In Memoriam – Nelson Mandela
Daily Guide December 7, 2013
WHEN I made my first-ever visit to South Africa in September 1990, there were hundreds of journalists in South Africa, all of whom had a single objective: namely, to secure an exclusive interview with Nelson Mandela.
Mr Mandela had been released in February of that year, from prison, by President F. W. De Klerk after spending 27 years in jail. What did he look like up close? How well was he? What was his mind like? Was it still sharp? The world’s media wanted answers to these questions, and ANC headquarters, then at Shell House, Johannesburg, was besieged with requests from journalists seeking answers to these questions.
The ANC has never been strong on public relations and the journalists were largely ignored. Telephone calls went unanswered, and although the journalists were aware that Johannesburg had a terrible telephone system, they pretended that everything was the fault of the ANC. Indeed, if ”bad-mouthing” had been capable of killing a political movement, the ANC would have been stone dead by the time I put in my own request for an interview.
I was lucky in that I knew an ANC insider. He was the Treasurer-General, Mr Thomas Nkobi. I had never met him personally, but before I left London, my good friend, Chief M K O Abiola, had asked me to trace Mr Nkobi for him because, Abiola said, Nkobi had asked Abiola for “a contribution” to the ANC’s finances, when the two had met in Namibia, but Abiola had forgotten to do anything about it.
I traced Nkobi from London to Paris and then to Sweden, and gave him Abiola’s London number, and asked him to call Abiola. I was aware that returning ANC exiles were finding it difficult to resettle in the expensive city that Johannesburg is, and so I was anxious to make sure that Abiola’s offer of help was not allowed to lapse. I managed to get through to Nkobi’s office, and he asked me to come and see him.
I was in! Shell House was slightly chaotic and my worry was that the apartheid secret service would have bugged all the offices – the building being the property of a white-owned company. But for the moment, my pre-occupation was with Abiola’s contribution, and I was glad when Nkobi conformed to me that Abiola had made a contribution of $200,000 US. This seemed to me colossal, though I knew that around 1974, Abiola had kicked off contributions to the Nigerian Anti-Apartheid Movement, with a donation of one million dollars.
I then told Nkobi I wanted to interview Mr Mandela. And he said he would pass the request on to the “press boys”. But when I heard nothing from the “press boys”, I wasn’t surprised. I didn’t stop phoning them, though. For one of the qualities of the journalist who obtains scoops is never to give up a quest.
My nose for news was rewarded unexpectedly. One day, when I made a routine call to the “press boys” and told the guy who responded what my name was, he became excited.
“I know your name,” he said. “I used to listen to your dispatches from Accra to Focus on Africa on the BBC when I was in Lusaka! Just hold on a minute!”
I heard some hushed consultations going on, and then the guy said, “Mr Mandela is about to travel out of the country. If you go to Jan Smuts (Johannesburg Airport) in the next hour, you will be able to catch him there.”
I thanked the guy and drove like a Formula One racing driver to Joburg airport. I asked for the VIP lounge, since I assumed that that was where Mr Mandela would pass to travel. There was no activity there. I was so frustrated that I committed a gaffe and asked the VIP lounge attendants when Mr Mandela was supposed to leave. They told me they knew nothing of any arrangements made there for Mr Mandela’s travel out of the country.
I was minded to leave the airport – maybe someone had practised a hoax on me? But again, my experience as a journalist came to my aid: never abandon a quest unless you have spent too much time on it. What was too much time? An hour? Two hours? Or three?
I bought a beer at the airport bar and decided to wait. As soon as I had finished the beer, I began to wander around the departure area. And lo and behold, whom should I see? The tall, unmistakable figure of Nelson Mandela! He was surrounded by beautiful girls aged between 10 and 4, who turned out to be his grand-daughters. With them was my old friend, Mr Thomas Nkobi.
I went straight up to them and greeted Nkobi. I then asked him pointedly, “Aren’t you going to introduce me?”
Whereupon, Nkobi introduced me to Nelson Mandela! I asked politely about his health. He smiled and said he was okay. I said I was a Ghanaian, and had travelled ftom London to try and get an interview with him. He said he was going to Asia and if I was still in South Africa when he came back, I should call his office.
I was in heaven! I had shaken the hand of Nelson Mandela! I had exchanged pleasantries with Nelson Mandela! I had been asked by Nelson Mandela to call his office for an interview!
My hands were still shaking when I took out my camera and photographed him and his little grand-daughters.
On 5th December 2013, Nelson Mandela departed from this earth, aged 95. I share the grief of his family – especially, his grand-daughters, and his daughter, the beautiful Zindzi, with whom I later became good friends.
Meanwhile, Damirifa due (Condolences) all Mandelas!
Now, of course, it is very sad when any human being departs from his companions on Mother Earth. But in Mr Mandela’s case, he’s had an unusually good innings for a man who led the kind of life he was forced to live.
In the first place, he had no right – and probably no expectation – to reach such a ripe old age as 95. You see, his medical history– during the 27 years he spent in prison – was nothing to write home about. Simply put, one does not spend 27 years in the jails of the monstrous apartheid regime and come back to enjoy a long, happy life. Indeed, Mandela was nearly killed, first by tuberculosis, and then prostate enlargement, during his incarceration. His family endured untold anxiety as he was operated upon by white doctors.
He also got permanent eye damage. Imprisonment also destroyed his marriage to a very beautiful woman, and made him a stranger to his children. All these can be a cause for depression that could have led to an early death, and that he overcame them to reach age 95 is a marvel in itself.
Now, because of his difficulties, Mandela was a psychological loner. He eventually complained, after stoically holding his peace about his miserable private life for many months, that after his release from prison, his wife, Winnie, was “never in my bedroom except when I was asleep.” He added, “I was the loneliest man”. For an ex-Robben Island prisoner to complain of loneliness meant a great deal. And then, there was the real feeling he had – created by unscrupulous opportunists – that people wanted to “have a bit of him” to exploit for personal profit. He was right in this, for certain members of his family, as well as some trustees of his Foundation, have proved unworthy of the trust he reposed in them.
Nevertheless, if one managed to penetrate the curtain he’d erected around himself and got to know Mr Mandela, one discovered a person of great warmth and empathy.
I am one of the lucky few who were privileged to him at close quarters and what I found was quite delightful. In 1993, I went to see Mr Mandela in the company of the aforementioned Chief MKO Abiola. At our meeting, Mr Mandela paid warm tribute to all the African leaders who had received him when he made his undercover mission across the African continent in 1962. It was this secret trip that enhanced his reputation as the ‘The Black Pimpernel’ who was “sought everywhere” by the apartheid security police, but was “never found”.
Despite his lengthy incarceration, Mandela remembered all the names and titles of the African politicians he met — and remember he only met them ONCE! For instance, he singled out for praise, “the Premier of Northern Nigeria, Alhaji Sir Ahmadu Bello, Sardauna of Sokoto”, who gave Mr Mandela £10,000 sterling to help the ANC in its struggle against apartheid.
As a former radio journalist, I marvelled at Mr Mandela’s ability to reel off the name and titles of this particular politician, for it used to beat even news readers with a script in front of them. Mandela not only remembered the Sardauna but distinguished him from “Alhaji Tafawa Balewa, the Federal Nigerian Prime Minister!” He also remembered the name of the Ghana Foreign Minister of the time, Ako Adjei, who told him he could not see President Kwame Nkrumah privately but could meet him at a meeting Nkrumah was to address which would be attended by other freedom fighters. Mandela had the impression that A K Barden, director of Nkrumah’s Bureau of African Affairs, was the stumbling block between him and Nkrumah. He left Ghana and went to Liberia, where Tubman received him.
This shows you that the division by political commentators of the time of African countries into “conservatives” and “radicals” was meaningless when it came to practical politics. I mean who could have foretold that the “conservative” Sardauna of Sokoto would give the “Communist” ANC £10,000, while the “radical” Nkrumah would not even see the ANC’s representative, who had risked his life to come to Ghana secretly? President William Tubman of Liberia also gave Mandela $5,000. Yet in the books, he is often described as a stooge of the United States, given the close relations between Liberia and America.
Next, Mandela’s empathy with people in trouble is legendary. For instance, Abacha promised all sorts of things when Mandela pleaded with him to release Abiola from prison, in 1994. none of which happened. Anyone else would have given up, but not Mandela. He set out HIMSELF to go to Abuja to see Abacha!
To Mandela’s chagrin, Abacha tried to manipulate the Abuja meeting to his own political advantage by issuing a mendacious statement, while Mr Mandela was in the air flying back home, claiming that Mr Mandela had come to see him to discuss “the world economic situation”. No mention was made of Abiola in Abacha’s statement.
Realising that this would be a heavy blow to Abiola’s family, which had pinned its hopes on him, Mr Mandela issued a dignified statement in rebuttal, expressly contradicting what Abacha’s statement had said, and emphasising that he had travelled to Abuja at the request of Abiola’s family to discuss the release of Abiola.
But despite being treated with such disregard – some might say contempt – by Abacha, Mr Mandela’s spirit is so indomitable that he didn’t give up on Abacha and when, in November 1995, the Nigerian writer, Ken Saro-Wiwa, was condemned to death by an Abacha kangaroo court for agitating for a fairer sharing of Nigeria’s oil resources with the people whose lands produced the oil (particularly Saro-Wiwa’s own Ogoni people), and representations were made to Mr Mandela to appeal for clemency for them, Mr Mandela again contacted Abacha, asking him to spare the lives of Ken Saro-Wiwa and the eight other Ogoni activists condemned with him.
Once more, Abacha made promises and when Mr Mandela was asked by the press about his position on the Ogoni Nine, while he was attending a Commonwealth Heads of Government conference in New Zealand, Mr Mandela thought it unwise to criticise Abacha publicly while pleading with him in secret. The media misread his reticence as indifference to the Ogonis’ fate, and when Saro-Wiwa and the others were hanged by Abacha while the Commonwealth Conference was actually taking place, some newspapers descended on Mr Mandela and criticised his “inaction” severely. One British paper called him “the man who wasn’t there”.
I knew they were doing Mandela an injustice and I flew to Johannesburg to interview him about his stance. He was more candid with me than any politician I have ever interviewed. Ignoring the code of the African leaders’ “trade union”, whereby they don’t criticise one another in public, Mr Mandela described Abacha as a “brutal dictator” who had set up a “kangaroo court” to murder Ken Saro-Wiwa and his fellow activists. He added that Abacha was a man who had no “regard for the facts”, and he called on the Nigerian opposition to learn a lesson from the ANC’s own struggle and intensify their efforts to get rid of Abacha. He told me: “Abacha is sitting on a powderkeg and I am going to explode it under him!”
This made some ANC members criticise Mandela for carrying out “his own foreign policy”, instead of that of the ANC. But he didn’t care. But the steely Mandela ignored them.
Now, what he told me was incendiary stuff of an unprecedented nature. The interview was disseminated widely — on the BBC World Service, in The London Observer. in De Volkstrand (Amsterdam) , the Johannesburg Sunday Independent and other papers. How many African leaders would dare to give vent to their true feelings in this way about a fellow African head of state? Mandela definitely broke the tradition whereby African heads of state may not criticise a ‘brother’ head of state who abuses human rights. After what he did, the policy of “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil” of another African leader, became quite dead in the water.
Now, my relationship with South Africa goes a long way: in 1960, I was on the teleprinter desk at Radio Ghana, looking for news about a census that Ghana was holding, when news came through that 69 Africans had been killed in Sharpeville, in South Africa. More Africans were killed at Langa and Nyanga. This had a profound effect on me. Because, as the news came through, one could see that the people had been shot mainly in the back, as they were fleeing from the police. And I could see myself – a young African editor in the national broadcasting station. And I could see that, jad I been in South Africa, the “Job Reservation Act” there would never allow me into the newsroom in the first place. I was immensely angry at this. So I became very interested in the South African struggle. And I was all the time hoping and praying that the situation would change.
Then, in 1990, we got the news that Nelson Mandela was going to be released. Was it really going to happen? Was South Africa going to be governed by the black majority, through peaceful negotiations?
And it was fonally announced that, on 10th May 1994, Nelson Mandela, after having won the first all-race elections in South Africa, was going to be crowned President of South Africa. People think that apartheid, or racial discrimination, only started in South Africa in 1948, after the Afrikaners’ “National Party” had come to power. But in fact the British administration before 1948 was also racist. So ninety solid years and more of oppression of the blacks by the whites were coming to an end.
And I was invited to come to the installation of President Mandela. And I got there. I couldn’t believe it. I saw these South African Defence Force people in full uniform – also, the muvh-feared police who had murdered Steve Biko!. All these monsters were there!
And also there, glowing before my very eyes, was this black man who had been in prison for 27 years, swearing the oath to be the President of South Africa. I was crying. And after he had been sworn in, they played “Nkosi Sukelel’Africa”, and everybody saluted. And it had still not sunk in. I was crying, but it hadn’t sunk in.
Then I saw Thulami Tambo, the daughter of Tambo, actually standing on that dais, with a clenched fist: the African National Congress salute, in front of all those people, including the former bosses – the boss of the Bureau of State Security. And then it sank in.
YES! WE HAD WON!!
And after that, the jets flew over our heads, saluting us. There, sitting close by me, were all these African leaders: Julius Nyerere, Kenneth Kaunda – people who had been fighting against the South African racists s for this moment to happen. And the warplanes just flew over our heads – these military jets that had been trained to come and bomb us, the “enemy to the north.” They were saluting us: and everyone who was in the Union Buildings on Pretoria that day. It was incredible.
By Cameron Duodu