Mandela and I have come a long way. Our story starts at Lilliesleaf Farm in Rivonia. In those days he slept by day and slipped by night – Mandela by day and David Motsamai by night. One moment he was a dirty car mechanic. The next moment he was a Zulu man from Natal – complete with the trademark earrings. Sometimes he became a dust-coat clad chauffeur with a thick hanging beard. At other times he was a man-about-town in an immaculate three piece suit. Such was the life Mandela led when we first met. I will never forget the actual day I came into his life and he into mine. Less than a month before we met, he founded the ANC military wing Umkhonto We Sizwe. In those days I was innocent and he was militant.

Soon after we met, David Motsamai slipped and skipped off to far-away places – countries and cities I could not even imagine then. But back home one beautiful Sunday afternoon on August 5 1962, David Motsamai the chauffer, was driving from Durban to Johannesburg when his car was ominously flagged down by the police at Cedara near Howick. From that time, our frequent meetings were rudely interrupted. We did ‘meet’ a few more times after that – if seeing a man behind bars, being escorted into court, being driven away in a speeding police van could ever be called ‘meeting’ him. First he was sentenced to five years for ‘leaving the country without a permit and for inciting people to go on strike’. Then came the famous Rivonia trial after which Mandela and his fellow Rivonia trialists expected and were prepared for the death sentence. But Judge Quartus de Wet sentenced them to life imprisonment instead.

Yet for me, Mandela never left. I saw him in the words and actions of my fiery school principal Curtis Nkondo at Lamola Jubilee Secondary School in Meadowlands Zone 5 Soweto. During the morning assembly, Mr Nkondo would instil anger and pride in our hearts as he warned that unless we took our education seriously we were destined to become ‘kitchen boys’ and ‘kitchen girls’ just like our parents and their parents before them. I also found Mandela in the writings of Frank Talk. I often thought of Mandela as I watched the timid and fearful behaviour of my own father before his ‘baas Hayward’ – a dentist who worked at 216 Bree Street  -where I also ‘temped’ during school holidays. As a naïve teenager among the hordes of protesting students in Soweto 1976, I thought often of Nelson Mandela wondering whether he knew what we were doing.

Twenty-seven years later, I and Nelson Mandela met again. I was no longer innocent. I sat with friends and family watching the TV broadcast of his release at matchbox house 633 Sedibeng Section, in Tembisa township. For more than an hour before Mandela and Winnie walked out of Victor Vester prison, the SABC TV anchor, Clarence Keyter was fumbling along; clearly unprepared and not exactly well informed about the man of the moment (we now know that his bossed did not even tell him in advance that he would be the anchor on that day).

As we watched television on that day, we listened past the bumbling Keyter. We saw through clumsy pictures provided as background in the run-up to the release. We ignored the horrible soundtrack. We watched the gates of Victor Verster prison intently. Before we saw Mandela in person, we regarded him in our hearts. We knew him without knowing what he looked like. Then he walked out – hand in hand with Winnie Mandela – just like Hugh Masekela had prophesied. His stride was graceful and dignified. His positive energy was touchable; it permeated our living room. Then he smiled warmly. Raising his hand he saluted the crowds.  “I stand here before you not as a prophet but as a humble servant of you, the people”, he said to wild applause. Four years later I joined a long and winding election queue in Noordwyk, Midrand. There I cast my first ever vote as a citizen of South Africa.

I remember saying to the people standing next to me that, I wanted the queue to move quickly as I wanted to return to my study where I was busy writing up my PhD thesis. They thought I was joking. They had no clue how far I and Mandela had come. They had no clue how inspired I felt by Mandela. Nor did they know that I had in fact never met Mandela in person. I was an infant when he went to jail. And yet few people have had a deeper impact on mine and the lives of millions of South Africans. Few 20th century leaders – globally – have entered the 21st century walking as tall.

Admittedly Mandela has become a myth in grave danger of being romanticised. ‘Leave Mandela alone’, is a constant refrain in many circles, whenever anyone does as much as attempt to criticize him. But some critics will not relent. They see current Mandela-mania as a function of historical amnesia and a deliberate attempt to wrest Mandela from the bosom of the communities which made Mandela possible. His life story is no different or better than that of Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, some say. From another angle, some critics blame him for having ‘sold out’ at the negotiation table, especially when it comes to matters of the economy. In other circles Mandela’s name is also used as a baton with which to beat ‘ungrateful blacks’ who, owing to their anger and lack of ‘reconciliation spirit’ are deemed to be un-Mandela-like.

His transformation from a world renowned prisoner to a global icon has been phenomenal. The secret must also lie in his proven ability to reinvent himself and the astuteness of those who worked on his image when he could not do it for himself. Consider these abiding pictures of him: Mandela the militant youth leader of the 1940s; Mandela the defiant campaigner of the 1950s; Mandela the short-lived commander in chief of the early 1960s;Mandela the defiant and dramatic accused number one -1962 to 1963 (remember his Xhosa regalia in court as well as his famous Rivonia trial speech);. Mandela the banned freedom-fighting prisoner – 1962 to the early 1980s (remember the reports of the group of Eminent Persons who met with him in Prison); Mandela the negotiating prisoner – late 1980s(remember his letter from prison read out to the masses in a rally in Soweto); Mandela the de facto president – 1990 -1993 (remember his address to the nation after the murder of Chris Hani) and Mandela the de jure president 1994-1999 (remember his inaugural speech or his donning of the Springbok Jersey at the 1995 Rugby World Cup?).

Perhaps we should not be altogether surprised. Mandela has been meticulous and deliberate about the building his own image for a long time – an exercise fanatic, a snappy and a strategic dresser for nearly fifty years. If one adds to all these a deliberate campaign of defiance – inside and outside the country – designed to make his name known, the result could only be an icon and a myth of global proportions.

The truth is that Mandela is no saint. I could think of at least four things Mandela has on Mangaliso Robert Sobukwe. Firstly, the apartheid authorities regarded Sobukwe as being more dangerous and dealt with him accordingly. Secondly, Mandela outlived Sobukwe – reinvention is much harder from that side of the grave. Thirdly, by design or default, alone and together with his collaborators, Mandela benefited from a much more effective, sustained and expansive global publicity campaign. Fourthly, Mandela married Winnie Mandela. With a wife that powerful and that resilient,who could forget the name of Nelson Mandela?

Yet Mandela deserves every accolade. It is not his fault that we are often tempted to portray him as totally self-made, faultless, super-human and a president who never made a mistake. Nor can we artificially try to reduce his stature – as I have heard and seen some try – without reducing our own selves in the process. He has played his part. Now it is our turn to do the same. Happy 93rd birthday Tata Nelson Mandela. Halala!


  • Tinyiko Sam Maluleke is a South African academic (currently attached to the University of South Africa [UNISA]) who suffers from restlessness, intellectual insomnia, insatiable curiosity, a facsination with ideas, a passion for justice, a crazy imagination as well as a big appetite for music, reading and writing. He has lectured briefly at such universities as Hamburg in Germany, Lausanne in Switzerland, University of Nairobi in Kenya and Lund University in Sweden - amongst others.


Tinyiko Sam Maluleke

Tinyiko Sam Maluleke is a South African academic (currently attached to the University of South Africa [UNISA]) who suffers from restlessness, intellectual insomnia, insatiable curiosity, a facsination...

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