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Nelson Mandela (1918-2013)
Some Recollections and Reflections
M S Prabhakara

In death Nelson Mandela is undergoing a droll kind of transformation. A revolutionary fighter who led an armed struggle against the apartheid regime became towards the end of his life a universally beloved, almost cuddly, icon of peace and reconciliation. It is true that Mandela mellowed towards the end of his life, evident in what one saw of him in photographs. But the fire never died, except to the extent that the body itself was losing its vigour. Mandela himself took pains to deny that he was a “saint”.


M S Prabhakara (, a long-time contributor to EPW, was a member of the editorial staff of the journal from the mid-1970s to the early-1980s and later with The Hindu, including as the South Africa correspondent from 1994 to 2001. He now lives in Kolara, Karnataka.

he death of Nelson Mandela (b 18 July 1918, d 5 December 2013) is an occasion for both grief and celebration, in the best African tradition. One grieves even if death came at the fullness of his years as one celebrates the remarkable life and achievements of the man. Both grief and celebration are visible in abundance in South Africa and indeed throughout the world as the funeral is, at the time of writing, under way. Perhaps, it would be useful to begin this tribute by recounting some obvious and well-known facts about Nelson Mandela best encapsulated in the titles of his two books: No Easy Walk to Freedom (1965) and The Struggle Is My Life (1978), both published when he was in prison. Together, they make the statement that his whole life was the struggle for freedom, as much for personal freedom as for the people of his country; and that struggle would be long, arduous. Even when as a young man he left home, he was seeking freedom, escaping a marriage not of his choice that had been planned for him. This search for personal freedom evolved as he grew up in the relatively liberated environment of the big city into a struggle for his “people”, as he made the connections between the unfreedom that overwhelmed his people, the African majority of the population, in the supposedly liberated environment of the city which superficially had promised freedom, but where too he found chains more burdensome than the chains of the world he had fled from seeking freedom, and the even harsher chains that bound the majority of the dispossessed people, everywhere. From Xhosa Nationalist to African Nationalist These connections did not come to Mandela easily. The journey from being a Xhosa nationalist to becoming an
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African nationalist to becoming a revolutionary fighter leading an armed struggle for the freedom of all the people of South Africa, across the colour lines, has been charted by Mandela himself. Recalling in his autobiography the visit of the great Xhosa poet, Krune Mqhayi, to his school at Healdtown, Fort Beaufort, when he was in his final year, he describes how, while reciting one of his poems, the poet weaving his assegai in the air for emphasis accidentally hit the curtain wire above him, causing the curtain to sway away. After a pause, the poet drew an analogy between the assegai striking the wire, and the fight against the oppression of the African people by the white colonial rulers, between the culture of Africa and Europe. The assegai, the symbol of the African as a warrior and as an artist in this poetic conceit, stood for what was glorious and true in African history. The metal wire became an example of western manufacturing, “skilful but cold, clever but soulless”. The poet went on: “What I am talking about is not a piece of bone touching a piece of metal, or even the overlapping of one culture and another, what I am talking about is the brutal clash between what is indigenous and good, and what is foreign and bad. We cannot allow these foreigners who do not care for our culture to take over our nation. I predict that, one day, the forces of African society will achieve a momentous victory over the interloper. For too long we have succumbed to the false gods of the white man. But we shall emerge and cast off these foreign notions.” The words, Mandela recalls, galvanised him. They also confused him with their call to move away from an all encompassing theme of African unity to a more parochial one addressed to the Xhosa people, of whom Mandela too was one.
I was beginning to see that Africans of all tribes had much in common, and here was the great Mqhayi praising the Xhosa above all; I saw that an African might stand his ground with a white man, yet I was eagerly seeking benefits from whites…Mqhayi’s shift in focus was a mirror of my own mind because I went back and forth between pride in myself as a Xhosa and a feeling of kinship
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also holds some deeply disturbing menaces for those. This is not a unique transition but something that many leaders of the South African liberation movement went through both out of conviction and necessity. the description. my very first initiative was to familiarise myself with the ANC headquarters. One did not by then need to make any political statement by sharing a table with others “not of one’s kind”. I saw myself as a Xhosa first and an African second. Voted for the first time. Another malicious error that is creeping back is the description of South Africa as a “multiracial democracy”. first democratically elected president. this instinctive herding with one’s kind had disappeared. From Multiracial to Non-Racial However. the resistance to apartheid was organised by the Congress Alliance comprising four different structures with the segment of the population it represented within brackets: the ANC (Africans). To an Inclusive Nationalism Even the ordinary membership of the ANC was initially restricted to Africans. The story of the transition of Mandela from a Xhosa nationalist to an African nationalist and an anti-colonial nationalist with no leavening of any exclusivist tribal nationalism to a universal humanist is well known in South African literature. democratic South Africa is. One can see why many find it hard to accept such description. got elected for the first time. who still viscerally identify themselves with the apartheid regime. using the introductions I had from some of my old ANC friends going back to the mid-1960s. having lunch had formed into small exclusive groups eating at different tables: about half a dozen Africans at two tables and the two Indians at another table. When I arrived in Johannesburg in the middle of 1994 as the resident reporter of The Hindu. a non-racial democracy. Thus. For those with their historical and institutional memories intact. I broke the unspoken barrier the very next day. and also because this exclusivism had been internalised across the racial divides. except in political terms: that he and others like him were oppressed and denied their very humanity under apartheid. Central to this transition was the evolution of the ideology of the African National Congress (ANC) that moved from the original exclusivist African nationalism to an inclusive South African nationalism that accommodated all the people of South Africa. and it took another 16 years (the June 1985 ANC conference at Kabwe. the few persons. Yet another significant feature of these first democratic elections was that the overwhelming majority of ANC members. and became president of the country that very first time. Strange Misconceptions The death of Nelson Mandela has revived some strange and persistent misconceptions in writing on South Africa. even in the period when the ANC was not banned (the ANC was banned in 1960. But as I left Healdtown at the end of the year. this is a record in the history of democratic elections worth taking note of. just like the pigmentation of his oppressors was not white) is not relevant and is not even useful as a description. Further. all comrades chatting familiarly with each other across the tables. Perhaps I may recall a small personal experience. and Nelson Mandela. It was only after the ANC’s May 1969 conference at Morogoro.COMMENTARY with other Africans. in which I said that what defined Mandela in political terms was not his colour but the fact that he was the first democratically elected president of South Africa. rather than the obvious fact that the person in question was black. by definition. including the 76-year-old Mandela and some others even older than him. were not even citizens of the country of their birth under apartheid laws. South African Indian Congress (Indians). of course. and their name is legion. Economic & Political Weekly EPW These facts are being recalled and enumerated in order to underline the deeply ingrained apartheid mindset in South Africa that did not spare even the liberation movement. voted for the first time in their lives. In plain words. after the Sharpeville massacre). Eight years later when I left South Africa. even among those who abhorred apartheid. but that is another story. is not black. vol xlviiI no 51 Mandela’s pigmentation (which. many of the communists who. a vast building on Plein Street in Johannesburg. after the Communist Party of South A frica was banned in 1950 under the Suppression of Communism Act had clandestinely founded the underground South African Communist Party whose public face was the CODD. For implicit in that description is the glaringly obvious reality that all so-called elections in South Africa held before April 1994 were utterly fraudulent exercises that excluded the overwhelming majority of the citizens of the country who. author of 13 december 21. by visiting it as often as I could and meet whomsoever I could. Those were early days of freedom. annoyed at the persistent description in BBC Online World News reports of Nelson Mandela as South Africa’s “first black President”. I wrote a very brief 50-word Letter to Editor that was carried in The Hindu. Even The Hindu. A few months ago. that non-African supporters of the ANC and the liberation struggle were allowed to become ordinary members of the ANC. and the practice has continued. Congress of Democrats (whites. the word “multiracial” is simply a fancy word for apartheid. Zambia) for non-Africans to get elected to decision-making bodies. and I could see that a lifetime of habit was not easy to break. Even a well-informed writer like Anthony Sampson. and the South African Coloured Peoples’ Congress (Coloureds)). between “multiracialism” and “non-racialism”. Africans and Indians. 2013 . there is much confusion. Surely. What is relevant is that he was the first democratically elected President of South Africa. At lunch time on my first day when I went down to the canteen in the building. partly because the laws of the apartheid regime did not allow interracial mixing. Tanzania. I did not expect the imperiously prescriptive Auntie to even see my point. and who still cannot get over the fact that the long-banned Communist Party is now a legitimate party of government though in their identity as members of the ANC. the paper I was with for the major part of my professional life. and has been charted by Mandela himself. strictly speaking. referred to Nelson Mandela as the country’s first black president in its editorial tribute on 7 December.

They do not. This is in a way to perpetuate the concept of ‘race’. we are non-racialist. icon of peace and reconciliation. uses the two terms interchangeably as if they mean one and the same thing. and we preferred to say we want a non-racial society… We discussed and said exactly what we are saying. that we are not multi-racialist. with some significant exceptions. However. defining feature is the hatred of the Other projected by ideologues with antidemocratic agendas as assertions of a subaltern underclass against “majoritarian oppression”. it is a question of ideas.COMMENTARY Mandela: The Authorised Biography (1999). except to the extent that the body itself was losing its vigour and fire. One issue that deeply worried me in prison was the false image that I unwittingly projected to the outside world: of being regarded as a saint. although the aura of being one of the world's longest serving prisoners never totally evaporated. It is true that Mandela mellowed towards the end of his life evident in what one saw of him in photographs. errors and indiscretions of a country boy… I relied on arrogance in order to hide my weaknesses. A revolutionary fighter who led an armed struggle against the apartheid regime became towards the end of his life a universally beloved. As an adult. from obscurity to either a bogey or enigma. even on the basis of an earthly definition of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying. Droll Transformation Finally. with a kind of separatist and exclusivist political mobilisation whose 14 december 21. you are saying that you have in this country so many races. I never was one. We are fighting for a society where people will cease thinking in terms of colour… It is not a question of race. gaining ground multiracialism is set to acquire a new legitimacy. my comrades raised me and other fellow prisoners. Mandela himself has put the record straight in the book Nelson Mandela: Conversation with Myself (2010): We have never really accepted multiracialism. because when you talk of multiracialism. almost cuddly. But the fire never died. in death Nelson Mandela is also undergoing a droll kind of transformation. Our demand is for a non-racial society. 2013 vol xlviiI no 51 EPW Economic & Political Weekly . The other side of the coin is the dismissal of democratic struggles that also emphasise the unity of the exploited people as revival of Stalinist practice of “unity and struggle”. Let Nelson Mandela himself have the last word on the prospective St Nelson: As a young man I…combined all the weaknesses.