When Mandela donned skins of tradition
On October 15 1962, at the start of his trial for inciting a stayaway and leaving the country without a passport, Nelson Mandela made a dramatic entrance into the court wearing a Thembu royal costume of leopard skin and beads.
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In his closing statement he reinforced this visual cue with a narrative that drew on growing up in a chiefly court in the Transkei, observing what he called traditional “justice in practice” and hearing oral histories of precolonial African polities.
As a total event, this trial can enrich our understanding of the place of tradition in Mandela’s mature political consciousness and, more generally, of the ambiguous ideological import of local ethnic pasts in the construction of larger ideological formations such as African nationalism.
Coming between the better-known Treason Trial (1956 to 1961) and the Rivonia Trial (1964), both of which have received book-length studies, the 1962 trial was relatively brief, entailed less serious charges and had only Mandela as a defendant. What gives this trial its distinctive significance, however, is precisely the fact that Mandela was the sole accused, accentuated by his decision to act as his own counsel.
Mandela always stood out in court, both as an attorney and as the accused during the two other trials. The absence of codefendants in this case, however, meant that his body would be the dominant icon and not the conventions of South African courts of law.
His body, defamiliarised in the context of the court by both the exotic costume he had donned and his exhortation of traditional modes of justice and historical consciousness, became the centrepiece in a medley of symbolic references. These references reflect the multiple ideological heritages of a colonial society.
After the treason trial, Mandela went into hiding to avoid arrest and to pursue work for the clandestine ANC’s national working committee, including organising a national stayaway on Republic Day, May 31. While underground, he illegally left the country on a tour that included some East and West African countries.
The 1962 trial helped to close a chapter in the struggle for South Africa, spearheading a process that would go on to send Mandela to Robben Island with a life sentence. During this time he was also operating outside the organisational structure of the ANC, a strategic necessity given the party’s need to distance itself from the armed wing Mandela was building.
It is evident from people’s interactions with Mandela at this time that, as he began to operate mostly on his own, he developed a public image that centred on his body – a corporeal icon with phantasmal amplifiers.
The mythology developed during his time in hiding, when he would make spectacular unannounced appearances at meetings and rallies. Before his arrest, reports and rumours of sightings of his phantom-like body had begun to circulate in hushed conspiratorial tones in the townships, and his words (from his speeches, pamphlets and press statements) were guarded articles of value shared with trusted friends.
In oral narratives in the Transkei, for example, “what Mandela said” (called ukuquza or ukugqumza by high school pupils) was a compilation of memorised sentences from Mandela’s press statements, the Freedom Charter and verses from the Bible. When he walked into that court Mandela had already attained something of a Christological status as a miracle worker, and the stage was set for the Passion event.
Tom Lodge sees this period as the “making of a messiah” out of Mandela. The song Shosholoza Mandela, sung by spectators at the trial, paints an image of Mandela as invested with the collective agency of the whole people and propelled by a force of destiny to which he has surrendered his own agency.
During his hiding and trial, his personality (as cultivated by him and interpreted by his audiences) drew on the symbolism of power and transformation that forms the basic sociology of Xhosa folktales. The strong reinforce their power by brute force, whereas the weak often depend on skilful and magical manipulation of the bodily form by way of disguise, defiance of gravity, changing into other life forms and sheer wit.
The most important visual inscription of Mandela’s body during the trial was his costume. Although some of his biographers, perhaps in a reflection of their own fantasies, describe it as either a patchwork of “jackal skins” – or, more ambitiously, a “lion skin” – it is the leopard that is traditionally considered a Thembu royal symbol of power, majesty, grace and agility. He was, in that witness box, as if on his throne meting out justice on the system that had put him on trial.
How did Mandela understand his use of traditional symbols in this trial? How did he negotiate his individuality in the light of the images of warrior-king, suffering messiah and magician that invested his body?
The lurking tension in this performance is highlighted by the reaction of the state. For the magistrate and police, the fear was that such exhibition of tradition might inflame the already restive black audience in and outside the court. Mandela was not allowed to wear what they called his “blanket” outside court.
This response is a double-edged sword, however, for although it plays into the intended meaning of tradition as resistance, it also reinforces stereotypes of African barbarism and bestial violence.
The tension in Mandela’s performance was also reflected in his lawyers’ Marxist critique of the traditional costume as a reversion to backward modes of solidarity (tribalism), which, in the context of the 1960s, reinforced the apartheid ideology of separate ethnic-based nationalities.
Mandela was definitely aware of this contradictory sense of tradition and his own reservations are well documented. But the lawyers’ criticism missed the point, because Mandela was invoking tradition to forge a different kind of collective identity than the tribalism they sensed in it.
The last response to Mandela’s performance came from the spectators, who included his mother, members of his kin and his wife Winnie, also in her own traditional gear.
Mandela describes the impact of his costume on the audience as “electrifying”.
Mandela resolved the problem of tradition by nationalising its local and regional meanings to stand for the collective experiences of black South Africans in the first instance, and then generally for the people of the African continent.
In his hourlong statement in mitigation of sentence, Mandela used heroic stories he had heard as a child growing up in tribal court in the Transkei to paint a much wider picture of precolonial African societies, highlighting common features such as the council – the “imbizo or pitso or lekgotla” – which limited the powers of the chief or king, and communal ownership of the land and natural resources, calling these “the seeds of a revolutionary democracy”.
There is reason to believe that his experiences during his African trip in 1961 forced him to rethink the strategic value of some Africanist cultural discourse. On this trip he seems to have been surprised, even alarmed, by the criticism the ANC received from African leaders for its alliance with nonAfrican organisations.
There was clear danger that the ANC would lose African support to the openly Africanist Pan Africanist Congress, which seems to have taken advantage of this situation through its own propaganda machinery. Mandela’s concerns about the nonracial stance of the ANC were not a matter of political turnabout on his part, but a strategic concern about external support for the ANC.
Thus, in addition to celebrating black history in his address, Mandela inserts his Thembu traditional heritage into a wider Africanist discourse. Explaining the costume, he said: “I had chosen traditional dress to emphasise the symbolism that I was a black African walking into a white man’s court.”
The costume showed, he insists, that he was “the inheritor of Africa’s difficult but noble past and uncertain future”. It is significant that he never uses “Xhosa” or “Thembu” here, but invokes the names of traditional leaders from across South Africa as “the pride and glory of the entire African nation”.
In short, tradition for Mandela is more a symbol, a resource in the political rhetoric, than a ritual practice. The latter is too restricted to a particular group and though Mandela, as he said, respected it, he did not see himself as committed to it.
Like most intellectuals, Mandela believed he could patronise or pay tribute to tradition (by engaging an imbongi, paying lobola or hosting a ritual slaughtering) while retaining his independence from its precepts.
But his refusal of tradition does not amount to its rejection. At stake is, rather, a strategic redeployment of it in a discourse of nationalism and a narrative of individual self-affirmation, albeit a self-affirmation that also involves collective obligations.
Zolani Ngwane is an associate professor of anthropology at Haverford College, Pennsylvania. This is an edited version of part of his essay, Mandela and Tradition, which appears in The Cambridge Companion to Nelson Mandela.