Friday, February 9, 2024 #24

 There is not only a triumphal and heroic public reporting of the struggles of Nelson Mandela and the ANC to replace apartheid with a democratic South Africa in which racial equality prevailed. There is a ‘backstory’ that has received less public attention and acclaim in the manner in which Mandela consistently assessed whatever proposals, offers, attempts to divide and conquer the ‘freedom movement’ and to respond to the repeated drumming of the deception drum beat of the government.

One of the incarceration locations in which Mandela was held, after Robben Island, was called Pollsmoor Maximum Security Prison. In his own words:

The prison itself is set amidst the strikingly beautiful scenery of the Cape, between the mountains of Constantiaberge to the north and hundreds of acres of vineyards to the south. But this natural beauty was invisible to us behind Poolsmore’s high concrete walls.  At Pollsmore I first understood the truth of Oscar Wilde’s haunting line about the tent of blue that prisoners call the sky.

Pollsmore had a modern face but a primitive heart. The buildings, particularly the ones for the prison staff, were clean and contemporary: but the housing for the prisoners was archaic and dirty. With the exception of ourselves, all men at Pollsmore were common-law prisoners, and their treatment was backward. We were kept separately from them and treated differently, (Mandela, Long Walk To Freedom, p.513)

Not incidentally, Mandela’s keen and poetic observation, “Pollsmore had a modern face and a primitive heart,’ shines throughout his autobiography, and gives evidence of what James Hillman calls the ‘soul’ of a building, from the perspective of a highly insightful, creative, intuitive and imaginative prisoner. His creative imagination, especially one that is and has undergone profound abuse, illegitimate charges, reputational defamation, state and government violence on himself and his family, and essentially lives in a state of trauma, without succumbing to its tyranny, sees and “appreciates” (from a critical perspective) the ‘primitive heart’ even of a prison. Appearances versus reality, and the insightful and nuanced perception both to ‘see’ and to ‘discern’ the chasm between, served Mandela well, although this was certainly not his only unique talent.

Knowing if and when to ‘confront’ authorities, in a manner that did, and could only, generate respect from the authorities at least for his ‘cool’ under fire. With the conflict between the ANC and the government heating up, while he was in Pollsmore, Mandela writes about the government strategy:

Both the government and the ANC were working on two tracks: military and political. On the political front, the government was pursuing its standard divide-and-rule strategy in attempting to separate Africans from Coloured and Indians. In a referendum of November 1983, the white electorate endorsed P.W. Botha’s plan to create a so-called tricameral Parliament, with Indian and Coloured chambers in addition to the white Parliament. This was an effort to lure Indians and Coloured into the system, and divide them from Africans. But the offer was a ‘toy telephone,’ as all parliamentary action by Indians and Coloureds was subject to a white veto. It was also a way of fooling the outside world into thinking that the government was reforming apartheid. Botha’s ruse did not fool the people, as more than 80 percent of eligible Indian and Coloured voters boycotted the election to the new houses of Parliament in 1984. (Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom, p.518-519)

A documentation of a similar ruse comes from the government’s ‘efforts to persuade me to move to the Transkei. These were not efforts to negotiate, but attempts to isolate me from my organization. On several occasions, Kruger (government minister) said tome: ‘Mandela, we can work with you, but not your colleagues. Be reasonable.’ Although I did not respond to these overtures, the mere fact that they were talking rather than attacking could be seen as a prelude to genuine negotiations. (LWTF, p. 519)

About this time Mandela received visits from British statesmen, Lord Bethell of the House of Lords and Samuel Dash, professor of Law at Georgetown University and former counsel to the U.S. Senate Watergate Committee. Both visits were authorized by the new minister of justice, Kobie Coetsee, who appeared to be a new sort of Afrikan leader….Bethell was a jovial, rotund man and when I first met him, I teased his about his stoutness, ‘You look like you are related to Winston Churchill,’ I said as we both shook hands, and he laughed. Lord Bethell wanted to know about our conditions at Pollsmore and I told him. We discussed the armed struggle and I explained to his it was not up to us to renounce violence, but the government. I reaffirmed that e aimed for hard military targets, not people. ‘I would not want our men to assassinate, for instance, the major here,’ I said, pointing to Major Fritz van Sittert, who was monitoring the talks. Van Sittert was a good-natured fellow who did not say much, but he started at my remark.

In my visit with Professor Dash,… I laid out what I saw as the minimum for a future nonracial South Africa: a unitary state without homelands; nonracial elections for the central Parliament; and one-person-one-vote. Professor Dash asked me whether I took any encouragement from the government’s stated intention of repealing the mixed-marriage laws and certain other apartheid statues. ‘This is a pinprick,’ I said. ‘It is not my ambition to marry a white woman or swim in a white pool. It is political equality that we want.’ I told Dash quite candidly that at the moment we could not defeat the government on the battlefield, but could make governing difficult for them.

I had a not-so-pleasant visit from two Americans, editors of the conservative newspaper the Washington Times. They seemed less intent on finding out my views than on proving that I was a Communist and a terrorist. All of their questions were slanted in that direction and when I reiterated that I was neither a Communist nor a terrorist, they attempted to show that I was not Christian either by asserting that the Reverend Martin Luther King never resorted to violence. I told them that the conditions in which Martin Luther King struggle were totally different from my own: the United States was a democracy with constitutional guarantees of equal rights that protected nonviolent protest (though there was still prejudice against blacks); South Africa was a police state with a constitution that enshrined inequality and an army that responded to nonviolence with force. I told them that I was a Christian and had always been a Christian. Even Christ, I said, when he was left with no alternative, used force to expel the moneylenders from the temple. He was not a man of violence, but had no choice but to use force against evil. I do not think I persuaded them.(LWTF, p 520-521)

Prime Minster Botha, in Parliament, offered Mandela his freedom, in a tepid halfway measure,…if I unconditionally rejected violence as a political instrument’  on January 31,1985. This offer was extended to all political prisoners. Then, as if he were staking me to a public challenge, he added, ‘It is therefore not the South Africa government which now stands in the way of Mr. Mandel’s freedom. It is he himself…..By my reckoning, it was the sixth conditional offer the government had made for me release in the past ten years…..Botha wanted the onus of violence to rest on my shoulders and I wanted to reaffirm to the world that we were only responding to the violence done to us. I intended to make it clear that if I emerged from prison into the same circumstances in which I was arrested, I would be forced to resume the same activities for which I was arrested. (LWTF, p.521-522)

Mandela’s sense of humour, even under extreme duress and also while visiting with foreign dignitaries, his laser-focused intellect and perception, his balance of noticing a ‘good fellow’ as his warder and his incisive clarity around both the motives and the methods of the government, leave no doubt that he instilled deep and profound and lasting trust in his colleagues, as well as his enemies. And he did all this in a manner and a spirit of almost detached nonchalance, or at least self-possession.

Courage, confidence, integrity, steadfastness to both his people and the cause of removing apartheid, are all deeply embedded in the speech his daughter, Zindzi, delivered in his (incarcerated) absence, at a UDF (United Democratic Front) rally, in Soweto’s Jabulani Stadium on Sunday February 10, 1985:

I am a member of the African National Congress. I have always been a member of the African National Congress and I will remain a member of the African National Congress until the day I die. Oliver Tambo is more than a brother to me. He is my greatest friend and comrade for nearly fifty years. If there is one amongst you who cherishes my freedom, Oliver Tambo cherishes it more, and I know that he would give his life to see me free…

I am surprised at the conditions that the government wants to impose on me..I am not a violent man….It was only then, when all other forms of resistance were no longer open to us, that we turned to armed struggle. Let Botha show that he is different to Malan, Strijdom and Verwoerd. Let him renounce violence. Let him say that he will dismantle apartheid. Let him unban the people’s organisation, the African National Congress. Let him free all who have been imprisoned, banished or exiled for their opposition to apartheid. Let him guarantee free political activity so that people may decide who will govern them.

I cherish my own freedom dearly, but I care even more for your freedom. Too many have died since I went to prison. Too many have suffered for the love of freedom. I owe it to their widows, to their orphans, to their mothers, and to their fathers who have grieved and wept for them. Not only have I suffered during these long, lonely, wasted years. I am not less life-loving than you are. But I cannot sell my birthright, nor am I prepared to sell the birthright of the people to be free…

What freedom am I being offered while the organization of the people remains banned? What freedom am I being offered when I may be arrested on a pass offence? What freedom am I being offered to live in life as a family with my dear wife who remains in banishment in Brandfort? What freedom am I being offered when I must ask for permission to live in an urban area?....What freedom am I being offered when my very South African citizenship is not respected?

Only free men can negotiate. Prisoners cannot enter into contracts…I cannot and will not give any undertaking at a time when I and you, the people, are not free. Your freedom and mine cannot be separated. I will return.

Some documents in history, while they have a life and a meaning at the moment of their utterance or their signing, have enduring energy that continues to ripple throughout the ensuing decades, if not centuries. This highly personal, highly provocative, highly arresting and even more highly courageous and embracing speech, delivered also in a tragically epic manner and forum by his adult daughter, continues to resound in the mind and the imagination and in the ears of those who encounter it nearly a half-century later.

Of course, it has repercussions and implications for the Western world today when we watch the sweep of lies, distortions, disinformation, deception and outright manipulations of ordinary and generally respected men and women in various parts of the world whose words from Mandela sound the notes of a different, and wholly authentic kind of political, cultural, ethical, and revolutionary leader.

Can the words and the actions, the beliefs and the attitudes and the perceptions and the imaginative and aspirational beacon of light penetrate the darkness that is descending over the waters of state in many quarters? Can the insight, to see through the chicanery, the ruses, the trickeries, the tyrannies and the autocracies of the majority of people in America, in Europe, in China, in North Korea, in Chile and Hungary and in Russia? Can the courage of Mandela be injected into the minds, the hearts and the bodies of millions of men and women in order that his light not merely inspires them to confront the lies and the hatred and the manipulations, but to overcome a force that is at least equal to, if not even more destructive and deceptive than both apartheid the governments that clung to it?


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