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Writing Presumes an Audience

Responding to journalist questions about Mandela Feuds & Legacy

By Charlene Smith (c) 2013

My mailbox is groaning with emails from journalists who send copious questions about Nelson Mandela and his feuding family. As a self-employed writer, I don't have the time to type the answers that they'll get paid for, so I send my phone number.

Here are some recent questions and my responses.

Q: What do you believe Mandela's legacy is?

CS: A legacy, the dictionary tells us is the inheritance, usually financial, that someone leaves to others. In this instance, Mandela’s will is set, no doubt it will cause further fighting when it is read. The 24 trusts he established for his family have kept them in luxury, Maki, as an example, lives in an R13.5m house in Hyde Park, paid for by a trust, and which would place her among the elite of the elite. Still, it seems, according to her recent lawsuit, she believes she deserves more.

I believe most reporters want to use legacy as a synonym for inheritance or heritage. Or perhaps even, “what example did Mandela leave?” But then again s/he may want to know – what were his most significant achievements? This would be my partial response. At other times other things come to mind, it depends on how you phrase the question and what is on my mind at the time. I've known Mandela for 23 years, written three books about him, made four television documentaries, so there are deep reservoirs of knowledge, anecdotes, and emotions. But I also don't hold myself out to be expert; people are too complicated for us to presume to 'know' them. I know far more than average, but I also only know that which I have researched and personally experienced in my relationship with him, those around him, my involvement in the anti-apartheid struggle, and as a journalist.

Mandela would hate hagiography, and there is a lot at present, and there will be more when he dies. He is ill-served by those who make him a saint. Nelson Mandela was exceptional, no doubt about it. I've never met anyone who had an aura of such greatness; it was as though he knew he was born to greatness. Nor have I met anyone with less pomposity, okay, Arch (bishop Desmond Tutu), you too, and both of those men infected all who came into their presence with joy, a real delight in life, and the people around them. But for those who experience such intense pleasure in life and people, disappointments can be particularly painful, and the experience of the corruption and lack of respect for the poor in South Africa today is deeply sorrowful. It is convenient to point fingers at the disgraceful antics of the Mandela progeny, but we need to reflect on how those of us who love him have failed to honor him in our personal lives and our conduct.

Mandela led South Africans, together, as one united nation to the polls for democratic elections, the first in its history in April 1994. He was 75 when he voted for the first time, many others I interviewed at that time, and who walked barefoot for days and miles were far older. I, a white South African refused to vote until all could vote, I was in my 30s, I can’t describe the reverence it has given me for elections and the need to vote if you have the privilege. Even in the United States, where I live now, I'm active in political canvassing and poll-watching. Every time I experience an election I am in awe of those who come to vote, and those who sit for hours enabling the vote, I wonder how many realize how precious it is, and that some of us were prepared to die to ensure all could have that honor? Mandela wasn't the only one prepared to die, every single one of us who became active in the anti-apartheid movement and the underground gauged how active we would grow by what we were ready to endure - arrest? Detention? Torture? Death? And so Mandela led people who are content with their anonymity but are among the bravest of the brave.

Mandela showed the importance of persistence, commitment, tolerance, and sacrifice.

He saw the value in every person; he understood that it was not the degrees behind your name or the balance in your bank account that made you consequential, it is the way you live your life. Is it with honor? Do you show respect and compassion for others? Or are you among the wretched of the earth who think the clothes you wear and the car you drive give you status?

At any gathering, he would greet the “invisible people” first – the cleaners, waiters, guards. He was genuinely interested in them. He cared. He didn’t have screaming black car motor cavalcades and flocks of black-suited bodyguards speaking into their cuffs; he often mingled with the public. He was dedicated to escaping the guards, to their ongoing frustration. He'd lived with them for 27 years in prison; he didn't want to live with them in freedom.

He truly loved us. We are his family. He sacrificed everything for us, not just for South Africans, but also for the people of the world, because in his sacrifices and his successes were lessons for us all.

Mandela is not a saint, and he would hate to be treated as such because one of his most important lessons is that anyone can overcome the most significant obstacles if they take on a foe without thought of personal gain, and in the hopes of righting a great wrong that hurts many. Although it was only late in his life that he decried military solutions, he powerfully lived Gandhi’s exhortation that we carry suffering in our bodies rather than destroy the life of our enemy.

Q: Do you feel the fighting between his family members will have an effect on his legacy?

CS: How can it? His achievements are far greater than the petty wranglings of the greedy. And not all members of this sprawling family are involved; some are deeply distressed by this situation.

Q: How did it happen that a man known for peace keeping has a family with (apparently) so much friction?

CS: Let he or she who lives in a family that never has discord raise their hand.

How can we blame a parent, especially one who was not there for most of the years of his children’s upbringing? His daughter Zindzi was two when he went to jail; she was 15 when he was next allowed to see her. He first touched the hand of his wife Winnie after he had been in prison for 21 years. He first saw his daughter Zenani, who he’d last seen when she was a toddler after she married. He wasn’t allowed to go to the funeral of his mother, nor his son Thembekile, who he had last seen as a small boy, and who died in a car accident as an adult.

In his first decade or so in jail he was allowed one 500 word letter in or out every six months, he was granted a half-hour visit once a year. If he or his visitor said anything, the warders didn’t like the visit was terminated.

His second wife, Winnie, has severe Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome as a result of being held naked in solitary confinement for 18 months in 1969. She was taken from her home in the early hours of the morning and forced to abandon her two small daughters; it was 18 months before she knew what had become of them.

She was allowed no visits nor cleaning materials. She was given no sanitary towels during her periods, and so the blood caked on her, and she was given nothing to clean it off. And that has left her with erratic conduct.

His daughter, Makaziwe, he saw last when she was an elementary school pupil and then next when she was in her forties. She and Winnie loathed each other and formed two primary factions in the family. Into this came Graca Machel, a foreigner, who married Mandela when he was 80. Some family members insultingly called her a 'kwerekwere,' slang for a foreigner. Graca had her burdens; she kept the name of her first husband, Mozambique’s president, who died in a plane crash and she maintains close ties with her homeland.

Maki was verbal about how she resented her father for not making enough time for his family, which sounds like the sort of complaints often directed toward successful parents in business and politics.

Mandela was subjected to 27 years of emotional torture, so was Winnie, and through her, her daughters, Zindzi and Zenani. Mandela was aware of this, and it pained him deeply. Yes, thousands of other South Africans experienced similar or worse - and look how dysfunctional our society is today.

I become drained by journalists from privileged backgrounds, who ask tabloid questions of me. We journalists, in our race to be first, do too little research and fail to understand that empathy allows us to see things in new ways, without compromising our news coverage. Indeed, it enhances it because our readers have experienced many grades of pain too, they understand, if we present it correctly, how troubles form, and how difficult it is to resolve them. We should be people first.

We should look with a fresh understanding of the challenges Mandela faced as a man, a parent, a husband, a father, a politician – and the difficulties his family faced. I'm not excusing the corrupt in his family, especially the venal grandchildren and great grandchildren, I'm simply arguing for more thoughtful reporting.


Q: What do you think South Africans think of the fighting?

CS: South Africans are deeply upset and ashamed by the family feuds, but they also think it is symbolic for a country that has become greedy, corrupt, and grabbing. Shakespeare would have found South Africa is filled with tragedies and farces.

But too, I think of the feuding Reagan children, Mark Thatcher’s checkered background, the scandals around the family of Martin Luther King, and Gandhi. In the end, the families of the great, are people too. It would help if the media, of which I am one, do not treat this like Jersey Shore, we created reality shows and the nightmare of 24-hour news cycles and with them scant respect for fact, as well as tabloid nonsense. It helps if we show more compassion and less sensation toward those who sacrifice their lives to create a better world.

Q: What do you think of the fighting?

CS: I’m pleased it is happening now because the family has opened Pandora’s Box, many of us would have died with what we know rather than dishonor Mandela. But they’ve opened it, and you can bet there are already journalists nose deep funneling out the endless dirt that is there to be found, not about Madiba, but about some who disgrace the name, Mandela.

Most of all, I am angry that they began this while he is still alive. He has had dementia for years, but he is not unaware of all that goes on around him. The lack of respect is disgraceful, but by their actions, they have revealed themselves.

Q: Finally, what is your official title and occupation?

CS: Ahem, why are you writing to me if you don’t know who I am? What happened to Google?

I want to add something, in a letter to the Young of America in 1993, Mandela wrote: “A time of crisis is not just a time for tears. It gives us a chance, an opportunity to choose well or choose poorly.
“The past does not dictate our choices.”

Somehow in his long dying, I feel that Mandela is giving South Africa and South Africans a chance to see themselves in the mirror that the conduct of his family holds up to society. In it, we all need to look at ourselves, and say, “What have we become?” Mandela gave us the golden key; we melted it and sold it. We’ve been so short term in our attitudes we forgot about the long run, the days of forever, the days of our children, I fear for their future in South Africa.

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