Part 3: Now Cracks a Noble Heart
It’s July 18, 2001, and I’m back in Johannesburg for yet another training workshop with SABC journalists.
This day is former president Nelson Mandela’s eighty-third birthday.
The SABC Morning Live crew and I are invited to his Johannesburg home to broadcast early morning birthday celebrations.
It’s not early for Mandela, of course. He’s already been up since 4.30 a.m. and exercised for an hour. It’s a routine he picked up in prison and can’t break.
Interviewed by one of the Morning Live anchors, he’s charming, courteous and generous. But there’s always that hint of steel, particularly when his causes — racism, children, poverty — come up.
Asked about his health, he says he’s doing fine, doesn’t mention that he’s just been diagnosed with prostrate cancer. Again.
After the cameras turn off, Mandela and I talk briefly. I stumble around for the right things to say to this man who almost singlehandedly saves South Africa from a bloody race war.
What do you say to the person you admire most in all the world?
Fortunately, there’s talk that a Hollywood producer is in pre-production for a movie based on part of Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk To Freedom.
So I suggest to Mandela that my old friend Morgan Freeman, with whom I once write a never-finished book, is the only actor with the integrity, gravitas, looks and talent to play him in the movie.
Mandela smiles, nods, seems to agree without actually saying so. We talk a little more before we shake hands and minders take him off to talk to other birthday greeters.
Eight years later, Morgan Freeman stars brilliantly as Nelson Mandela in Invictus [“I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul”].
Watching, I keep having to remind myself that it’s my old friend Morgan up there on the screen, not Mandela. Anyway, after a couple of minutes, there’s no difference.
I can’t take credit, I know. But I like to think I had something to do with this piece of perfect casting.
Back at the birthday party, Mandela pretends he’s surprised to find a multiracial children’s choir on the steps outside his house. He beams while the choir sings “Happy birthday Mr. Mandela … may all your dreams come true …”
“I’m so happy to see you …” he tells the children, and asks if he can shake hands with each of them “… because it would make my day.”
Thrilled, the children make Mandela’s day.
Flashback to May 10, 1994, Mandela’s very first day as president. He has massive problems that have to be handled immediately. It’s a matter of sheer survival.
Three powerful pressure groups fight for his attention.
On one side — the country’s 10-million whites, inventors and sole beneficiaries of apartheid. They’ve designed, controlled and run South Africa’s politics and economy for all of three hundred and forty-two years. As an entirely unearned reward, most live far better than Europeans or North Americans.
The whites are terrified that the new black majority government will take revenge for the centuries of white oppression, racism and brutality. Many plan to emigrate. If enough whites leave, South Africa will surely fall apart.
In the centre — the foreign investors. They fear black rule just as much as the whites who benefited from apartheid for so very long.
The foreign investors have to be convinced that the new government will be suitably capitalistic and support the sometimes dubious benefits of international free trade. If the investors aren’t convinced, their money will surely follow fleeing whites out of the country.
And on the third side — South Africa’s thirty-three million blacks. Almost all live in miserable slums or desperately poor rural villages. Most have no jobs, decent housing or schools. No electricity. No running water.
The huge majority of blacks, of course, support and vote for Mandela’s ANC. Now, as a reward, many expect instant, splendid new lives. A few even believe they’ll simply swap jobs, houses, salaries (even spouses) with whites.
Mandela has incredibly urgent, difficult and dangerous choices to make. He obviously can’t satisfy everyone. But he knows that life for black people will become even poorer, nastier, brutish and short if the whites leave and the economy collapses.
He decides that nation’s economic survival is more important than anything else. Therefore, his newly elected black government’s first priority must be to calm and keep the whites. Thus guaranteeing the nation’s financial future stability.
Mandela makes his deal with the devil.
Whites will stay on as economic and business masters, at least for the foreseeable future.
Meanwhile, the black government will run the new nation’s politics. It will even pay the billions of dollars of international debt left behind by the deeply corrupt, ousted white rulers.
The deal is an extraordinary example of generosity on the part of a leader and a people who have suffered so long and are only newly liberated from fascism. It’s also a grim lesson in political and economic realities and priorities.
In effect, the new government — along with most black South Africans — is saying to the whites and foreign investors: this is no time for revenge.
We’ll forget the past and welcome you to share this rich and lovely land with us.
In return, you must accept our present and our future.
Now, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela — Thembu prince, freedom fighter, first president of democratic South Africa and the most honoured person in the entire world — is dead.
That deal he made with the white South Africans eighteen years ago worked well, at least for a while. Today, South Africa is a middle-income, emerging market with well-developed financial, legal, communications, energy and transport sectors.
But foreign investment is drying up and signs of decay are all around.
Recent violence and wildcat strikes in the mines — upon which so much of South Africa’s economy is based — and the police massacre of thirty-four protesters at the Marikana platinum mine, have severely damaged the country’s internal confidence and external reputation.
The economy — which once had a healthy annual growth rate around five percent — is now little more than two percent.
The country has become, in effect, a one-party state under an increasingly corrupt and incompetent president Jacob Zuma (he of the four wives, one divorce, 20 children and a new $27-million palace in his rural Zulu village).
Zuma’s ruling-for-life ANC party runs just about everything in the country shows little respect for democracy, even less for the independence of the courts, the police or the press.
On the fringe of the government and enormously influential in its deliberations, is a small, voracious alliance of obscenely rich black and white plutocrats who rely on their political connections to bleed the newish nation of its wealth, its dignity and its future.
No apartheid here. Corruption has become multiracial. Amazing how the prospect of great wealth can unite longtime political foes in a common cause!
Over the past few years, better housing and social services for millions of poor blacks have finally been delivered. But not nearly enough. Huge, rancid black slums still surround most cities and towns.
South Africa’s black schools still rank among the world’s worst. It’s as if President Zuma believes that if he can make it to the top with nothing more than a primary school education (ages seven to twelve), anyone can.
The country is plagued by endemic poverty. Nearly half its people are unemployed and virtually unemployable. HIV/AIDS and crime rates are among the highest in the world.
Most ironic of all these grim facts is that since the end of apartheid the country Mandela led to freedom has become economically less, not more, equal. The gap between rich (mostly white) and poor (almost entirely black) is among the widest in the world.
For most South Africans, that long walk to freedom is on a much longer, stonier and more dangerous road than they ever expected. And it’s taking far longer than they or their many friends and well wishers around the world ever predicted.
Considering what’s happening to Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela’s dream of a rainbow nation, perhaps it was time for him to go.
December 5, 2013 then, was a good day to die.
Nelson Mandela, the politician who fathered the new South Africa, has survived all criticism. Mostly because of his exceptional leadership skills — his unique blend of humanity, integrity, skill, courage, stubbornness and pragmatism.
But also because the world has understood that a great leader sometimes has to make agonizing choices, often between heart and head.
Mandela’s only choice, as he likely saw it, was to choose head over heart and seek the greatest good for the greatest number of his people.
Nelson Mandela the man was no saint. He loved hanging with celebrities (Spice Girls, Michael Jackson, Prince Charles, Naomi Campbell, Charlize Theron, Robert De Niro, Whoopi Goldberg, Bono etc. etc.), had been a famous womanizer even while married and right up to the end had a fine eye for good-looking women.
When pushed, for all his obvious humanity, humility and integrity, he could be an arrogant, authoritarian ruler.
He was famous for taking forever to make decisions. When he did, nothing less than a tsunami could change his mind.
His stubbornness — some called it pigheaded rigidity — while entirely suited to a traditional Thembu prince, sometimes harmed his own causes and hugely frustrated colleagues.
Indeed, it took the AIDS death of his son, Makgahto, to make him finally respond to the AIDS crisis which was killing thousands of his people.
Even so, it was this same Mandela stubbornness that was largely responsible for destroying apartheid and birthing democracy without the horrors of a race war spilling oceans of blood in the cities, the townships and the veldt of his beloved country.
And it was Mandela’s stubbornness, combined with his famous ability to charm even his most rigid opponents, that transformed South Africa from a despised pariah into a mostly-respected, stable member of the family of nations.
In the years after he gave up the presidency and before he died, the man seemed entirely at peace with himself. He radiated the message:
“I did my duty. I gave everything I had. I could do no more.”
Mark Twain sums up Mandela’s effect on those who, like me, were truly honoured to meet him: “The really great make you feel that you, too, can become great.”
In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela explains his philosophical generosity, developed over twenty-seven years locked up in apartheid’s brutal prisons.
“It was during those long and lonely years that my hunger for the freedom of my own people became a hunger for the freedom of all people, white and black. I knew as well as I knew anything that the oppressor must be liberated just as surely as the oppressed.”
Prisoner #46664’s long walk is over.
He’s gone home, finally free, buried in the thin red soil of Qunu where he was born.
How better to salute the great man who was Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela than to quote the great playwright:
Now cracks a noble heart.
Good-night, sweet prince;
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.
Hamba Kahle, Madiba.
This article was originally published on the Huffington Post on Dec 9, 2013: Long Walk of Prisoner #46664—Part 3: Now Cracks a Noble Heart