There was, of course, an element of myth-making about all this. The focus on his imprisonment – Anti-apartheid’s Free Mandela campaign – cleverly individualised what was a mass struggle which he was ever ready to acknowledge. His period of membership of the Communist Party of South Africa wasn’t revealed until recently. Detractors have pointed to failures and mistakes, among them his slowness to act to stem the spread of AIDS. But I believe the phenomenal outpouring of emotion and tributes worldwide following his death show that few politicians have touched our imagination or inspired our love as he did. For me, his essential greatness lay not only in his courage, dedication, endurance and toughness, but in his understanding and forgiveness of opponents coupled with warmth, humour, simplicity and absence of arrogance. He conquered white South Africans, including Afrikaner Nationalists, by his unfaked concern for their fears. He was relaxed and easy with people whatever their status. Even his youthful ladies’ man image, two broken marriages and reputed weakness for celebrities, especially pretty ones, are widely accepted as part of his humanity.
Though not a member of the ANC, I worked in Port Elizabeth and Durban with many of his lieutenants and knew he had organised non-violent civil disobedience in the 1950s. His decision to call for armed struggle after the massacre by police of 69 peaceful black protesters against the infamous pass laws in 1960, influenced my own abandonment of pacifism. Mandela was a successful lawyer with links to the Transkei Thembu aristocracy, but he was nonetheless willing to go underground and lay his life on the line in the cause of a democratic, inclusive and non-racial South Africa. He movingly said at his trial:
‘I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for…But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.’
His conduct during his time as president proved he meant what he said and gave South Africans of all ethnicities hope of a better society (a hope sadly dented by his successors).
In prison for a mere 5 years to Mandela’s 27, I was inspired to begin a cycle of poems depicting him as an African Prometheus, a Titan who stole fire from the gods to empower ordinary humanity and was cruelly punished for it by Zeus (for whom read the South African apartheid state).
I'm moved that there are proposals in Liverpool to celebrate and honour Mandela’s valuable life. Grateful, too, that when Shirley Mashiane Talbot, a lifelong ANC member, and I were campaigning together years ago for the Anti-apartheid Movement we got heart-warming support from residents of the city. And in 2008 several organisations, including the City Council, co-operated to organise events to mark the great man’s 90th birthday.
*an isiXhosa word meaning troublemaker!
Upon the krantz
Smeared with blood and gore and shit
Handcuffs rasp with aching writsts
The ridge knife-cuts his bleeding back
Holds a blowtorch to his blistered face.
Brings the eagles
Like hunger lust and fear
With beak and talons
At his gut
And then it all begins again.
For death – and cannot die
Cursed with endless life.
Come in their mini skirts
Their smooth thighs moist for love;
He feels sap swell his horn
Hears the whispers in his ear…
Stubs his fat cigar
His voice too is soft:
You stole the sacred flame for men
Joined the mob behind my back
Led revolt against the gods
Tried to turn my world to ash
And build a new. But
Forget that rabble.
Soft-footed in his brown-suede shoes
Exit permit in his hand:
We drank together at the club
You’ve only got to say the word
Sign here on the dotted line.
Writhes against the rock
Teeth-torn lips spit out a groan
In his car below
Tells the chauffeur to drive on
Blot out the sun
Eagle-beaks tear out the gut again.
Is far away
Beyond the reach of a telegram
While silent on the folded plains
The unseen people
Seem to sleep.