Saturday, December 7, 2013



In four fascinating trips to the South Africa of contrast and contradiction, hatred and hope, murder and mystery, I watched the jail walls of apartheid crumble as the terrorist became the saint.
The man who forgave even those who stole his life
This deserved outpouring of grief over Nelson Mandela dwells more on myth than man.
But underneath it, when you separate cunning - he could have given lessons to Machiavelli - from a compassion that could make you weep,  you end up confronting the eternal question that baffles the world.
When does the menacing revolutionary become the praised freedom fighter?
I remember wandering through the cooking fire smog in 1987 in sprawling Soweto  - it's not an exotic name but  SOuthWEstTOwnship - one notorious black home for the feared African National Congress, and listening to endless debates among the shacks about whether the ANC was beating racism and what would happen next to the Mandela who had been jailed for more than a generation
The reality had not yet been wiped by success. Mandela, tribal royalty, had become the lawyer and charismatic leader who also had been, the court was told before he was shipped to the island quarry, a special saboteur controlling an arsenal of 210,000 grenades, 48,000 mines and 50 tons of explosives.
Before Mandela became Mandiba, father of his country, he never denied founding and leading an armed wing of the ANC that blew up people. He never disowned violent resistance. Close to Cuba not to Gandh. He didn't think nonviolent disobedience worked. By Canadian law, still a terrorist.
Every great revolution has been born in blood, but the wonder here, the miracle that silenced a world  arsenal of redneck and savage right wing critics, is that more blood flowed and more hatred festered  before the fight against apartheid was won, than afterwards, thanks to the wisdom of Mandela that saw revenge would not be sweet.
 But they still cry in that beloved country. There is actually more crime than under apartheid,  even though more blacks are killed on a percentage basis than whites in their gated communities.
If only Mandela's tolerance could be honoured by a new revolution by all against routine corruption in government and the danger on the streets. Back when I made such lists, before medicare tethered me to Canada, it was one place I would have loved to live, up there with the quiet paradises.
But not now that a fifth of the whites have left and the rest have retreated to suburban ghettos. Although, according to the respected Economist, it remains the biggest and by far the most sophisticated economy on the continent.
The country has always been pinned under the media microscope. There have been countries with which newspapers were preoccupied. Before the latest invasions ruined the expression, Afghanistanism was a joke, meaning that on quiet days you dashed off another editorial on Afghanistan because it sounded important even though few knew where it was, and fewer cared.
That was never true about the beautiful home of diamonds, gold and the great park. It  has fascinated and baffled since the Boer War made a hero out of Churchill. Table Mountain was pictured in every geography text. I had to visit it, My son Brett's picture looks down from its cable car house to Cape Town, an urban jewel on every must-see list. Tales of Zulu battles and explorers captured the imagination of every boy.
I found on my first trip as Sun Editor in 1986 that it was not just another hit for the media. I arrived in JoBurg at a conference on the ANC struggle to pry open the fists of the Afrikaners. I felt  like a deer in the headlights because all around were media elite mixed with heroes of the struggle. At my front table, I was the only one who hadn't written a few books, and media queen Katharine Graham of the Post was in her accustomed position.
Yet I remember more what went on outside. The Editor of the Star, the largest newspaper, which was the sponsor, assigned me a handsome, tailored  man, Sam Mabe, as my guide to the Soweto where he had lived with eight brothers in a shed before he escaped as a reporter. His brothers didn't.
Mabe made sour common sense, bitter yet realistic and hopeful. He and all the other young blacks who had bucked the ANC and got an education - that was said to be siding with whitey - were the future. No, make that the other blacks because Mabe was murdered, and the police didn't even nvestigate because they said he had been fooling around and a husband got him.
The Mabe who escorted Mary and me talked endlessly about his PTA and whether Montessori would work for his three sons. He talked fondly of his wife. Now he is another hero of his country because they know he was killed by whites who worried about having too many uppity blacks.
Mabe showed us the Mandela home, which was more of a fortress than mansion because of the improvements his wife Winnie had made. Reports said she had spent $65,000 just on windows. Probably just Afrikan propaganda but it did stand out in a suburb the size of Etobicoke where two families often shared a hut the size of a garden shed,
There were squatters beside outhouses. But once again, the plague of South Africa, the obvious huge gaps in incomes. There were streets where no one had work, then just around the corner ,a nice house owned by a millionaire, complete with witchdoctor strutting by looking for customers.
Mabe demonstrated the gulf between words and actions that poisoned their politics. We talked by the hour. He was reasonable and agreeable. Yet the next day at the conference, it was angry rhetoric that pleased his watching comrades at the back, and would have pleased Marx too.
We didn't talk much about that, or about the yawning gulf between countless poor blacks and the fewer richer whites, at the reception in the house rented by the Star for its Editor where its size and servants easily handled several hundred guests in a luxurious garden tended by an illegal immigrant..
What we did discuss was Mandela's stubborn refusal to deal with President P.W. Botha two years earlier to win release from a "life" sentence. An action that  symbolized his party refusing to co-operate on anything the government did, even in education and local government.  A moderate cabinet minister, Stoffel Van der Merwe, explained to me that it just didn't suit the ANC's purpose. Instead it was intimidation, bombings and rebellion, with "necklacing" tossed  in, where blacks said to be traitors had tires jammed around their neck and burned.
The government was trying, because of universal newspaper condemnation, to build democracy from black councils up, but the ANC spread such terror, some councils couldn't get a quorum. In the last election in Soweto before my visits, the ANC so frightened those wanting simply to vote that the turnout was only 4%. We were taken at night to the first new business in the township, a rudimentary night club. We were the only whites. It was surrounded by a high metal fence, huge spotlights drenched every inch outside, armed guards paced everywhere, and the atmosphere reminded me of a prison.
I talked to B.Z. Ndlazi,  black mayor of Mamelodia, a prosperous alternative to Soweto, He said things were getting better and he was getting his citizens to work with government. Blacks replied hat  those were lies and he was a stupid, crooked puppet. So his house had been burned down twice - he joked he no longer bought furniture - and the family's two cars had been blown up. The employee whom he assigned to guide me had had his house fire bombed twice because he dared to have the civic job.
So terror blanketed the country just a few years before Mandela and the ANC won.  In Durban, an accountant said it was his Christian duty to get kids to go to school despite the national boycott by the ANC that left a generation uneducated.  He was suspect because he was from India and classed as coloured. He told me he would continue to do this work even though sugar was dumped twice in his car's gas, tires were slashed twice, and it was only because of a phoned anonymous warning that he wasn't blown up in the local grocery store.
It didn't start well when Mandela was freed in 1990 when the new president, F.W. de Klerk, became statesman enough to work out an"understanding" with him.
When he arrived in April, 1991, in Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan, the world wanted a progress report  from the deputy ANC leader. He was the keynote speaker at the 40th International Press Institute assembly. The IPI is one of the world's oldest, largest and most respected press institutions fighting for freedoms of speech and the press.
He was very much the star, even though other speakers included Robert McNamara, the former  U.S. Secretary of Defense. Famous journalists queued for a handshake. The magic of Mandela was in full majesty.
He played hooky from the adulation to visit Ryoanji Temple with its celebrated rock garden, a walled rectangle of white gravel and 15 carefully positioned rocks. For 500 years people have come  to meditate.
I was strolling the elevated walkway, trying to experience the peace of the centuries, when a man coming the other way, also looking to the side, collided head on with m. Hard! I grabbed this man as he was falling off, pulled him back, found out then  I was holding Mandela, and said "migawd I just wiped out the guest speaker." A shock but at least we didn't bruise or break or bleed.
 He then was 73, but hardly frail.  I am a big 6' 2" but he seemed taller. He was as hard as the rocks that he had to crush for most of his 27 years in prison after he had been a heavweight boxer.
I was mortified. He gave that big warm smile, waved off my apology saying it was his fault, and ignored his furious bodyguards. He walked on, I guess in another attempt to find a little peace, with  guards still trailing and glaring.
The buffet lunch was in one of those tailored Japanese gardens which seem borrowed from Heaven.  When Mandela queued for food, I got in behind, figuring there was no need for an introduction. We stood under a tree and talked and ate, surrounded by irritated guards.
I raised a painful subject since his wife was going on trial the next day and I wondered just what he was doing in Japan at the same time. "We have good lawyers," he said quietly. I pushed a little, because rumour already said that  the passion had died and he was going to divorce Winnie, an awful woman who slept around and had her gang kill a youth who had annoyed her. She was as nasty as he was nice
He gently steered back to safer grounds, like food,. He confessed that such buffets never had his favourite food, a maize or corn porridge that he had loved since he was a baby..
Then the crowd flooded in, and he was surrounded until that speech, which was an explanation and defence of the ANC. No apologies for the armed struggle which occasionally distressed even stout supporters.
 I  recall his flat delivery when I look at the copy I have kept. Few lines are underlined, there are no notations about oratory or applause interuptions. But who would applaud a recitation of the terrible toll of  apartheid.
They were still "passing through extremely troubled times" because of racial violence. He said that because of the "social distance apartheid has created between black and white, it seemed most whites were oblivious to the horror." He estimated that 600 people had died in the first three months of that year and 2,900 had died in 1990 "although most white South Africans are unaware of these shocking figures."
Mandela asked for "no favours from the worldwide fraternity of newspeople," and pledged that the ANC was "not going to withdraw from the cut and thrust of politics. We have the confidence that we can engage any of our critics on the strength of our record."
Of course they would, and they won the election just two years later as a result.
An old journalism trick is to figure out how a speaker is going to leave and just stand by that door. So I did. As Mandela swept regally out in the centre of a posse, he stopped and asked "what did you think of my speech, Canadian- who-hits-so-hard?" Few leaders ever do that, but Mandela was always different.
 I said I had been disappointed, that I expected to hear him answer the wide-spread criticism that he hadn't met with the Zulu chief minister,  Buthelezi,  even though the Inkatha party could be a big player   in any new government.. Jealousy between major tribes?  "I talk to him all the time," he said. No one knows that, I said. "We talk on the phone," he said, which was news to right-wingers who had been urging this in editorials around the world.
Picking my words carefully, because this was a man of steel used to millions parsing every phrase, I said it was unfortunate he hadn't written such a major speech. "How do  you know I didn't," he said?  Because you didn't know when you got to the end,  I said. You turned the page and stopped because there wasn't anything else. He gave a rueful smile and a shrug. The man from solitary with endless time was now too busyl
Mandela continued to fascinate the media. Naturally when the IPI met in Cape Town in 1994 just after he became president, we asked him back.
Another star at the conference was Donald Woods, the white editor who was the international hero of the hit movie Cry Freedom about his friendship with black martyr Steve Bilko. It was his first time back since he fled the country in a famous escape.
 I took him to lunch to get his opinion on just how dangerous the country was now that the ANC had won and its terrorism could be stopped. Woods said he urged his BBC crew filming his visit to take him back to Cape Town before sunset because he figured he would be killed in the dark if he was caught in the country. . "The blacks would kill me before they found out I was Donald Woods and the Boers would kill me if they found out I was Donald Woods."
This speech wasn't  memorable, yet Mandela was mobbed as he left by those pushing to get closer to their Mandiba. As he passed this time,  he looked curiously at me and nodded. Mary was impressed but I doubt he had remembered.
He and four burly guards jumped into the big car and just sat there as the driver ground the starter again and again. The crowd surrounded the stalled car. Nothing. So Mandela jumped out, laughing, and found another car.
Just a tiny incident, yet it symbolized  his determination to smile past every hurdle and not just sit there, whether it was a minor problem or the awful memories of being mired in a sadistic past. 

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Thanks very much for the insights on encountering Mandela at the Kyoto IPI conference in 1991. Enjoyed reading it. I met Mandela when he arrived at the Osaka airport, where he then proceeded to head to Kyoto for that IPI conference. Great memories of long-ago times.