Friday, 6 December 2013

Another hero gone: Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela died yesterday, aged 95, after a decade of increasingly poor health.

I always saw Nelson Mandela as a hero figure, a charismatic man who became so dangerous to the State that he was locked up for nearly three decades, only emerging when much older, not broken, but clearly with the best of his years gone and his health no longer robust. The wonder was that they did not engineer his death while in custody, on the lines of 'shot while attempting to escape'. Perhaps they knew they could not. He was already a living symbol of freedom and free speech, indeed a living martyr, and any obvious execution of him would have ignited a revolution. So they kept him locked up, no doubt hoping for a natural death, until world opinion forced his release.

I was too young to fully understand developments in South Africa during the 1960s, even though that country was rarely out of the news. The increasingly repressive dominance of the white minority was known, but it lacked reality for most in the UK, and South Africa was still a favoured place that you might emigrate to if you wanted an easy life in the sun. Few seemed to know how awful it really was for most of South Africa's population. Even in the mid-1970s it was possible to be ignorant of its worst aspects. Perhaps the plight of black people in South Africa was thought be no worse than the picturesque myths associated with places like Jamaica, myths which suggested that Caribbean folk were merry and happy-go-lucky in their tumbledown tropical shacks.

I remember sitting in a Southampton pub in 1976 while a young white South African, visiting the UK, described the very pleasant lifestyle he enjoyed back home. Lots of money, and driving a ludicrously gas-guzzling 'yank tank'. And he told a flippant joke about Black Power. Now I'd heard of 'Black Power' in connection with those angry but articulate young black men in the USA who were still arguing for basic rights, and I probably had in my mind the famous black fists raised in athletic salute at the Mexico Olympics in 1968. But he didn't mean that. His 'joke' was simply that in South Africa you didn't need to hire expensive earth-moving trucks when, say, building motorways. You could save yourself a million rand on any big job. You simply gave ten thousand black men a shovel each, and ten cents a day, and the job would soon be done. It was very hard to politely smile at that, even in 1976. Exhausting physical work for joke wages was, as like as not, no more than the truth. I was staggered that this young man thought he had been amusing.

Much viler deeds were being done against the black man in his home country. I read all about them in a book that I bought in 2004 or 2005, but can't now find on my bookshelves. It was about the impact of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in post-Apartheid South Africa, the new Rainbow Nation. The book was a kind of review, written some years after the Commission began its work in 1996. Nelson Mandela set the Commission up to look at racial crimes during the Apartheid era. It identified persons in the old Apartheid system who had behaved badly towards the black population. But it was not a witch-hunt. It was an opportunity, almost an invitation, for the perpetrators of racial crimes to 'come clean', to explain why they did what they did, to confess their involvement, to acknowledge their full responsibility, and, if they felt they should not be punished, to ask for exoneration or clemency. The Commission would recommend punishment if necessary, but the main purpose was to discover the truth, set the record straight, and foster closure on both sides, so that wicked deeds could pass into history and not divide the new nation. It was significant that the Chairman of the Commission was Archbishop Desmond Tutu, surely a man steadfast for justice and the alleviation of distress, but patient in the face of repression, and a respected force for peace and forgiveness.

I remember reading of many very dreadful incidents in the book. There were interviews, for instance, with white police officers who had routinely amused themselves by beating up any black persons who caught their attention, regardless of whether a misdemeanour had occurred to justify their interest. It was done with a strange mindset that could not treat black persons as human beings. And the brutality was utterly disgusting. I wasn't entirely convinced that anyone confessing to such callous (and often lethal) crimes should receive a light sentence, let alone a pardon for them. But a high level of clemency let the Commission avoid the odium of being a murderous killing machine itself, bent simply on revenge. And I for one can understand the greater cause served by the victor not seeming to be the scourge of the vanquished. People do look to the future and want to move on; wounds will eventually heal; and nothing good can be achieved until all thoughts of retaliation are set aside. I'd like to believe that for both Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu peace and hope were always well worth any sacrifice.

I dare say that Desmond Tutu is glad that Apartheid is dead as a political system, but he must be deeply saddened that the initial hopes for the new South Africa, in particular his special wish to give the black population very much better living conditions, have not yet been realised. Similarly corruption and political in-fighting has tarnished the political life and reputation of the country, diminished the credibility of its ANC leadership, and has stood in the way of major social progress and the elimination of disadvantage.

Did Nelson Mandela die content with the outcome of his struggles? The main thing, the defeat of Apartheid, the dominance of a white ruling class, was certainly achieved. If that was the chief aim of his original activism, then the job was finished, and an evil was gone. But, twenty-three years after his release from prison, did he feel that the country and its people, all of them, had blended, had a common vision, and were well set on the road to a harmonious and prosperous future? I imagine not. But I'd also imagine him being philosophical about it. Even partial success is something worth having. He might compare it to growing flowers in his garden. Some will stand the conditions and thrive; some won't.

He did like gardening. Who remembers that visit from Alan Titchmarsh sometime in the early 2000s - it was a Ground Force special - in which Nelson Mandela's garden was given a makeover? I recall it quite well. He said only a few quiet words, but his face shone with pleasure. You know, offhand I can't think of many world-class personages who have time for flowers.


  1. The obnoxious joke and the behaviour of those police officers doesn't surprise me, for the lie of white supremacy was deeply ingrained. I recall a distant relative of mine, on holiday from Rhodesia in Ian Smith's time, telling me with utter conviction that black people could never match the intellect of whites as the physical make-up of their brains was inferior.

    It's worth remembering that, not so long ago, Alabama had its own version of apartheid. Who would have believed then that the USA would one day have a black president and Nelson Mandela would be internationally revered?

  2. The GroundForce Clip is here;

  3. Ah, I got the year wrong, never mind. Thanks for the clip address, but it features Alan Titchmarch recalling the occasion in an interview, and doesn't have any footage from the actual show. A pity.


  4. There's a trailer for the Groundforce prog. at


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