The World That Made Mandela: A tribute to Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela.
Tribute prepared for the Commemoration of the Life and Times of Nelson Mandela, Abuja. 13th February, 2014.
Luli Calliincos, social historian and author of The World that made Mandela , official biographer of Oliver Tambo. Winner of the Noma Award for her Working Life: Factories, Townships and Popular Culture, the best book in Africa published in 1988, awarded in Ife, Nigeria.
Edward Webster, director of Chris Hani Institute, COSATU House , and Professor Emeritus, University of Witwatersand, Johannesburg. Webster was arrested and put on trial in 1976 for calling for the release from prison of Nelson Mandela.
When Nelson Mandela passed away on 5th December 2013 his life of commitment to the liberation struggle was celebrated across the globe. Never before have so many foreign dignitaries gathered to attend the funeral of one man. He had become the moral icon of the globe; a benchmark against which no other statesman of the twentieth century could compare.
Statesmen across the world paid tribute to Mandela’s contribution to the struggle for a a democratic South Africa, but very few have examined the forces that shaped his early life. The world, in other words, that made Mandela the figure he was to become. In this short tribute we focus on his early life; the influence of the traditional values of the rural world where he was born and grew up; his early education at Methodist missionary schools such as Clarkebury Secondary School, Healdtown High school and then later Fort Hare University from which he was expelled for political activities. It is these early influences that are less well known but they were nevertheless decisive in shaping the leader he was to become.
His death triggered a robust debate centred on whether Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela had been a member of the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA, later renamed the South African Communist Party). In a study reminiscent of the Cold War, Steven Ellis raises the question of communism in relation to the decision of the ANC in 1960 to turn to armed struggle. Apart from the evidence that senior CPSA members such as Moses Kotane, JB Marx, Bram Fischer, Rusty Bernstein and others considered that the time was not ready for such a move, there were many non-members of the movement who eagerly embraced this change of strategy and welcomed the formation of Umkonto We Sizwe (MK) .
Mandela himself wrote ambiguously about his relationship with the CPSA/SACP, at that time banned and Underground. Arguably, he did attend Central Committee meetings in the early sixties while planning the shift to armed struggle, either as a member or as member of the ANC/SACP Alliance. At that point he was exploring and finding Marxist theory useful to the cause of the national freedom struggle Perhaps, as Paul Trewhela, himself a relentless critic of the ANC and above all the SACP, indicated recently that what is more relevant in pinning down the identity of Mandela, a revolutionary African nationalist, is his political conduct then, and subsequently.
Indeed, the way this debate has been conducted has been quite superficial. While some have sought to extract Mandela’s persona from his organisation, he consistently maintained that he was an integral part of his movement.
‘The ANC made me’, he said.
And indeed, from the moment Mandela met Walter Sisulu in his Johannesburg office in the early forties, the latter identified Mandela, because of his physical presence and confident, aristocratic bearing, his charisma, nous and commitment, as a natural leader. He came subsequently to personify the liberation movement as it grew from the respected but pedestrian ANC to a more interactive grass-roots, steadily growing mass movement.
As a prisoner from 1964 to 1990, Mandela was elected to be the spokesperson on Robben Island: ‘the trio, Mandela, Sisulu and Mbeki (the old man, Govan);’ remarked Neville Alexander, ‘they were always projected as a trio. But whenever it came (and this was obviously to do with prestige and stature) to negotiating or talking with the authorities, or with visitors from time to time, he would be the one that was nominated to do so, and the prison authorities generally expected that he would be that one.’
The ANC in exile purposefully chose him to be the face of the liberation struggle, witness the publication of No Easy Walk to Freedom, a collection of his speeches and writings by the ANC in the United Kingdom in 1965, with an insightful introduction by Oliver Tambo. Over the years, Mandela, despite the absence of his image, became an international icon, a potent metaphor for the entire liberation movement against apartheid.
But all human beings, each one of us unique - as indeed Madiba was, spectacularly so - are also shaped by what French historians call the longue durée of our historical background, of the deeply embedded formations of our socio-economic and political context – race, class and gender- but also by our culture. Over the years we have come to be fascinated by the qualities of agency that each one of us exercises in our day-to-day experiences. The choices we make in our lives are to a great extent shaped by our culture and values, many of which we internalise, modified of course by experiences dealt to us according to the material circumstances foisted on us.
What were these values and experiences that shaped Mandela’s early life? Firstly, take for example the culture of survival developed in precolonial times, which through trial and error over the millennia drew strength and endurance from collective endeavour. Cooperative practices in hunting and gathering, in the shared use of land, group participation in work parties during seasonal ploughing, and bonding through marriage, These material conditions led to the development of respect for fellow humans and enduring social relations – at its best, the principles of Ubuntu. These are the values that shaped the early Madiba.
Secondly, his holistic approach where families were inclusive, not slaves to biological kinship; they were multigenerational and extended; children were part of the homestead economy; healing did not separate the mind and feelings from bodily ailments. Lessons in all activities – in storytelling and tales of the ancestors; or competitive stick-fighting was both about physical prowess and dexterity and a course in strategy and highly sophisticated behaviour, some of which we seem to have lost in modernity – ‘I learned to be generous in victory’, Mandela remarked of his early life.
Thirdly, there is a danger of dismissing the leaders of society as a privileged elite – usually powerful and famous man; yet in writing biographies of Oliver Tambo and Mandela, we came to appreciate that leaders often reflect the values of the people whom they serve. In the societies of these two men, to be the best kind of leader was to be an exemplar. Consensus decision-making ensured participation through consultation. In a non-literate, oral culture, people learn to listen carefully and to hone their memory. In an imbizo or collective council (admittedly, in the past, consisting of men only), the traditional leader listens very carefully, is the last to speak, and in making decisions, ensures that at as many of the opinions of the councillors are skilfully woven into the final resolution.
Neville Alexander, a sharp, left-wing critic of what he saw as the ‘opportunism’ of the ANC, came to appreciate their leadership on Robben Island: ‘[Mandela] would always speak on our behalf. But there was always a very democratic process. I must stress that point. Nothing happened without proper careful consultation, and there were very few occasions I can recall where consultation was absolutely not possible’.
Fourthly, an important aspect of traditional rural culture was an astute pragmatism.
Under colonialism, the children of the aristocracy were enticed to attend missionary schools. The message of Christianity spread relatively rapidly for two reasons: the one was that its attractive message to ‘love one another’ resonated with the ingrained culture of humanity, so effective in social relations; the other was the remarkable skill of literacy. The words of the missionaries’ Bible opened windows and revealed exciting vistas and capabilities by learning to read, and indeed inspired men and women to put down in writing the centuries-old rich oral culture retained in ancestral memory.
Very rapidly, within a generation, an African intelligentsia emerged, and an invaluable syncretism: in his autobiography, Albert Luthuli, President of the ANC from 1955 until his death in 1967, identified himself as a dedicated Zulu, yet spoke of choosing the best of qualities of all cultures.
‘Western civilisation,’ said Luthuli, ‘is only partly western. It embraces the contribution of many lands and many races. It is the outcome of interaction, not apartheid. .. It belongs to Africa as much as to Europe or America or India’.
Mastering the weapons of the ruling class, using them as a means to confront the colonisers, was an effective if not sufficient way to (literally) defend and advance the cause of their people.
Sixthly, this openness to intellectual inclusiveness enabled the ANC of Mandela and Sisulu and Tambo and others of their generation to grasp a broadening concept of the nation. From seeking to unite the diverse African ethnicities into a family of one nation in 1912, it widened to cooperate with all oppressed blacks; then at the time of the Freedom Charter in 1955, the ANC formed alliances with all democrats, including the organised working class (the South African Congress of Trade Unions), black and white, until finally, in the 1990s, the concept of the nation under democracy included all the people of South Africa, across the political spectrum. Seven years later, during his first excursion ever outside South Africa, in 1962, Mandela recalled in his autobiography that going to African countries meant more to him ‘than a trip to France, England and America combined’. At the PAFMECA conference of Addis Ababa, (the precursor of the OAU), he thanked ‘Ghana, Nigeria and Tanganyika, who spearheaded the successful drive to oust South Africa from the British Commonwealth’. For the first time too, Mandela realised the tangible promise and power of Pan Africanism, and the boundaries between African nations were imposed by colonial imperatives.
And so, when Mandela steadily began developing in his mind the original objective of MK, to bring the oppressors to their senses and call for a National Assembly to hammer out a negotiated solution, he tested it against his closest comrades in prison, Sisulu , Kathrada, Mkwayi;
’What took you so long?’ they asked.
And that indeed is the punch line. For deeply embedded in this response was a sub-text: that despite the brutality, the barbarism and the devastating price in lives, dignity and suffering, the quality of Ubuntu is not strained.
It allowed the majority of the people to overcome the anger and the pain through an internal recognition that for the majority of South African people, generosity and humanism represents the best of culture in Africa’s long history. It was this ingrained understanding that allowed Mandela to take his gamble – and succeed in fashioning, through a careful, collective process of respect, consultation and inclusiveness, a South African democracy and constitution that is celebrated around the world.
Mandela was not alone. Thanks to a deeply ingrained African humanism, the message resonated with, and was effortlessly grasped by millions of men and women throughout the continent of Africa. It was this message that moved the world, one that the 21st century cannot afford to forget.