murphy Morobe loved my veal Marengo, Cyril Ramaphosa (now African National Congress deputy president) would call at 11pm after going to mines and speaking to workers, and I would go into the kitchen and prepare a midnight meal. Neil Coleman, now Cosatu's parliamentary spokesman, loved all my cooking and left hair-dye stains in a basin as he tried to dye his hair to evade the security police.
Mohammed Valli Moosa and I would argue at 2am about whether the word “fascist” was necessary in a press release meant for the European Union. I would prepare trays of biscuits and coffee for deep underground United Democratic Front meetings at my home.
The joke, sort-of, was that after the revolution, I would be Mandela’s cook. The day before Madiba came out of prison I took green grapes to Cyril Ramaphosa at the Rand Clinic in Johannesburg; he was recovering from pneumonia and reading Barbara Tuchman’s The March of Folly. Valli had ordered a plane in case Mandela was released the next day. I counselled Cyril to stay in hospital, I was nervous that Mandela wasn’t going to be able to live up to the mythology around him. We all were but for those who had already met him.
Valli, Cyril and Sydney Mufamadi said he was an amazing man, I thought they said that because it was the politically correct thing to say.
The next day Cyril ripped out his drips and caught the charter plane to Cape Town with Valli and others, Mandela was being released from 27 years in jail. In the first pictures on the steps of Cape Town City Hall, you can see Cyril’s Band-Aid from where the drip was.
Then working as political correspondent and deputy news editor for Business Day, I wore a yellow blouse and green skirt with small black spots to work. Ken Owen, my editor, looked at me and frowned, I was already considered a journalist sympathetic to the liberation struggle, but to wear the colors of the recently unbanned African National Congress was going too far. But this was a day, we all knew, unlike any other. A few days before former president FW de Klerk had unbanned those organizations that demanded equal rights for black and white in South Africa. Today Mandela would be free.
At the time he was due to be released, the newsroom went quiet, all activity stopped, we sat transfixed before the television. Mandela was late; a South African Broadcasting Corporation broadcaster made inane comments in the silence of 44-million South Africans holding their breath.
And then we saw him, walking out, his hand in Winnie’s and even as I write this I could weep, I feel the emotion still. He was so tall, so slender, so dignified, and the most handsome 71-year-old I had ever seen. Some of us cheered, something journalists should never do, some of us wept.
Suddenly in the streets below was a strange sound, it was like a powerful wind through trees, I looked out of the fourth floor window into the city streets of Johannesburg and people were moving as one, dozens of people, silently, I don’t know where they were going to, but they moved with purpose, strength, they were moving, almost like a tide building.
Mandela was free and the nation had a sudden intake of a sweet new air that we had not yet tasted. It was the taste of freedom.
Mandela stayed at Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu’s home that night, but the next day he was to fly up to Johannesburg. The United Democratic Movement wanted him to stay somewhere else before he returned to Soweto, so I called a friend who lived on a smallholding in Honeydew. She and her five kids moved out for a night so that Madiba and Winnie could stay.
My name was on a long list of the hundreds who wanted to interview Mandela. His first day home I was called to interview him. Driving into Soweto with my careful list of questions was a remarkable experience; it felt as though every person in Soweto was out walking, moving, toward Mandela’s small home in Orlando West, a home Winnie had already vacated for a bigger, brown home over the hill.
There were more satellite masts and journalists camped outside his home than I have ever seen. I have a photograph of that meeting, shot at a strange angle by a photographer, I seem taller than him, when in fact, Mandela is at least a foot taller than me. We both seem tense. I am on the edge of the couch, he is sitting far back, his expression serious, his hands clasped.
I dashed back, wrote the story and breathed. The next day the Nelson Mandela Release Committee called me and said, “Charlene, Mandela is ready to be interviewed by you”.
“Thank you,” I said, “but I have already interviewed him”.
“Charlene,” the comrade said, “he is ready to be interviewed by you”. I panicked and ran around the newsroom garnering new questions to ask. While hundreds waited, I interviewed him four times that week. He liked me, I never knew why, he just did, and for those of us he liked, broadcaster Debora Patta was another, he always had time.
Many of us were amazed how much Mandela knew about us. We considered ourselves insignificant, Mandela considered no one insignificant. He paid attention. He cared.
That is his legacy: pay attention, pay attention most of all to the invisible people, care. Extend help. Do something. Have integrity.
Over the years as he has become ill and struggled with dementia there has been criticism of the opulence of vehicles drawing up outside his home and hospital, the times he stayed silent, the wealth of his family. Remember this too, Mandela is a man. A very great man, but his weak point was his family, he felt eternally responsible for the suffering of his children and Winnie while he was in prison and he never stopped trying to heal their pain. Some of his progeny are unworthy of the name Mandela, but that is not his fault. It is always a virtue, in my view, to love your family; how they choose to use that love is can never be our fault.
In Nelson Mandela, we as a nation felt protected.
South Africa, I believe is like an abused child, fearful, angry, always read to lash out, mistrustful, but in Mandela, we found someone who saw our flaws and loved us; loved us even when we despised ourselves, he could see our potential. A potential that even now we fail to rise to. For his love, his eternal belief in us, Mandela has our eternal devotion.
Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu is our conscience, Mandela is our heart. The question is: how can a nation, blessed with two such remarkable icons, be as self-destructive as South Africa is today?
Nelson Mandela gave up his life so that we could live, so that we could be free. He never emerged from prison, when he walked out of the gates of Victor Verster, he walked into a new prison; a prison of minders and managers, publicists and bureaucrats, organizational apparatchiks, a demanding family … he found some time and space to be himself, but it was never, ever going to be enough time, enough space.
Madiba, I believe it will be your old friend Walter Sisulu, who will come for you. The two of you will go and sit on a rocky outcrop on Robben Island, bake some perlemoen on a tin-can seashore braai and talk of the good old, bad old days. Finally, you both will be free.
I wish we had the wisdom to honour your legacy, but I fear, we are just us, flawed, damaged and not quite clever enough to realise that what we will lose is not you, but the doors you opened and that we walked by.
Hamba kahle, Madiba. Qhawe la ma Qhawe!
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