By: Carl Niehaus
Early in the morning of the 10th of December 1993, when former President Nelson Mandela was to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in the Oslo City Hall in Norway, the hotel manager of the Grand Hotel, where Madiba overnighted, was met with what was for him a most extraordinary sight. As he checked at the Presidential Suite if all was well with his important guest, the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, he found Madiba busy making his own bed. The manager stuttered his embarrassment that the chamber-maid had not come in early enough to make the bed. Only to be met by a stretched-out hand, that famous beaming smile, and the assurance by Madiba that nothing was wrong because he always made up his own bed, no matter where he was.
For 26 years in prison Madiba was forced to make his bed and clean his small three by four-meter cell. This tradition and practice continued beyond his incarceration since from the first day of his release from Victor Verster Prison in Paarl, he continued to do so, because he did not find it improper to make his own bed.
Madiba invited the manager to sit down and enjoy his first cup of tea for the day with him. As he would always do with all his guests he insisted on pouring the tea for the startled manager, and then proceeded not to discuss the illustrious Nobel Peace Prize Ceremony that was to commence a few hours later, but instead to enquire about the manager’s family. Whether his wife was working, how many children they had, and what their names were. Madiba expressed an interest in meeting them, and suggested that the manager should bring them along to his room later in the day after the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony was over.
Twenty years later, when Nelson Mandela passed away in 1993 the, then retired hotel manager, recalled these events in an interview as the most extraordinary experience he had with any of the many Nobel Peace Prize laureates that he had the honour to host during his long career at the posh Grand Hotel. He proudly displayed the photos that Madiba later that day took with his whole family, the same which had pride of place next to the fire place in his living room.
The last apartheid President of South Africa, Mr. FW de Klerk, jointly received the Nobel Peace Prize with Madiba, and was also a guest in the hotel that same night. When pressed by the interviewer if he had any recollection of Mr. de Klerk the manager acknowledged that De Klerk stayed there, but then shook his head and said that he had no memories or impression about the man.
I am consciously recalling this story because in a very special way it reveals the essence of the great, but humble, personality of the Father of our South African nation. In his
lifetime Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela received many honours and made many great speeches. The speech that he made later that same day after meeting with the hotel manager of the Grand Hotel in Oslo, when he jointly with Mr. FW de Klerk received the Nobel Peace Prize, is together with the speech that he made on the 10th of May 1994, when he was inaugurated as the first African and democratically elected President of South Africa, included in an anthology of the 100 Greatest Speeches that changed our world. Today, Madiba is probably one of the most quoted people in history, his quotes can be found all over the Internet, and adorns many buildings and public places. However, important and inspiring as these speeches and quotes are, they draw their meaning,
strength and integrity from Madiba’s actions. Nelson Mandela’s life is the living proof that actions always speak louder than words.
I am sure that when asked about what Madiba said at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony the hotel manager would probably not be able to recall a word, but yet he, in a fundamental sense, experienced in a profound way the central message of that Madiba’s speech on the day, which was all about reaching out to all of a common humanity in the pursuit of justice and peace.
One of those famous quotes by Madiba, which had been recalled repeatedly is: “If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he
becomes your partner.”
The sentiment expressed in this quote is universal and speaks to all of humanity
throughout the ages. Yet, it’s integrity is tested by the hard facts of a particular time and place. Without a historical context it can easily become the syrupy words of sweet nothings, leaving the unpalatable after-taste of compromise and selling out.
In South Africa the enemy that Nelson Mandela had worked with was clearly defined by
their actions. It was the apartheid regime that through its systematic institutionalised racist policies dehumanised and destroyed the lives of millions of black South Africans. The very same enemy that imprisoned Nelson Mandela and his fellow comrades for life on Robben Island. This enemy was not abstract or intangible, the enemy was personified by the prison warders who shouted abuse at Madiba and hurled insults at his fellow political prisoners when, they routinely woke them up every morning to check whether they had cleaned their tiny cells and made their iron strong prison beds properly.
The very same enemy that prevented Madiba for more than 15 years to see his own children, not even for one minute. Who, while Madiba was in prison, and helpless to protect his detained and abused wife, Winnie Mandela, banished her away from her
people and family to an isolated and poverty-stricken life in a small rural town of Brandfort, in the Free State.
When I speak about this I am not just talking about what I have read in history books. As a young political activist, I have visited comrade Winnie Mandela in the small house there in Bradfort, that she was in terms of her banishing order forced to live in. I have seen the pitiful conditions, and the terrible loneliness so brutally imposed on her.
Many decades later, after our liberation, it is important that Mama Winnie Mandela’s house of banishment in the town of Brandfort, where she suffered so much, must be preserved and made into a monument, so that we will never forget the pain and struggles of our liberation history, and what our enemies had done to us.
Years ago, at a banquet in Stockholm in Sweden in the presence of the very same Mr. FW de Klerk, with whom he jointly received the Nobel Peace Prize, Madiba recalled the terrible things that had been done to the black people of South Africa in general, and more specifically and personally to him, his wife and his family. That evening Madiba also recalled how he, and fellow political prisoners, were forced to do hard labour in a lime quarry on Robben Island where they were given the senseless, sole destroying and backbreaking, work to mine lime stone and grind it into lime dust. The fine lime dust got into their eyes, and several prisoners, including Madiba, suffered permanent and painful damage to their eyes and eye sight. Madiba also shockingly recalled how, at that very same lime quarry, the white prison warders forced the prisoners to dig holes which they had to get into up to shoulder level, and the holes were then filled up so that only the prisoner’s heads were above the soil and they were left like that in the scorching sun for
hours, and when they became dehydrated and pleaded for water the warders would
urinate on them.
I do not recall what Madiba told that night to the silent and shocked banquet guests in Stockholm in order to be sensational, and I also know that Madiba had no intention to be sensational when he spoke out about those almost unspeakable things. He was not a man who was ever partial to theatrics and complicit to cheap sensationalism, but I do so because I know that Madiba did so because he wanted to make it clear that he had no illusions about the nature of the enemy that he was negotiating with.
After having talked about these terrible things that happened, Madiba turned to Mr. de Klerk, who was sitting at the same table with him, and said that none the less he was prepared to work with de Klerk for the sake of achieving peace and justice for his people, and for South Africa.
De Klerk showed his own limitations and selfish nature that night, by complaining after the banquet to Madiba that he felt humiliated and insulted because Madiba shared these painful events in a foreign country where he would have liked to be presented as honourable and respectable. Sadly, the significance of what Mandela was saying went right over his head. Because of incidents like these Mandela never had any illusions about the very real limitations of the man he was negotiating with, but yet he persisted with the negotiations, because he had the big goal of the ultimate liberation of the people of South Africa in mind.
That goal Madiba never pursued as an individual. He always saw himself as being part of the political collective of his political party, the African National Congress (ANC), and our Alliance Partners, the South African Communist Party and the trade union movement. Madiba understood that over years he became the symbol (and for many people the personification) of the struggle against apartheid, but he knew that in reality he was a product and servant of the ANC in the struggle for the liberation of black (in particular African) South Africans. He had a strong personality and strong convictions, but he never moved ahead of the collective will, policies and programmes of the ANC.
Thus, Madiba was ready to work with our apartheid enemies to bring them, where
possible, into a partnership to end apartheid, but he always did so within the framework of what was non-negotiable for the ANC as representative of a broader South Africa, in terms of achieving a non-racial democracy based on universal franchise. The fact that Madiba never allowed himself to be separated from his organisation, the ANC, was the primary foundation of his success. He never presented himself as an individual to the negotiating table, he always came with the power and strength of his party representing his and their constituency – the majority of black South Africans.
It must be recalled that when the violence of the so-called ‘Third Force’, that Dr Klerk and his apartheid National Party stoked on among black people in South Africa in order to undermine the strength of the ANC at the negotiations, culminated in the Boipatong massacre on the 17th of June 1992 where 45 people died, the ANC leadership jointly decided to suspend the negotiations, and Madiba as the President of the ANC made the announcement. It was indeed the strength of the ANC, as the leader of black and African society, that forced the National Party apartheid government to meet the preconditions that the ANC set to curb the violence, and to resume the negotiations under more favourable conditions
Engaging with your enemy in a principled manner, never to get ahead of yourself and leave your constituency behind, was indeed the foundation of Nelson Mandela’s success as a leader, and what lead to the achievement of a negotiated settlement with his, and the ANC’s, apartheid enemies. The partnership that was achieved through that process was
real and with clear objectives, without any illusions about who the ‘partner’ was.
Not only in terms of the internal, domestic, realities of South Africa did Mandela understand and loyally stood at the service of his organisation and his people, he followed the same principle internationally. When some in the international community wanted him to distance himself, and the ANC, from our long trusted allies such as Colonel Muammar al Gaddafi, el Commandante Fidel Castro and Yassar Arafat, and the Palestinian Liberation Organization, Madiba stood resolute and made it abundantly clear that he and the ANC will never betray those who stood with us through thick and thin during the hard lean days of the liberation struggle, when many of those who were trying to tell us to distance ourselves from our fellow comrades were nowhere to be found, and indeed aided and abetted our apartheid oppressors.
Anyone who watched the incredible Town Hall meeting that Madiba had at City College in New York on the 21st of June 1990, cannot but be hugely impressed by the firm manner in which he resisted the tantalizing pressure from the moderator, the renowned Ted Kopple of ABC News, to distance himself from comrades Castro, Gaddafi and Arafat. This meeting saw Madiba at his best, humane and diplomatic, but resolute in his conviction that he and the ANC will not betray their longstanding international partners and friends. Furthermore, Madiba in an astute and stoic sense resisted any attempt to drive a wedge between himself and the ANC. All the time he spoke in the collective “we”, and referred to the ANC as “us”, and “my party”.
Since Madiba passed away on the 5th of December 2013, the understandable iconisation of Nelson Mandela proceeded apace, and as time passes it is proceeding with even more impetus. To the extent that it recognises the huge achievements of a fellow human being (as Madiba himself said, in one of his other famous quotes: “A saint, who is a sinner, who keeps on trying”), we South Africans must be deeply honoured by the recognition and respect Mandela and our liberation struggle is given.
However, there is also reason for concern for as far as there are attempts to remove Madiba out of the context of the liberation struggle and to try and isolate him from his political home, and beloved liberation movement, the ANC. No matter how well it is meant, Nelson Mandela can never be appreciated, nor understood, in splendid isolation – so to speak, apart from the ANC. To try to do so marks not only a huge disservice to Madiba, but it equally disrespects the unwavering commitment and achievements of the people of South Africa who ultimately achieved our liberation.
Some of these attempts are no-doubt well meant, but some of them are unfortunately also very malicious because by appropriating Madiba as an individual the deity of a saint, whose cause has apparently already been fully achieved, counter revolutionary forces are trying to prevent us in the ANC, and the people of South Africa, from continuing to struggle for our full liberation from imperialist and monopoly capitalist forces.
In this context I am again reminded of Mandela’s words as he in 1953 addressed the Natal Peace Conference on the subject of Africa, colonialism and war. He warned, the events now taking place in Africa constitute the most serious threat to the peace, security and the freedom of the people of this Continen. People throughout the world are coming to understand how closely the struggle for peace, and against the menace of war, is linked with the preservation of the right of the nation and the individual to a peaceful existence. His caution still rings true today.
In this context permit me to again lean on Madiba for one last time with this citation: “After climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb.” Thus, we in the ANC know that Nelson Mandela would be the first to urge us never to forget our liberation ideals and roots, nor forget our people. Together with the ANC he brought us after a long climb to the great hill of achieving our non-racial democracy, but now there is another great hill to climb for full economic justice and liberation of our people. Not economic liberation for some that often in this epoch is conveniently confused as the signpost of our collective economic emancipation, but for the landless masses, and the still economically disenfranchised that can no longer be satisfied to wait much longer.
That is why the ANC resolved at its 54th National Conference to proceed with a programme of Radical Economic Transformation (RET), with as the foundation of that programme the expropriation of land without compensation. We have to ensure that the people of South Africa, the sons and daughters of Nelson Mandela the Father of our Nation, are no longer reduced to a pauper’s status, bereft of land or property ownership in their own country of birth, but rightfully become the owners of the land thus, determining their own destiny.
For us there can be no pause, and no sense of having arrived. The great journey, the long walk to freedom, on which Madiba led us as a collective for part of the way, must continue unabated. The greatest counter-revolutionary insult to the memory of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela will be an attempt to sanitize, white-wash and abuse his memory to try get us to pause, or to stop us from continuing our long march to freedom.
Prisoner number 46664, who in his small prison cell on Robben Island with dignified discipline made his own bed, and after his release never stopped doing so, even when he was lauded by the whole world and received accolades from Presidents, Kings and Queens, knew where he came from and was rooted in the people – both in his beloved South Africa, and throughout the world.
When we celebrate the great lessons and example of his life, let us never rob him of his essential humanity, his true liberation identity. Let us never ever do him the disservice to place him on a pedestal so high that his people can no longer reach him. Let us challenge those who seek to reduce him into a marsh-mellow grandad whose entire life is only defined in the 5 years he led a SA government.
Let us honour Madiba through our actions, that must underpin our words, to continue the struggle for justice, human dignity and full liberation. As he so aptly told us: “It is in our hands”.