The launch of the latest in the Jacana pocket biography series took place in early December when the highly respected historian and academic Colin Bundy presented his most recent book, A Jacana Pocket Biography: Nelson Mandela at The Book Lounge.
The author was joined in a fascinating conversation with Ronnie Kasrils, the former freedom fighter and Minister for Intelligence Services who wrote the prize-winning memoir, The Unlikely Secret Agent.
Kasrils described the book as “eminently well done” while highlighting the challenge that the demands of brevity imposed upon an author. He cited the letter Karl Marx wrote to Ludwig Kugelmann where he says: “I’m begging your pardon with my letter because of the length… You see I’m in a hurry and I haven’t had time to make it more succinct.”
Bundy reflected on the fortuitous nature of the project that made it easier in some regards than his previous book, Govan Mbeki: A Jacana Pocket Biography. Because Mandela’s life was so widely documented he could leave out some of the widely known facts and “go for the telling details, the anecdote that nailed the subject, leaving plenty of room for opinion as well as detail …”
For well over an hour a passionate discussion on the life of the first president of a democratic South Africa held everyone in the audience enthralled. The speakers explored the dramatic political changes that occurred at the time of Mandela’s liberation and election, weighed the decisions that were taken at the time and considered the spontaneous unfolding of events that occurred some 20 years ago. Kasrils reflected on the legacy of remembrance, noting that Mandela became the face of the ANC on his 60th birthday when people around the world flooded the postmaster at Robben Island with postcards.
“This began the process of his becoming an icon and the personification of the struggle, shifting the awareness from the 10 Rivonia trialists to a single face, that ultimately became larger than life.”
In Bundy’s view, icons are a short cut to understanding that help people formulate their thinking. He said:
The South African drama played out in the full glare of the world media. What made their job a little easier was that it came with a ready made hero. Since 1978 there had been an accretion of symbolism around his absence. His silence reverberated. Then on 11 February 1990, suddenly the myth became man. There he was, beautifully dressed. We remember the famous iconic photo where he stands hand in hand with Winnie. The next morning he gives that rather exhausted address from Cape Town City Hall balcony.
The next morning he meets over 200 local and international journalists in the garden at Tutu’s mansion. The press conference lasts two hours. Every time a journalist puts up his hand, Mandela would recognise him and say, ‘Oh, I read your article in so-and-so …’ but more than that, he did this extraordinary thing that later became so familiar to us: that mixture of gravitas, dignity, self deprecating humour, and very careful balance. At the end of that press conference, 200 hard-bitten journalists swallow their objectivity, forgot that they were reporters, and stood up to applaud the man.
Bundy noted that this was a particularly significant moment that was about myth, a sudden icon, and an icon living up to a degree of what was expected of him. “It foretold a lot of what came later, his position as anointed leader, his willingness to adopt that position and to speak for the movement,” he said.
Kasrils suggested there was an element of the confident play actor in this moment, that Mandela knew he had people eating out of his hand. “Because he could afford to be that modest one has to ask whether it was genuine,” he continued.
Bundy pinpoints 1978 as the moment when a conscious myth-making began about Mandela:
It’s also the moment when regulations on Robben Island become more relaxed. From 1979 onwards, Mandela wrote daily on big full page calendars. Over the years, Mandela logs various peace prizes, honorary doctorates and external affirmations of his position of leadership.
He’s very consumed with the realisation that he will have to live up to the expectations. He senses fully what they are. He spoke from Cape Town saying, ‘I’m here as a servant of the people’, but he’s very consciously adopting a leadership role.
Kasrils reflected on the fall out on Robben Island between two groups of ANC leaders that left Govan Mbeki and Nelson Mandela in a locked position, where issues of temperament and personality were involved. Mandela was one of “a pantheon of capable leaders” but his leadership was contested by Govan Mbeki. Kasrils said, “While none could compete with his stature, he was a boring speaker … but by God they deferred to his leadership! He was the messiah. Not just of the ordinary people, but of those with money, those that fix things, the corporate world, here and internationally. He was the answer to their prayers.”
Another fascinating turn taken in the discussion between Bundy and Kasrils was the mention of An Inconvenient Youth by Fiona Forde. Kasrils reflected on the issue of how Julius Malema touches a raw nerve calling Mandela a sell-out. “He’s a rough diamond. He makes people think. You might not like what he says …”
Bundy said that Malema did not invent a criticism of Mandela:
In 1993 a young black truck driver told Jeremy Cronin that the real Mandela had been killed in prison, that his lookalike had been coached for years until he was ready to be released and that was the man they could do business with.
It’s a nice fable but when Mandela is in his prime, in the run up to the elections and as president, it became very difficult for people to voice their criticism. Once he was ailing and very old the occasional, usually partisan critique was expressed. So vehement was the media and State disapproval that few could offer their dissent.
Zakes Mda, an independent minded author, wrote an obituary that lacked the reverence dripping from the obituaries. He wrote: ‘There is an increasingly vocal segment of black South Africans who feel that Mandela sold out the liberation struggle to white interests.’
Bundy also cited the composer Neo Muyanga saying that the criticism of Mandela is kind of code for black anger at white South Africans, positing the question: If Mandela is so sacrosanct for whites, must he not be suspect in some way?
In Bundy’s view, Malema caused such a furore because he is criticising something beyond himself and the EFF. “The last six months, Rhodes Must Fall, and particularly during Fees Must Fall, has seen youth and student activists increasingly distancing themselves from the 1994 settlement and therefore, from Mandela, because he is so closely associated with it,” Bundy said.
“Fees Must Fall has potentially been the moment where the ANC loses the allegiance of better educated, urban Born Frees. That scares the political party rigid. It certain should,” he said.
“It’s because Malema is voicing those undercurrents, that kind of sussuration of discontent that echoes with Africanist impatience, that have made his remarks so combustible!” Of particular significance was the parallel drawn between Julius Malema and the young Nelson Mandela.
Kasrils believed it was vital to assess the context in which the changes took place between 1990 and 1994:
There’s aspects of Mandela’s life with which we are all very well acquainted. Everybody was petrified that we were looking into the abyss as we faced Boipatong and the ‘Third Force’.
Nobody thought or imagined that the leviathan National Party was moving towards universal franchise. We then have a Mandela – in brilliance – who is able to bring round those of us who didn’t believe. He was absolutely correct. It was possible. In retrospect it is easy to see how the barons of industry emerged intact. Because we didn’t have a grip on economic controls, we have not been able to deal with poverty, with rubbish education and health. Therefore, you put it off, when the chickens come home to roost, they’re as big as turkeys!
Bundy reflected on the critique of the “sellout”. There’s a fascinating way in which that individualised and personalised critique is a mirror image of the lionisation of Mandela as the saviour. “They’re both historically barren and mythic. Mandela’s key role was symbolic. More than any other single politician he voiced the aspiration of the black, disenfranchised majority, and at the same time, he assured white South Africans that they were part of the future. Obviously, he didn’t do it on his own. He did it because there were very strong intellectual, political, social, local and international forces driving those decisions.”
Bundy and Kasrils noted that the economics were overlooked:
Mandela was not an economist. On 11 February he said we’ll nationalise the banks and the land and everything else in a speech written by a committee. By the time he gets to Davos 18 months later, he personally removes nationalisation from the agenda, but he was moving in step with the leadership of the party, and in particular, the exiled leadership.
By that time they’ve bought into an acceptance of the need to compromise, specially on issues of the economy. Mandela’s role was twofold. First, he was personally susceptible to the blandishments, flattery and persuasion and arguments of capitalists. Malema’s right. If Madiba is lunching at Brenthurst, why shouldn’t the ANC executive?
The dire situation South Africa now faces is a measure of the truth that “the chickens are coming home to roost”. Of particular prescience was Kasrils’ “mea culpa”. He repeated a number of times the deep regret that he did not stand up to Mandela on the importance of addressing poverty via economic remedies.
This was an evening to remember and those who were present benefited hugely from hearing this eloquent, passionate and well informed dialogue.
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Liesl Jobson (@LieslJobson) tweeted live from the event using the hashtag #livebooks:
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