Invoking the Madiba in us

I have longed for a meditation on Madiba, unshackled from the exigencies of our scalding polemics, the crescendos and diminuendos of the fraught environment that is our beloved Mzansi.

How do we invoke the Madiba in us, when we have allowed ourselves no moment of reflection on the gift that was this gallant son of the soil. I have been greatly assisted in this endeavour by a wonderful book – Conversations with Myself.

It is nigh impossible to think of Madiba outside the relationship he forged with his two closest friends and comrades, Walter Sisulu and Oliver Tambo. This relationship is consequential in the unfolding of the Madiba legend. Recently, I was listening to a radio programme featuring the anthropologist, Anna Trapido, discussing her book, A Hunger for Freedom: The Story of Food in the Life of Nelson Mandela, and I found myself chuckling at the reminder that both of these men play a role in the romantic peregrination of Madiba. It was Sisulu who introduced Madiba to his first wife, Evelyn Mase, who was his niece; and it would be Tambo, who would introduce Madiba to Winnie Madikizela, his home girl.

The three of them had in 1944, together with Anton Lembede and AP Mda, been the founders of the ANC Youth League, which would transform the insipid mother body into a muscular contender for political power. Sisulu and Tambo would later be the successive secretaries general of the ANC. Mandela would be elected the president of the ANC in the Transvaal. Together they would change the face of South African politics, organising the Defiance Campaign in 1952, which Madiba would lead; organising the Congress of the People in 1955 which adopted the Freedom Charter; charged for Treason in 1956; successive banning orders, which restricted Sisulu and Madiba’s ability to participate fulsomely in the structures of the movement; Tambo and Madiba opening the first black legal partnership in 1952; Sisulu and Mandela forming Umkhonto weSizwe in 1961, after Tambo was spirited out of the country following the Sharpeville massacre, to set up the ANC external mission; arrest and the landmark Rivonia Trial; followed by life imprisonment on Robben Island.

It is my contention that the life imprisonment of his two friends must have woken him up every day, fired up with the zeal to spare no effort to ensure that they, with the entire black populace would be free.

He recognised that he was the key to the freedom of his amigos. If he faltered, allowing himself the distractions and self-indulgence that have torpedoed many a liberation movement, he would be aiding and abetting their continued incarceration. This made Tambo’s mission especially sacred. Thus he laboured against all odds to keep the ANC intact as an indispensable instrument for our liberation, avoiding the crippling fratricidal strife, common to most exile groupings.

In contradistinction to most “potentates”, Tambo had no difficulty subordinating his own image to the iconography of Mandela. Madiba would thus be the symbol of our agitation for freedom – our incarcerated self – represented by the Free Mandela movement, which became a global phenomenon; the biggest rallying cry for freedom the world has ever seen. Unto the personage of Madiba, Tambo invested our collective angst and pain; our aspiration to be free. And with his patrician bearing and indomitable will, Madiba became the animating Id for our freedom. Tambo would be the Ego of this campaign, the strategist and organiser.

I have been tempted, in searching for a metaphor for this phenomenon, to say that Tambo was the brain; Madiba, the unconscious and soul; and Sisulu the beating heart of our liberatory exertions. Metaphors are of course imperfect.

Marxists are fond of saying, individuals do not make history, the masses of the people do. But it is indisputable that this trio was consequential in the successful struggle for a democratic South Africa. Their camaraderie and mutual admiration ensured that we were not visited by the calamities of personal intrigue and jealousies that have been the lot of many movements and polities.

In Conversation with Myself, we witness Madiba in real time, through his letters, engaged in the arduous transformation of the self. His agony at losing his mother and son within eight months of each other, and the apartheid authorities denying him permission to bury them, levitates from the page. Without that personal transformation he would have come out of jail an embittered man, lusting for power to avenge all his privations. This is a man who left prison after 27 years, to find the love that had sustained him for all those years, a love he writes longingly and hauntingly about, migrated to warmer climes. This could have broken a lesser being.

Imagine a bitter and broken Madiba, robbed of time, years and love, presiding over our democratic transition. Instead he became the embodiment of reconciliation and justice. This is the gift that Madiba has bequeathed us. Not just freedom, but the mastery of self. The wisdom and the strength to transmute adversity into advantage. What Buddhists refer to as “turning poison into medicine”. When we find ourselves buffeted by all manner of personal anguish and suffering, let us summon the redoubtable example of Madiba.

A friend who is a long-time practitioner of the dark arts tells a poignant story about Madiba. As ANC intelligence operatives circa 1992, they had requested a meeting with Madiba, Tambo and Sisulu, to warn about divisive machinations some folks close to Madiba were involved in. He says at the mention of these names, Madiba’s countenance hardened, and he started to bristle in protest. His brothers Tambo and Sisulu tried to restrain him, “Hayi Nelson, bayeke bagqibe”, which translates as “Don’t interject Nelson, let them have their say”. Madiba struggled to maintain his equinamity.

He was pained by the accusations against his esteemed comrades. But the following day, something wondrous would happen. Madiba would descend on these folks, who were on average between 40 and 45 years younger, to apologise profusely about the way he had handled the meeting. He left them with a ringing exhortation: “Comrades, you are the eyes and ears of our movement. You need to give us unvarnished facts about everything that is happening in our midst, so that we can make the correct decisions as the leadership. You must do so, without fear or favour.

“I unreservedly apologise for the manner I received your intelligence yesterday. As you will appreciate, the people you mentioned are individuals I trust and have known for many years. But your role is not to spare my feelings. But to give me the facts as you see them. I hope you will find it in your hearts to forgive me. I thank you.” A sinner who kept on trying. Need I say more?

- Mabandla is a businessman