Menu Close

The Mandela I knew

Add to my bookmarks
ClosePlease login

No account yet? Register

Share This Article:

Picture: ANA/Taken on May 27, 2002 Saths Cooper, second left, attends the unveiling of the plaque at the Resistance Park Monument in Durban by President Nelson Mandela.

By Saths Cooper

During my incarceration in the same single-cell block in Robben Island Maximum Security Prison as Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela between 1977 and 1982, I got to know him intimately and had the advantage of interacting with him daily.

These were less than ideal conditions, often fraught with the tension that accompanies incarceration, but such hardships provide the opportunity for the best and worst in us to emerge. The perspicacity of the man was demonstrated the day after Aubrey Mokoape, Strini Moodley, and I were moved to his single-cell block from the isolation block, which was rarely used, save as a punishment and, in some instances, when specific groups of prisoners were first admitted to the prison after their conviction.

Madiba mentioned an incident involving the late Neville Alexander. Alexander was accustomed to using first names, which apparently caused resentment among peasant inmates. This was Madiba’s way of informing us that he preferred to be called Madiba, although we had used respectful terms such as “Ntate” and Comrade. He probably foresaw that as we were urban university-student types in our late twenties and early thirties, we could lapse into using first names. Our respect for him and the older prisoners, and our disquiet with using clan/ tribal names, resulted in our continued usage of Ntate until it simply became Madiba.

The generational and political gaps were obvious, and it was much easier to overcome the generational gaps. We naturally accorded Madiba and the older comrades the respect that we usually gave our elders, which was part of our upbringing, and indicated to them the many ways in which we perceived the world differently, which Madiba and many of the older leadership acknowledged. The political differences were much more difficult to resolve.

The source of tension was the post-June 1976 aftermath which resulted in the largest influx of political prisoners in the history of Robben Island. This portended a ripe recruitment opportunity for the older sections of the liberation movement, which was comprised largely of middle-aged members. Initially, the PAC attempted to avoid recruitment, because of its divisive nature, but the ANC had no such qualms.

Madiba and Walter Sisulu – the ANC liaison with the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) – decried the situation, and only when the BCM had dwindled in size around 1980 did they sign a non-recruitment pact. The PAC, then feeling that it had lost out in the numbers game, baulked at signing. The major political difference between the ANC and us in the BCM was the ANC’s four nations hypothesis, that Africans, coloureds, Indians, and whites comprised the four spokes that emblazon the ANC wheel. We held that all blacks were oppressed by a phalanx of white racist power and privilege that was apartheid and that our unity as blacks in opposition to apartheid and the colonial mindset was paramount.

Picture: Mike Hutchings/REUTERS/November 28, 2003 – President Nelson Mandela sits beneath the window of his prison cell on Robben Island, during a visit on November 28, 2003. Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Robert Sobukwe, Chris Hani and Steve Biko did not walk away from or fear people’s problems, but actively engaged people, says the writer.

In our first encounter that chilly spring afternoon in 1977, he also invited us to discuss with him when his exams were over (the SASO/BPC trialists were denied study privileges) the question of when it was appropriate for a liberation organisation to open its membership to other races. Our response was that the ANC had taken such a decision at one of its conferences in Tanzania and that our BCM was founded on the testimony of all blacks – Africans, coloureds, and Indians – working together in the same formation to actively oppose apartheid. We never traversed this topic again.

Our engagements were always cordial and grew to an easy camaraderie and deepening mutual respect. Disagreements on political positions never degenerated into acrimony – which was quite rife with the influx of hundreds of post-June 1976 youth into the rest of Robben Island – but always ended with us agreeing to disagree. This is something that our society sorely lacks, as is seen in our tense and violence-prone political and other discourse. From the time I first met him in those miserable conditions in prison until the time of his death, he exuded a regal demeanour and carriage that infused respect among all who came into contact with him.

And he led by example, making extraordinary concessions to reconciliation that, unfortunately, some in our country have taken for granted, ignoring the massive exploitation, oppression and suffering wrought by the erstwhile apartheid and colonial systems. A stickler for custom and pleasantries, he dictated the pace of the ensuing interaction, by careful listening, usually without interruption, and then presenting how he saw the way forward. Few could refuse to take tea with him, by which time any anger and rancour had dissipated.

When he had made up his mind about a position, he was committed to it, despite the howl of protests from others around him. But if you could convince him that his position was flawed, he would not hesitate to acknowledge this. In this way, he was able, for example, to move white racists in our midst to accept the inevitability of peaceful transformation in our country.

Whatever his flaws, he retained his sense of humanity and led at a time when many predicted bloodshed. The major fear of whites was “will they not do to us what we have done to them?” This quickly gave way to the co-optation of so many from liberation ranks who were seduced into joining the minority who held serious economic power, even becoming spokespersons for inequality and inequity.

Since his death, Mandela Month and Mandela Day have been reduced to the easy path of the privileged to salve their conscience, with some even making further careers from “doing it for uTata”. It is always fallacious to thrust key leaders into the present, trying to portray what their thoughts would be in an unsustainable present – where corruption has become a norm, made worse by the highest unemployment rate in the world, where our extractive economy underpins the lowest employment rate globally, the widest gap between wealth and poverty, and where the rule of law is observed in the negative.

Leaders like Mandela cannot respond. Yet we know that when they were alive, they demonstrated compassion and caring for all our citizens – not just the politically favoured elite – and decried any policies that excluded the majority. Importantly, they did not wish away, deny or ignore the plaintive wails of our children, our sisters and mothers, who bear the brunt of the high levels of political and other forms of intolerance and violence in a fragile democracy that can so easily give way to despotism as the popular rhetoric on electronic and social media reveals in our highly toxic environment.

These leaders who are no more acted, and decisively so. Tragic it is then that nobody is made in the mould of Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Robert Sobukwe, Chris Hani and Steve Biko, who did not walk away from or fear people’s problems, but actively engaged people. Looking for another Madiba is fruitless and wasteful. We have to enable our youth, most of whom do not participate in the socio-economic and political systems, to register to vote and become active citizens again, as they did in the mass campaigns of the past, which plateaued in the June 16 uprisings, never letting up until the dawn of our democracy.

Prof Saths Cooper is President of the Pan African Psychology Union, a former leader of the Black Consciousness Movement and a member of the 1970s group of activists