Archbishop Desmond Tutu: Furnace of affliction made Mandela
Already a legend on his release from prison, Mandela grew even more in stature, writes Archbishop Desmond Tutu
IN July 1988, I addressed a mammoth crowd of nearly 250,000 people in London's Hyde Park Corner. It was part of the celebrations for Nelson Mandela's 70th birthday, organised by the International Anti-Apartheid Movement, whose president, Archbishop Trevor Huddleston, had said that should be Madiba's last birthday in prison. Not bad, as predictions go, for two years later he did walk out of prison a free man.
Archbishop Trevor – much loved in Sophiatown in the awful days of apartheid's new viciousness, demonstrated by the destruction of Sophiatown with its people dumped in the new south western townships, which became universally known by the acronym Soweto – had suggested that young people should go on a pilgrimage from their various homes in different parts of the UK to Hyde Park to acclaim this most famous of political prisoners.
Many in that huge crowd had not been born when Mandela was sentenced to life in prison in 1964. Yet they came in droves to honour someone they had never met or heard speak in person.
He had become a legend in his lifetime.
He had an aura and evoked almost universal adulation. Some, such as former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, had denounced him as a terrorist, and former US vice-president Dick Cheney had voted against a Congress motion calling for his release, but those were glaring aberrations.
To virtually everyone else, he was held in the highest possible regard, almost as a paragon of virtue and impeccable integrity – indeed, almost of sanctity. The ANC and the anti-apartheid movement were able to use his extraordinary moral stature to galvanise support for their efforts to bring about fundamental change in South Africa and as a rallying point for their call to release all political prisoners.
He helped to personalise the struggle, almost to give it a face (though, of course, no one outside the prison system knew what he looked like these many years since the Rivonia Trial, since South African law forbade the publication of any such pictures). Somehow, he incarnated that struggle and many considered him to be untouchable.
He was a good man. No, he was a very good man. It is difficult to know how this reputation came to be, for the outside world knew very little of what was happening behind the grim walls of Robben Island. Whatever its genesis, the fact is that he had become, for many, a hero with almost superhuman attributes.
It posed something of a dilemma for the liberation movement. He was a valuable asset as someone with this impeccable stature.
But what if it turned out that the idol had feet of clay? Then the edifice of the movement's moral rectitude would come tumbling down because people would be disillusioned to find that this giant, or what they had always thought to be a giant among men, was but a fallible lesser mortal. Rumours began to fly that some might want to engineer his assassination in prison so that, were it to be true that he was a lesser mortal, the world would be none the wiser.
But then that magical day dawned, February 11, 1990, when he walked, tall and regal, out of Victor Verster Prison in Paarl, near Cape Town. But it was after his inauguration as the first democratically elected president of South Africa in May 1994 that the world realised it had not been duped. This man was something of a phenomenon. The world was in awe of his remarkable magnanimity and nobility of spirit in how ready he was to forgive his erstwhile oppressors and tormentors. He invited his white jailer to attend his inauguration as a VIP guest. He invited Percy Yutar, the prosecutor in the Rivonia Trial who had argued for the death sentence to be imposed, to lunch at the presidential residence, and he went to visit Betsie Verwoerd, the widow of the architect and high priest of apartheid. He donned the Springbok rugby jersey with the No 6 of captain Francois Pienaar. This was a spectacular act of magnanimity, for rugby had been, like all the others, an all-white sport particularly popular among Afrikaners, who were considered to be the racist oppressors par excellence, and the Springbok was a sporting emblem much hated in the black community.
By this gesture, Madiba had exorcised the demons of racial animosity. It was a very substantial hand of friendship extended to former adversaries who used to hate this communist-inspired terrorist.
On that day of the Rugby World Cup final between the New Zealand All Blacks and South Africa's Springboks at Ellis Park in Johannesburg, when he strode on to the turf, the whole place erupted, and the vast majority of those spectators who yelled and shrieked "Nelson Mandela!" like teenagers at a pop concert of their favourite stars, were Afrikaners. He demonstrated in that one gesture for racial reconciliation and harmony what an entire library of words would have failed to get in a month of Sundays.
Much later, when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) summoned former state president PW Botha to appear before it, Madiba offered to accompany him and to sit next to him, trying to minimise as far as it could be done any feeling of this being in-fra dig. He had more than vindicated those who had invested in him the aura of an untouchable moral stature. It did seem as if he was devoid of feet of clay.
How did he grow into this stature? Suffering can embitter, but it can also ennoble, and frequently does. Often observing the wonders he has achieved, particularly in defusing racial tension and animosity, people will say: "What an awful waste of a wonderful person to have made him languish 27 long years in prison. Imagine the good he would have accomplished much sooner."
Those who say this have forgotten that he was, at one time, relatively free and, with his ANC colleagues, had tried to persuade our white compatriots to mend their ways.
It was this campaign to end apartheid's awfulness that had landed them all in jail or had caused others to go into exile. Everything in its time, or, to use a biblical phrase, "in the fullness of time", when the pieces had fallen into place and things had come to a head, when the right moment had dawned, not sooner, not later. As it were, "come the hour, come the man".
But perhaps more importantly, those 27 years were not wasted. When Mandela went to prison, he was an angry young man, rightly incensed at the travesty and miscarriage of justice that had just happened, that it should be a criminal offence to demand what were but inalienable rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to which General Jan Smuts, one-time prime minister of South Africa, had given assent.
The crucible of suffering he entered was important in his evolution. The prison suffering was a continuation of a harassed existence before his arrest, when he was just always one step ahead of the security police, elusive as the Black Pimpernel, and who did not have the opportunity to enjoy a decent family life with his new young bride, Winnie.
The furnace of affliction burnt away the dross, and he progressively grew in a new spiritual depth. He began to be more patient and understanding of the foibles of others, especially of those of his jailers and the oppressors of his people and their fears of being overwhelmed by the black masses.
This is where he was purified and made to be more compassionate and magnanimous.
When he left prison, it was not to a sinecure. There was considerable politicking and he was not spared domestic unhappiness. One day soon after his release, he and Winnie visited us in our Soweto home to enjoy some traditional Xhosa cuisine.
You could not miss noticing how deeply in love he was with Winnie. When they walked out of Victor Verster Prison hand-in-hand, it seemed like the fairytale ending everyone wished them. In our house, you could see that his doting eyes followed Winnie's every move. He was almost like a besotted little puppy. Their break-up was a very traumatic thing. He was devastated, but it was just the culmination of a protracted period of deep anguish for him. Like many who love deeply, it turned out that he, in fact, was very vulnerable. He gave the impression of being all steel, impregnable, but this was not so. He could be so gentle, caring, magnanimous and hugely altruistic because he was tender inside.
He loved to be loved, not in any obsessional way, but he would wither and wilt without tender loving and caring in return.
You saw it in how he beamed when acknowledging the thunderous cheers. It was an endearing, childlike attribute. He seemed genuinely surprised by it and never took it for granted.
When he came to Bishopscourt to spend his first night of freedom, he kept saying, "There were so many people lining the road of all races," and he seemed to be genuinely amazed that he was the centre of this adulation. He, like all of us, yearned for affirmation. The most wonderful thing that happened to him was when Graca stepped into his life. She was as gracious as her name but, more than anything else, she made him feel wanted, cared for and appreciated.
She mollycoddled him.
We were at Jeff Radebe's wedding at the presidential estate in Pretoria and I saw her pick off some fluff from his shirt like a solicitous spouse dancing attention on her beloved. A little while later, I cornered him and said: "Hey, that woman loves you, yuh? I saw her dusting you off."
He beamed and said: "You saw that, did you?" He was like a teenager who has just kissed his first girl. I am not being chauvinistic – I got into enough trouble saying one time that he needed someone to bring him his slippers. I will not repeat that mistake.
Most men like their woman making a fuss of them, spoiling them. I suppose it should be mutual!
His chief weakness was due to a good attribute – his loyalty. When he was president, he should have sacked one or two of his ministers who were performing shoddily. He would not because he had an almost pathological thing about being a loyal member of the party. It was good to a certain point to remain loyal to those who had supported our struggle, such as Libya and Cuba. But that loyalty should have been tempered with a dose of realpolitik.
It would be in order for a private citizen to maintain those friendships, but it is a different matter when one is president of a country that cannot afford to alienate too many of the powerful in a unipolar world.
I was disappointed, too, that his government accepted recommendations for higher pay for themselves and MPs – getting on the so-called gravy train so quickly. I thought they missed a wonderful opportunity of saying:
"The commission recommends higher salaries for us. We will not accept them out of solidarity with the bulk of our people." Typically, he dedicated a portion of his salary to charity.
He was remarkably altruistic and believed passionately that he was a leader for the sake of the led, and so he spent himself prodigally on their behalf, raising funds for schools and clinics all over the country. His schedule, even in his eighties, would have left many half his age gasping.
He cared. He could sometimes bowl you over with his humility. He had a regal hauteur and sometimes did not want to be trifled with, and could get quite angry if he thought he had been slighted, but he was, in fact, charmingly humble.
How God must love South Africa to have given us this man to be at the helm as we negotiated the transition from repression to democracy and freedom; the right man, at the right time and in the right place. Praise be.