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‘Kunu’, Qunu, and the click that refused to travel.

Watching Nelson Mandela’s funeral on BBC 1, one was split between two places and epistemologies, a split marked by a consonant that wouldn’t travel. The television feed came from ‘Kunu’, which is how the name of the village of Mandela’s childhood came from the mouths of the anchormen – those whose gravitas is impeccable when it settles on the Cenotaph and Whitehall and the Mall on Remembrance Day. On Sunday, 15th December, these voices were tested by very different geographies, faces and tongues, some of which spoke of a place called Qunu. ‘Kunu’ and Qunu persist as markers of a rift that was opened in 1795, when the English surveyor, John Barrow, set out from the Cape to explore the interior of the colony that Britain had seized from the Dutch in order to prevent France from monopolizing the south Atlantic and the trade route to India. Barrow’s curiosity on arriving at the Great Place of the Xhosa chief Ngqika expressed itself in admiring tones. Barrow describes Ngqika climbing down from his ox, ‘a young man, at this time under twenty years of age, of an elegant form and a graceful manly deportment; his height about five feet ten inches; his face of a deep bronze colour, approaching nearly to black; his skin soft and smooth; his eyes dark brown, and full of animation; his teeth regular, well-set and white as purest ivory.’ Barrow’s description is admiring, but also condescending in assuming the right to describe. It inaugurated the position that was still in evidence yesterday, in the live feed from ‘Kunu’, Qunu. Ngqika, Mandela. The historian Noel Mostert remarks that ‘if there is a hemispheric seam to the world, between Occident and Orient, then it must lie along the eastern seaboard of Africa. Nowhere else offers such an amazing confluence of human venture and its many frontiers, across time, upon the oceans and between the continents.’ Mostert is referring to the fact that when, at the end of the fifteenth century, Europe joined the well-established trade that linked east Africa, the Arabian peninsula and south Asia, it would inexorably become drawn into a drama of settlement that would play out along the eastern seaboard of southern Africa. Along that seaboard, the ‘hemispheric seam’ became a social drama of enormous consequence, of which the events of the past few days are only the most recent chapter. Over a period of 50 years, from the 1820s to the 1870s, Britain’s efforts to establish its authority over this territory, what became Mandela’s country, involved nine remorseless frontier wars. As Britain’s involvement deepened, it established a social, administrative and religious presence in the Eastern Cape. Some of the agents of this process, such as the missionaries, operated at some remove from the political rationality of the Colonial Office in London. The Methodists established a chain of mission stations up the coast all the way to Qunu and beyond, which would make it possible, eventually, for Mandela’s guardian to send him to school at Healdtown. By the end of the 19th century, Britain’s involvement in the region led to the catastrophe that was the Anglo-Boer War, which was essentially a struggle over access to the mineral wealth that was locked up in the Boer republics. You may ask, how is all this relevant to Nelson Mandela? The answer is, directly. The eventual outcome of the Anglo-Boer war was the constitutional settlement of 1910, in which Africans were deprived of full citizenship. The deal that brought Britain and the

Afrikaners together, in this early but partial effort in reconciliation, led to the formation of the African National Congress. When the ANC sent delegations to London to protest at the treatment Africans were receiving in the legislature of the Union government, they were turned away, empty handed. After 1948, when the National Party came to power, the architects of apartheid sought to complete what the Union government had begun. Apartheid extended the exclusion of Africans from full citizenship to every aspect of economic and social life, producing the system that has left a moral stain on humanity and a legacy of injury that will take several more generations of South Africans to overcome. This was the historical situation that Mandela was born into. In assessing the life of any major politician, the point is to ask whether, and how, the individual confronted the challenges that history threw in the path. In the case of Mandela, we know the answer. He had the vision, strength and courage, the moral stature, the depth of humanity, to release the most transformative potential from his comrades and enemies alike, treating them all as equals in search of a common goal. His influence in initiating talks between the ANC and the National Party from the depths of Pollsmoor prison during the most violent years of apartheid, the mid-1980s (risking the disapproval of his own movement in doing so), and then his presiding hand over the negotiations after his release on 11th February, 1990, were undoubtedly the decisive catalysts in South Africa’s successful transition to democracy. In 1918, Mandela was born into the political crisis that was patronizingly called ‘the Native Question,’ so framed during the Union government. By the time he was forty, in the prime of his life, it became apparent that non-violence would never bring an end to apartheid. His times had handed him a choice. Mandela went abroad to seek help and to receive training for an armed struggle that began on 16th December 1961 with a campaign of sabotage. He then defended the rationality of this decision at the Rivonia Trial, facing the death penalty. Later, on Robben Island, in a volume of Shakespeare’s Complete Works that circulated amongst the prisoners, Mandela would mark and sign as his personal favourite a passage from Julius Caesar that reads, Cowards die many times before their deaths; The valiant never taste of death but once. Of all the wonders that I yet have heard, It seems to me most strange that men should fear; Seeing that death, a necessary end, Will come when it will come. He had been there himself, weighing his decisions in the scale of his mortality. This brief record of Mandela’s encounter with Shakespeare is ripe with potential for mythologizing, but we should be careful not to make too much of it. The record of his reading, and his reflections on his reading, is wide-ranging. When he took on a subject, he took it on with gusto. Shortly before and during his travels to Tanzania, Ghana, Morocco and Algeria, when the armed struggle was being planned, he read intensively on the history of guerilla warfare: Edgar Snow on the Chinese Revolution, Menachem Begin, the Boer leader Denys Reitz. He discovered an affinity with von Clausewitz, which is especially intriguing. What he took from Clausewitz was the idea that neither non-violence nor armed struggle was to be regarded as a non-negotiable principle; both were tactical elements in the service of

politics. Having committed himself to armed struggle, Mandela also knew when the time had come to stop it and negotiate. He was always the pragmatist, adjusting to conditions, but in the service of the highest ideals. Mandela’s intellectual history, starting with his reading, is likely to become a fascinating area of research in the years ahead. Apart from his legal studies, while in prison he read Tolstoy, Mahatma Ghandi, Abraham Lincoln. To understand Afrikanerdom, he read Afrikaans writers, in Afrikaans, like C.J. Langenhoven, D.J. Opperman. He had an ear for what was being spoken about and sought it out; in 1960, he inquired after and read the Zulu epic poet, Mazisi Kunene, long before Kunene became famous. His biographers record his devouring of newspapers and magazines, his tireless efforts to keep abreast of events. And there is, of course, his own writing: his articles, position statements, copious letters, both personal and political, and as the prison years wore on, his autobiography. I began by speaking about ‘Kunu’ and Qunu, and the historical rifts that are marked by the two, by this consonant that refuses to travel. The reason we are so grateful to Mandela, why we lift him up as the exemplary statesman of our times, is that he was able to bridge that divide. He gave and took no offence. Having set out to discover a form of politics that was big enough to address the great difficulties of his age, he discovered in prison a self that was capacious enough to accommodate both sides of the rift. In an age that is obsessed with identity politics, he showed us the way to overcome them, in the service of a common humanity. In an age when liberalism has become tired, burdened with its contradictions, its failures to live up to its promises, Mandela re-invented it as a discipline of self-conscious, deliberate reconciliation. When political practice falls short of this position, as it will do frequently, after Mandela it will never be able to construe its weakness as strength. The ethical power of Mandela’s position is undeniable. It is for that reason that we love and revere him, and for that reason his legacy is a language that enables us to discover, over and over, the best in ourselves.