Waging war on Mandela the saint

It was a hot summer day and dry lips were testimony to my thirst. I clung perilously to a pole to avoid being pushed further away, as the FNB Stadium struggled to contain the thousands of pupils who had come to pay homage to that giant, Nelson Mandela, who had just been released from 27 years in jail. 

It was a great moment for all of us, to see the man who had been lionised as the first commander of Umkhonto weSizwe (MK). In the 1960s, the ANC had decided to make this man the symbol of the anti-apartheid struggle and we all loved him for different reasons. 

Remember that, long before he was hailed as a peacemaker, Mandela was a warrior. It was clear to me: this was the first man to carry a gun in the interest of our liberation. 

It was a great time. It was also a terrible time as young people ran riot, killing and necklacing in Mandela's name. 

Earlier in the year of Mandela's release, 1990, I saw for the first time a young woman – whom we all knew as a comrade in my township – being forced to drink petrol, being doused with it and then set alight because someone had seen her inside a police Casspir and therefore had identified her as an informer. 

My parents warned me against going to the FNB Stadium and associating with "com-tsotsis", the ones who were at the forefront of the thuggery and mindless violence then being perpetrated on many fronts. 

My heart told me, however, that I had no choice but to get as close as possible to the great man who had just come out of jail and find out whether he had a relevant message for the kind of struggle the young people in my township were waging.

And here we were, inside the stadium, waiting for the great commander to speak. ANC Youth League president Peter Mokaba led us in song, urging us to swell the ranks of MK – even at the dawn of liberation. The atmosphere was electrifying. We all jumped knee-high simultaneously to the rhythm of "Kill the boer, kill the farmer".

Enveloped by the atmosphere and by Mokaba's consistent message to us youngsters in the rallies he addressed, I momentarily entertained the idea of "crossing" and joining MK.

Yet when the old man spoke, he told us about the importance of education. He told us to go back to school. It was not as rabble-rousing and militant a speech as we wanted, not the kind to inspire us to march to Pretoria and take it by force. But it was important and pertinent to the schoolgoing crowd. 


I also learned then that this was how the old man spoke: slowly, deliberately. Not quite the smooth-flowing Martin Luther King Jr I had watched on videos.

In my particular case, the old man's message was not heeded. Because of ongoing riots, I went to school for only three months in my matric year: March, August and September. I wrote my matric totally unprepared.

Over the years, Mandela has meant different things to me. 

I remember, later, when I was at university in the early 1990s, I and other young radicals were outraged by his elevation of the insecurity of whites as a problem to be dealt with over and above providing services to our people. 

We saw his "national reconciliation" as benefiting whites only and being meaningless to blacks. We were angry that he did not lambast white people for refusing the hand we were extending to them.

Among ourselves, we used to say we would respect him as the leader and symbol of the anti-apartheid struggle, but we swore that, once he was out of office as the country's first black president, we would shake up the lethargic liberation movement and reverse the complacency and corruption we saw setting in in the ANC.

Looking back, it is significant that, despite hating the direction in which he was taking the country, we respected the old man and wanted to step up the revolution only once he was out of the way. 

I remember that what used to irk us was that we felt whites individualised and idolised his persona while, at the same time, they disrespected his organisation and us – the people he was representing. 

A specific example I recall was the anger we felt, as members of the South African Students Congress, when the University of the Witwatersrand conferred a doctorate on Mandela at a time when we believed its management treated black students on campus with little more than contempt. Our anger was also about his collaboration with and failure to condemn what we saw as racism. 

It was only in the late 1990s, when I travelled with him around the country as a journalist, during which he dished out goodies to kids at crèches, addressed meetings and I watched him embrace Cuban leader Fidel Castro and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation's Yasser Arafat, that I relented and my faith in him was gradually restored.

History has proved that he was a visionary in taking the country through that painful period, when he had to assuage fearful whites as well as restore the dignity of blacks. 

The truth is, during that same period we had a water tap installed in our yard in Khutsong for the first time, we got electricity and my grandparents' pension was doubled to almost match that of white pensioners.

I also loved Madiba's honesty: his ability to say uncomfortable things to anyone, be it George W Bush, the ANC, Thabo Mbeki, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, FW de Klerk, media owners – even Peter Mokaba.

During one of my visits to his house in Houghton, I had a picture taken with him. It still adorns the wall of the tiny dining room in my family home in Khutsong. 

Although I try to shrug it off modestly as just one of those things, it has brought me immense respect. Ordinary folk try to understand how and where I could have met Nelson Mandela. One of my grannies used to tell people I worked in his office.

So, as he is laid to rest, we must accept that Mandela was no saint. The fact that he was the first man to carry that gun for us will stay with me forever.

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Rapule Tabane
Guest Author
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