It was probably raining in Pollsmoor, too, but at least Nelson Mandela was safely locked up in his cell. At least he wasn't watching Mandela, The Movie, on Channel Four, on a drizzly grey day in England. I was. I cringed for Nelson. I cringed for the Cause. I cringed for the Struggle. So why did I carry on watching? Hell, man. I was free.
Free! I was far away from home, in body and mind, and no one was going to tell me I wasn't allowed to gaze at the face of Nelson Mandela, or listen to his voice, or open the window and shout selected passages from his autobiography at wet passersby. But it was raining.
So I just sat there and stared at Nelson Mandela. He was wearing his hair parted in the middle, just like the official Bureau for Information photograph, and he was shouting: "I'm drunk. I'm terribly drunk. I'm drunk on "the promise of freedom." Hey, maybe it's an offence for me to tell you this. Believe me, it was an offence for me to hear it. I'm not suggesting Nelson Mandela never said he was terribly drunk on the promise of freedom. I'm just suggesting he didn't sound like Danny Glover when he said it. Glover was the guy Hollywood chose to portray the Black Pimpernel of the African National Congress, presumably on the strength of his convincing performance as a menopausal Los Angeles homicide detective in Lethal Weapon, the movie.
As Nelson Mandela in Mandela, the movie, Glover gave a convincing performance as a menopausal Los Angeles homicide detective, with the exception of "the pivotal scene in which, terribly drunk on the promise of meeting and marrying Winnie Mandela, he high-kicks down an alleyway in racist South Africa, hollering Mayibuye i'Afrika with Walter Sisulu and Oliver Tambo under his armpits.
If this was indeed the manner in which the chief office-bearers of the African National Congress formulated their policy of passive resistance against the apartheid regime, one can only commend the authorities for their leniency. Let me tell you about the authorities. They worried me. Until I left Azania for the promise of freedom I had no idea that South African security policemen in the Fifties and Sixties were recruited from the seedier pockets of the East End of London. "Ve charge is 'igh treason, keffah. 'Igh bleddy treason.
Sergeant Swanepoel, a fascist Cockney thug despite his name; was the White Pimpernel assigned to bring the Black Pimpernel to justice. He wore a thick grey fedora on top of his thick grey skull, and he had a face like a fish-eye lens, and he sucked so hard on a cigarette that he made you wonder whether he had merely forgotten to light it. Whenever he spoke, his upper lip curled like a "dead fish to compress the air from his nostrils:- "Ah want that cawminists!"
You may wonder how South African security policemen get given their assignments. I used to wonder, too. Apparently the Minister of Justice says, "We must-cut off the head of the snake!" whereupon a squad of Cockney fascist thugs marches down a shiny corridor and into an office where they stand, like rocks, silent and waiting. Then a bloke who looks like a former prime minister of Rhodesia hauls out a portfolio of photographs of black Hollywood actors who aren't doing anything right now, and don't mind getting paid for it.
"Sergeant van Niekerk! You get the biggie, Chief Luthuli. Sergeant Naude! You look-after Walter Sisulu. He's dangerous. Bleddy dangerous, Sergeant Louw! You take special responsibility for Oliver Tambo. He's clever. Watch him closely, hey. "SERGEANT SWANEPOEL! YOU GET NELSON MANDELA! HE'S A CHEEKY BUGGER! PARTNER OF THAT FELLOW TAMBO! AND I WANT HIM!"
So does Winnie Mandela, who looks like a cross between Princess Diana and the Virgin Mary, only not as cross. She meets the Mandela of her dreams. They go to Indian restaurants. Sit under willow trees. Fall in love. Fall in river. Giggle. Kiss. Struggle. "I never married a man. I married a struggle." The struggle is arrested; tried; acquitted. He wears a kaftan in court. His slick perm glows glossily under hot neon. He is tall, strong, and bitter. Like black coffee. Then he gets drunk again. Terribly. A bronze statue of a Boer explodes in a shower of special effects. Powerlines fritz and fall to the ground.
Nelson, his perm now lightly stubbled with silver, gets sentenced to life under the Suppression of Cheeky Buggers Act. On Robben Island, he smashes rocks. Losing weight, getting greyer, he slowly, turns into Bill Cosby. State President offers to release him on account of popularity of his TV show. Despite a tearful plea from the only South African policeman with semi-human emotions, Mandela refuses on grounds that Hollywood might release him first.
There is no real evidence to suggest that Mandela, the movie, was a secret project of the Bureau for Information, unless you count Mandela, the "movie itself. But who's counting? Trite, shallow, hollow and presumptions, Mandela's sole virtue was the authenticity of its locations in Zimbabwe, large chunks of which continue after liberation to mirror Soweto before liberation.
The Hero of the struggle, his dynamic charisma symbolised by a surging SAR steam engine at every commercial break, was sculpted with the same mixture of ingratiating awe and head-patting condescension traditionally re-served for Hollywood biographies of dead clarinet players with glasses. Yet Channel Four did not screen this fairytale romance with an entirely untroubled conscience. No sooner had the camera completed its dramatic farewell zoom-in on Bill Cosby's stoic forehead, than a continuity announcer butted in to announce the subject of the Right to Reply public debate scheduled for later in the week.
Should film companies be allowed to manufacture biographies of living people without their consent or approval? One hopes Nelson Mandela m anaged to get a word in edgeways.
This article originally appeared in the Weekly Mail.