Memorable Madiba moments
A selection of the best from a new book on Mandela
For the book 100 Mandela Moments I sought out stories that illustrate some aspect of Mandela and his life, stories that are moving or enlightening or surprising to readers. Here are some that stood out:
Principles and principals
When Mandela was in his second year at Fort Hare, students boycotted the Student Representative Council elections in protest against the council’s weak powers (and the poor food!) Mandela was elected to the SRC by the small number of students who did vote, but he resigned the position because he didn’t feel that it represented the will of the majority of students.The principal tried to strongarm him into taking the position – or face expulsion. Mandela held fast, at great personal cost. He had to leave Fort Hare without finishing his degree. His guardian was furious. I like this story as an early example of his standing up to authority, and standing up for his principles.
There are many stories about Mandela’s great personal charm, his keen strategic intelligence, but accepting the role of volunteer-in-chief of the Defiance Campaign shows something important – his courage. It was 1952, and the National Party was extending and enforcing racist laws. They called on volunteers to peacefully resist the unjust racist laws like pass laws and curfews – something that he knew would likely be met with the full force of the state. Mandela put himself front and centre of that campaign, and this led to his arrest.
Sometime in the 1970s, prisoners on Robben Island were allowed to receive photographs of immediate family. Winnie Mandela made an album of family photos, which Mandela cherished. Some prisoners seldom received a letter, let alone a photograph, so this book was a remarkable thing. Soon, prisoners started to ask to borrow it. The album was soon in tatters, with pictures missing. But nonetheless he shared it, saying that it “seemed ungenerous to deny them this window on the world”. It’s an incredibly poignant story, which encompasses so much longing and such generosity.
Holding the baby
One of the great deprivations of imprisonment on Robben Island was being denied access to family members, especially children. Warder Christo Brand tells of the time when Winnie managed to smuggle Mandela’s baby grandchild on her back under a blanket. It was completely against regulations but Brand took the baby and brought her to him. With tears in his eyes, Mandela kissed the child and handed her back. It’s such a beautiful and sad image, this tiny baby and grandfatherly love in that rough and lonely place, and for a fleeting moment.Not so peacefulMandela was seldom outwardly angry, but he did lose his cool at a Nobel Peace Prize function. The joint award to Mandela and FW de Klerk was controversial. Some thought Mandela shouldn’t accept it. But he did, and they both went to Oslo to accept the prize. De Klerk, rather than fully acknowledging the evils of apartheid, said in his speech that both sides had made mistakes. Mandela was livid, and at a private function for the Norwegian prime minister and other dignitaries he spoke off the cuff, describing in detail the brutal treatment of prisoners on Robben Island and asking De Klerk what mistakes those inmates had made.
Tea with Maggie
There are funny stories, too. Robin Renwick, the British ambassador at the time, tells a great story about the first meeting between Nelson Mandela and Margaret Thatcher, not long after Mandela’s release. The short version: rather unexpectedly, the two had a good meeting that stretched on for three hours.
The iconoclastic British press corps gathered outside 10 Downing Street got so tired of waiting that they started chanting “Free Nelson Mandela”.More moments
Other favourites come from interviews with people with their own Mandela moments to share. Here are a few that you can read in more detail in the book:
Johnny Clegg was astonished when Madiba appeared behind him on stage in Germany as he was singing his hit song Asimbonanga “we have not seen him” – a song about Mandela’s incarceration. The YouTube video has been watched over six million times.John Kani answered the phone and heard Mandela’s famous voice asking him and Winston Ntshona to put on a performance of their play The Island. Opening night was full of comrades and stalwarts, and afterwards Ahmed Kathrada said that the two actors were honorary Robben Islanders – an accolade Kani said was “better than a Tony Award”.
Debora Patta’s wedding was thrown into merry chaos by Mandela’s unexpected arrival. When word got out he was there, uninvited guests appeared, the food ran out, and the bride tried to work out the appropriate protocol for having the president at your wedding.
Ghaleb Cachalia, son of activists Yusuf and Amina, describes the excitement a letter from Robben Island would bring to his childhood home.