Tag Archives: South Africa

For the Joy of Reading: Whiteheart: Prologue to Hysteria

This is a stream of subconsciousness: a prose poem where the words matter more than the structures of a linear progression of the story.   Indeed, it could be argued that there is not really a story in the normal sense of the word, although things happen to the narrator.  This is a story about growing up in the lawlessness of 1970s Soweto, of the everyday violence, of unpleasant sexual encounters where the need is for gratification not relationship.   It is a story of rape and molestation, where men can be on the receiving end as well as women.   It is a story of girls gang-raping men because they could overpower them.   (I do not know whether this actually happened, but the author makes a thing of it).   It is a story of necklacing and mob violence.   It is a story of a collapse into insanity, without any assurance that the narrator recovers.

There is nothing more that needs to be said.


For the Joy of Reading: Memoirs of a Saboteur

I have never met Natoo Babenia.   I have met many of the people mentioned in his book, including most of the Rivonia Trialists, through my involvement in the UK Anti-Apartheid Movement.   Indeed, I worked with MD Naidoo and I took part in the 1988 Nelson Mandela Freedom March along with Indres Naidoo.   I therefore approach this book from a particular perspective and it is only honest to make others aware of this.

For me, this is an interesting book because it tells the story of the early recruits to Umkhonto we Sizwe (the Spear of the Nation) which was to become the armed wing of the African National Congress (ANC) in the years of exile, following the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre and the subsequent banning of ANC and other political organisations.   Natoo Babenia was one of the first volunteers to join the organisation.

As the name tells you, he was a member of the South African Indian community.   His family lived in Durban and worked closely with Mahatma Gandhi, when he lived in South Africa.   More importantly, the Babenia family, unlike so many in the Natal Indian community, still had close relatives living in India.   Natoo went to India to sort out a family problem and he remained there for some years.   It was in India that he learned his skills as a saboteur, taking part in the campaign to make the British “Quit India” in his family’s native Gujarat.   He was not prominent, except at a local level, helping to organise locally for the Indian Congress.   It was here that he learned to use dynamite and fuses, and to make portable bombs.   These were skills that would be invaluable to Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) in the first years of the armed struggle against apartheid.

Babenia went back to South Africa because an uncle died and there was a will that needed to be sorted out.    It was here that he met people like MK Naicker, Yusuf Dado and MD Naidoo, who were to play a prominent role in organising the South African Indian community in the struggle against apartheid.   It was also at this time that he joined the illegal South African Communist Party (SACP).   Then the Sharpeville Massacre took place in 1960, the ANC was banned and decided that it would continue to work underground against apartheid.   The decision was taken to launch an armed struggle, targeting symbols of apartheid, and MK was formed with Nelson Mandela as the Commander-in-Chief.   The launch, blowing up electricity pylons to the white communities in Johannesburg and Durban, was spectacular.   [It should be remembered that the black areas did not have access to electricity].   Babenia was one of the technical officers, working in the Durban area.

What follows is the story of how the apartheid state cracked down on MK, but not told from the point of view of the Rivonia trialists, which is the usual focus, especially in “Long Walk to Freedom”.   Some people had to flee the country.   Some people were arrested.   Babenia was one of these.   Some people broke under torture.   Babenia was not one of these.   He was found guilty and was sent to Robben Island.   He was sentenced to sixteen years imprisonment.

The section of the book about Robben Island is fascinating.   It shows how the struggle was continued by the political prisoners, sometimes with the collaboration of the ordinary prisoners, and how the warders tried and failed to assert their authority.   Some times I am just left incredulous at the ingenuity of the prisoners.   How did they hide pieces of paper and other items when they were stripped, their clothes were searched and the were subjected to bodily, including anal, inspections?   How did they get newspapers and information to the political prisoners, including the Rivonia trialists who were held in solitary confinement?   The fact that they won the battles that led to improvements in their prison conditions is more easily explained.   They were persistent and they were right and, sometimes, they were able to convince the warders that it was in their interests to agree.   But they also had to endure physical beatings, withdrawal of food and solitary confinement amongst the punishments inflicted on them, not to mention heavy physical labour on the quarry and elsewhere on the Island.   They also managed to create their own entertainment by whittling sets of draughts and chess sets, and even Scrabble.   On raids, the warders would seize these sets and then the prisoners simply made them again, and again, until the warders gave up seizing them.

The medical treatment available to prisoners can only be described as bad.   Babenia describes people dying because their diseases were misdiagnosed or simply not treated properly.   Babenia himself had two heart attacks in prison and two more following his release.   This was undoubtedly because of the harsh conditions he endured in prison.

One of the most moving sections of the book is also the shortest.   It describes Babenia’s bewilderment upon his release into a community that he no longer knew, into a family that had grown up when he was in prison, into a struggle against apartheid that was reaching its climax.

There are some things that are irritating about the book.   Indres Naidoo’s first name is almost always misspelt as Indris.   [I know that is a problem of transliteration to the Latin alphabet, but Indres spelled his name I-N-D-R-E-S].   I was bewildered by the references to Eleanor Anderson, until I realised that this was the name of Eleanor Kasrils, who I knew for some forty years, before her second marriage to Ronnie Kasrils.   I also very much doubt that anyone under 40 will have the slightest idea about who Subhas Chandra Bose actually was, unless they have read the books by Abir Mukherjee.   And there is at least one instance where the translation from Xhosa, referring to young men returning from circumcision, is simply wrong.

Despite all that, this is an important book for people interested in South African history and the struggle against apartheid.   It is about a foot-soldier in the struggle and that is why it is important.

For the Joy of Reading: Under Our Skins

This is both a disturbing and a life-affirming book. It begins with the murder of Neil Aggett, a white doctor and trade unionist, by the apartheid security police. There is no other way to describe what happened. Neil Aggett was beaten and beaten badly and was found one morning hanging in his cell. And then it switches to the story of a typical white family in South Africa, not particularly radical, who, by force of circumstances, find themselves in conflict with the apartheid state.
The story then turns to that of an ordinary white South African family, living a comfortable life in the white suburbs. Except that they are different. The father believes in being polite to black people. He is a rising executive in Eskom, the South African electricity supplier, and he has a vision of electricity transforming lives and therefore the country. The wife is very loyal, supporting her husband in his job, and getting involved in charitable work, which eventually leads to her visiting the townships. But the defining experience is that of the son, the author of this book, who is growing up throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s and who is afraid of being conscripted into the army. As he grows older, he becomes more and more determined not to go into the army. This leads to family confrontations, with his parents hoping that he will see the error of his ways. His sister is supportive of him, but is not under direct threat of conscription herself, because she is a woman.
The background to all this is the Sharpeville Massacre, the banning of the ANC and other political organisations, the arrest of Mandela followed by the Rivonia Trial and the crackdown by the South African security apparatus. It does not work. White teenagers have to be conscripted because troops are needed to fight a war on “the borders”. Then, of course, the children of Soweto rose in rebellion on 16th June 1976, and South Africa was not at peace again until the overthrow of apartheid, when the first democratic elections took place on 27th April 1994.
This is the story of how one white family was traumatised by apartheid. It is the story of how a son became involved in white student politics, which led to him knowing of people like Barbara Hogan, Neil Aggett, Auret van Heerden and Liz Floyd, who were detained by the security police and tortured. It is the story of a mother who set up an old people’s home in Alexandra township. It is the story of a daughter who left the country because she could no longer live there, and it is the story of a father who planned to bring electricity to the townships, bringing himself to the attention of the security police.
It is a story in which black people are marginal, but that was typical of white South Africa under apartheid. This book is a true reflection of that society.
There are errors. I doubt that Frelimo, the liberation movement for Mozambique, ever planted landmines in the Caprivi Strip in modern Namibia. Mozambique borders the Indian Ocean and the Caprivi Strip is 900 kilometres away in a country that borders the Atlantic Ocean. It was Sidney Kentridge, not Stanley, who represented the Biko family at Steve Biko’s inquest. That error is only made once, but it is jarring. The Woods family did not fly to Luanda in Angola from Lesotho, they flew to Lusaka, the capital of Zambia. I know this because I have held the book signed by Kenneth Kaunda given to Donald Woods at a reception in State House in Lusaka. It is now one of the prize possessions of the Donald Woods Foundation Library in Hobeni, Eastern Cape, South Africa, which I catalogued in 2014.
These are irritating because I cannot imagine that they were mistakes made by the author. But they do not detract from what the book has to tell us about apartheid South Africa. If you want to understand the mentality of white South Africans under apartheid, this is a book to read.

For the Joy of Reading: The List

If anyone is going to write a novel based on the South African security services during apartheid and since the first democratic elections in 1994, Barry Gilder is a very good candidate. He spent years working for the ANC Intelligence services, and then in the amalgamated intelligence service of the newly-elected Government of National Unity under President Mandela. This is a man who knows what he is talking about. And he is very clear in his Author’s Note: “This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner.”
This is true. The whole story is based on a premise, a rumour which, as far as I am aware has never been proved. It is said that President Nelson Mandela was given a list, by the National Intelligence Service (the South African equivalent of MI5) naming all the apartheid agents in the ANC. It is also alleged that President Mandela was so magnanimous that he did nothing with the list, if it existed. If this is true, it would be for the very good reason that the source was tainted and that none of the information could be trusted. The list, if it exists, would have been written with the intention of sowing distrust and destroying reputations.
It is also true that the “Sunset Clauses” left dedicated supporters of apartheid in post, and in roles where they could do damage. There is no doubt in my mind, as a long-standing anti-apartheid campaigner who has visited South African many times since the ANC Solidarity Conference in 1993, that this has been happening. One of the key chapters in the book, Chapter 25, describes Mandela arriving at the Carlton Hotel in Johannesburg to acknowledge the ANC Victory in the first democratic election in South African history. He talked about the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP)and was quite clear that no-one could participate in the Government of National Unity if they were opposed to that plan. I remember this very well. I was there. It was a very sobering moment. That very evening, I had been arguing with ANC friends that they would have to defend the RDP because it was all that they had got, and that it would be attacked from the very outset. It was. The attack came from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund and the RDP was watered down to the Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) plan, and that also proved too radical.
So, the premise of this book is that old, retired, loyal ANC members from the Intelligence Services are asked to investigate the existence of the List, and come across some terrifying information about how the tentacles of the apartheid state have reached into the new democratic regime.
The story is carried along by the sympathetic characters that we meet and, indeed, it is supposed to be written by Jerry Whitehead, an ANC intelligence officer who rose to be Deputy Director General of the post-apartheid intelligence service. I am tempted to imagine this Jerry Whitehead as the Barry Gilder character, if only for his intimate knowledge of Kilburn, but the caveats of the author, quoted above, have to be born in mind. It would be wrong to seek to identify each character with a real person, and given the denouement we can only hope that this is not the case.
This is a story that will have chills running up and down your spine. Gilder shows how easy it is to entrap someone, to corrupt them. There is a chilling scene where Gilder shows the apartheid security police relaxing at a braai (barbecue) and I know that the attitudes of white South African right-wings males have not changed. I have sat through braais like that. Gilder shows that the British security police were keeping a watchful eye, both to ensure that nothing untoward happened and to collaborate with their anti-communist allies in the South African security. He shows that agents in the National Intelligence Service were planning for change because it was obvious that apartheid was unsustainable. The system had to go but white privilege had to be maintained. This is what is at the heart of the planning by Otto Becker, in the book. And I am sure that it was at the heart of the planning of many white South African bureaucrats in the years of transition from the mid-1980s to the years following the 1994 elections.
Whilst this is a novel, it dissects a frightening truth. This is a truly disturbing story.
I have one quibble. Salusbury Road in Kilburn is not mis-spelled. It is not named after Salisbury, but rather after the Salusbury family, Welsh gentry who were cousins by marriage of Elizabeth Tudor. Katheryn, Lady Salusbury, was the daughter of Sir Roland Velville, the only illegitimate child of Henry VII. She was the richest heiress in Wales and her money was used to acquire lands in, I believe, Kilburn. This matters because it is the kind of mistake that an intelligence officer should not make. The assumption about the mis-spelling however is that of Jerry Whitehead not Barry Gilder.
This is an extraordinary book, a revelation. Please God, do not let it come true.

For the Joy of Reading: The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela

This is an extraordinary book, giving an insight into the man over the 27 years that he was imprisoned. It also gives an insight into the small-minded, petty, vicious officialdom of the prison regime of the apartheid state. There are basically four types of letter: those to friends and family, those to universities whose degree subjects he was studying, those to prison officials setting out their legal obligations to prisoners, and those dealing with the affairs of the Thembu Royal Family, of which Mandela was a member. The letters are all signed appropriately, depending on who he was writing to. Mandela was a man with many names. His birth name was Rolihlahla, his school name, given to him by his teacher, was Nelson. His circumcision, or adult name, was Dalibunga, and his clan title was Madiba. The letters are signed using any of these names, except Rolihlahla. He was also Tata (Dad) and Tatakhulu (Grandad).

The letters to his family, and especially to Winnie, are deeply personal and show the difficulty and frustration that he felt in trying to be supportive and to give guidance when he was in prison, and could not be of any effective help. They are full of compassion and concern, and express his horror at the levels of harassment to which she was subjected, which included physical attacks on her and her home, threats to the children, arrest, torture, solitary confinement, prosecutions and internal banishment. The letters to the children are more about their need to pursue their education, and quite remarkably he was as insistent upon the importance of education to the girls as well as the boys. He wrote to Makaziwe, his eldest daughter, by his first wife Evelyn, encouraging her in her wish to study mathematics, telling her that it is a difficult but important subject, and that it is good that she wishes to specialise in it. There are similar letters to Zenani and Zindiswe, his daughters by Winnie. The two boys, Themba and Makgatho, by his first wife, are advised against giving up their studies to earn money, which is advice that neither of them took, because of their financial responsibilities to the family.

The letters that are the most heartrending are the letters of thanks to the people who organised the funerals of his mother, Nosekeni, and his son, Themba. Mandela was refused permission to attend either funeral, and they happened within ten months of each other. This is an illustration of both the cruelty of the apartheid state, and of its fear of Nelson Mandela. They did not want to give him a public profile by letting him honour his dead.

The letters to the various ministers and officials of the apartheid state are a different matter entirely. They are dignified statements of the rights of prisoners, under the law, and insist that the law should be adhered to. They object to the petty whims and spitefulness of the prison officials being the basis on which the lives of the prisoners are governed. They are forceful assertions of human dignity, in the face of the arrogance and racism of the prison officials. There are complaints that letters have been withheld for long periods, that letters have been mangled by the censors, that letters have not been delivered. It has to be remembered that prisoners were not allowed to send or receive many letters in the first place, and that the failure to deliver many of the letters sent and received had a profound impact on relationships. This was especially the case when Winnie too was imprisoned and the children were effectively orphaned because they did not have access to either parent. If it is difficult to grasp the full impact of the malign viciousness of the apartheid state all you have to do is remember that this is just one instance.

The letters to various academic bodies are mainly about the difficulties of studying in prison. The lack of access to books on recommended reading lists was an obvious difficulty, especially as the prison authorities interfered in the access to books on what appears to be an arbitrary basis, even though Mandela was purchasing these books from his own funds, through Juta, a South African publisher and bookseller. Fortunately, the University of London and other academic bodies were much more understanding of Mandela’s predicament in this regard than the apartheid prison authorities and he eventually completed his law degree, in the late 1980s. [It may be significant that by the time he completed his law degree that Mandela was involved in “talks about talks” with Kobie Coetzee, the Minister of Justice and that there was a loosening of restrictions, but the letters do not indicate that].

The letters about the Thembu Royal Family, of which Mandela was a member of a cadet branch, show how seriously he took his position as a counsellor and show how much of a traditionalist he actually was. There are times when he fell out with members of the Thembu royalty, as when his nephew Kaiser Matanzima led the Transkei Bantustan into so-called “independence” which was a clear breach with ANC policy. He clearly sided with the King, Sabata Dalindyebo, who opposed the move. There are also surprises, like cordial letters to Mangosuthu Buthelezi, the leader of Inkatha (later the Inkatha Freedom Party). Mandela clearly regretted the breakdown in the relations between the ANC and Inkatha that occurred during the 1980s. One of the things that becomes clear is that Mandela looked back to his childhood in Mvezo and Qunu with fondness, and he recognised his debt to the Prince Regent, Jongintaba, who took on responsibility for his upbringing when Mandela’s father died. Another thing that becomes clear is that Mandela took his duty of initiating his sons and grandsons into manhood, through the rite of circumcision, very seriously and, even though he was in prison, he did his best to fulfil his responsibilities in this regard. This view of Mandela, as a traditionalist supporting the customs and ceremonies of the Xhosa, is not one that is generally recognised in the West.

I think that my favourite letter is one to Winnie in which he extols the importance of women leaders. He names a few of these female leaders – Isabella of Spain, Elizabeth of England and Catherine the Great of Russia, and then adds “how great she really was, I don’t know”. He also mentions the Batlokwa Queen Mantatisi, the enemy of Shaka, the Zulu King and Moshoeshoe, the Sotho King. He then says that all of these women gained their thrones through heredity. [This was certainly not the case with Catherine the Great who usurped the throne, murdered two of her predecessors (Peter III, her husband and Ivan VI, his cousin) and held power for 30 odd years, launching wars of aggression in which Poland was destroyed and annexed by agreement between its neighbours.] He then goes on to mention modern women rulers such as Indira Gandhi, Simone Weil and Margaret Thatcher and says of Britain “Despite the collapse of her world-wide Empire & her emergence from the Second World War as a 3rd-rate power, Britain is in many respects still the centre of the world. What happens there attracts attention from far & wide”. This is an assessment that we need to remember.

Why I like this letter is simple. It shows the range and depth of Mandela’s knowledge of history and the world in general. It shows his ability to make an accurate political assessment. It shows, through his praise of women leaders, how modern and forward thinking he could be. It also shows his humanity in his relation to his family, with the references to his daughter, Makaziwe, and to his son, Makgatho. It shows us the man.

One final thing to say about these letters: many of them were not delivered. If you want to know how afraid the apartheid state was of Mandela, even though they had him locked up in maximum security prisons, then the evidence is there in that simple fact. They did not dare to deliver many of these letters. They did not want him to communicate with the outside world. They did not understand that the very fact that he was there in prison was all that the outside world needed to know.

For the Joy of Reading: Oliver Tambo: Beyond the Engeli Mountains

Oliver Tambo is deserving of a biography. He is the man who held the African National Congress (ANC) together throughout all the years of exile, when Nelson Mandela was in prison. He is the man who ensured that there was an organisation in place for Nelson Mandela to lead when he was released from prison. He is the man who nurtured and encouraged the resistance to apartheid both in South Africa and throughout the world from 1962 to 1990. He is the man who encouraged generation upon generation to believe that we could win, when the world told us we were wasting our time.

He is certainly deserving of a biography. This one is not new. It was first published in 2004, to coincide with the tenth anniversary of freedom in South Africa. One of the questions that I have to ask myself therefore is this: Why has it taken me so long to read this book? Part of the reason is that the book was quite difficult to get hold of in this country. But that is an excuse. I worried that I had been too close to the events, and I had only really been on the periphery, and that it would be difficult to make an objective judgement. It is now 25 years since Oliver Tambo died, and I think that I am in a position to make that judgement.

I should explain. I was chair of the London Anti-Apartheid Committee in the 1980s. I met Oliver Tambo on a few occasions. It would be untrue to say that I was acquainted with him, although I spoke to him directly on occasion and I think that he was aware of who I was. I was certainly known to his wife, Adelaide, and to his children, Thembi, Dali and Tselane. I played with his grandchildren, Thembi’s boys, Sasha and Oliver on occasion. I was a volunteer at the ANC Office in 28 Penton Street and at the Department of Information and Publicity Office in Mackenzie Road. This latter was a secret office, and you really had to be trusted to be allowed to work there. I attended the ANC International Solidarity Conferences at Arusha in Tanzania in 1987, and in Johannesburg in 1993. I worked as a volunteer in the ANC Office in Jeppe Street, Johannesburg, during the 1994 election. I cannot claim that I was neutral, and this is why I was worried about reading this book.

Of course, I did not need to worry. Oliver Tambo may have been a self-effacing man and certainly not self-promoting, but he had an acuity of mind that made his judgement good. If Oliver Tambo thought that Luli Callinicos was a suitable person to write his biography that is simply because she was. It is a task that she takes on with sensitivity and understanding, recognising his merits and dealing with the difficulties that arose, of which there were many.

Callinicos begins with his upbringing in the village of Kantolo, district of Bizana, in Pondoland on the far east of the then Cape Province (now the Eastern Cape). Tambo was born into a traditional Mpondo family. His father had a number of wives, and children by all of them. Oliver had his mother and his “other mothers”. The community lived by farming, until the introduction of the Poll Tax which necessitated the men to go away to earn money in order to pay the tax. This was disruptive and some of the men were injured or, in the case of one of Oliver’s uncles, killed because of the unsafe conditions in the mines. Oliver’s father was determined that his son would be educated so that this would not happen to him, and so his son was sent away to missionary schools. By then, he had already learned the tradition of African leadership, of listening to a discussion, of summarising it at the end and of leading people to a decision. This tradition of ubuntu after an indaba was something that he was to practice throughout the whole of his political career.

The other major factor about Tambo’s character was his deep commitment to Christianity and specifically to the Anglican Church. This partly came about through the education that he received at St. Peter’s school, a Community of the Resurrection school, in Johannesburg. It is also partly because of his enduring friendship with Trevor Huddleston, a member of the Community, and a deeply passionate campaigner against apartheid. It was mainly, however, because of his deep spirituality and the strength that he gained from this belief, which helped him to lead the ANC through all the difficult years of exile.

I can only really comment on the accuracy of the description of events that happened in London in the late 1980s when I was a volunteer in the ANC Offices. They do seem accurate to me. I was aware of events simply because I was in the ANC office when things happened. If you see Thabo Mbeki on the stairs, then you know he is in London. If you are asked to make a cup of tea and take it in to Dirk Coetzee, you know he is in the ANC Offices talking to someone. I knew things that I probably should not have known, and I can say that the description of those events is accurate. I therefore assume that the description of events in Africa and elsewhere are also accurate. They are certainly detailed. Undoubtedly, there will be some people who do not agree with the interpretation, or who may have nuances that they want considered.

It is interesting that when Tambo faced difficulties, he did not try to impose his will. He required that ANC to take a decision as an organisation. That is what led to the calling of the Morogoro and Kabwe conferences, and for the extended consultations with the NEC and other relevant bodies. It was his style of leadership. It was not that he did not lead. He involved everyone in the decision-making process. He listened and then advised on what was to be done. Almost inevitably, this meant that the decision went his way. And there were difficulties. Those who wanted to keep other races out of the ANC were faced down at Morogoro, and those who wanted to keep other races off the National Executive Committee were dealt with at Kabwe. The excesses of the ANC security at Quattro in Angola were brought under control. The need to prepare for the future was dealt with by decisions like the appointment of a group to work on a constitution for the new South Africa. And there were the daily difficulties of running the organisation, making diplomatic representations, feeding and clothing people, weeding out infiltrators, training and equipping an army, campaigning for the release of political prisoners, maintaining underground links to the organisation in South Africa, and everything else that was needed.

For this, Tambo sacrificed both his family and his health. His wife, Adelaide, set up home in London with the three children and, although he visited, his schedule simply did not allow him to live there. His base was first Dar-es-Salaam and then Lusaka. Adelaide was the subject of spiteful remarks. It was said that she lived in a big house in Muswell Hill, in north London. This was a matter of perspective. If, like me, you were brought up in north-east London, it was not a big house. If you were brought up in a township or rural area of South Africa, it was enormous. It had one large reception room which was used to host diplomatic events for the ANC, especially when Tambo was in London. It was said that Adelaide sent her children to boarding schools. She did. This was after a man was found in the garden looking up at the room of a 12-year-old Thembi. It was said that he was a “Peeping Tom” but he could have been an apartheid agent. People forgot that the Tambo children were under daily threat of kidnap. I know that these things were said, because they were said to me and got very short shrift. So, with the whole range of issues pressing upon him, Tambo had to deal with difficulties like this as well.

What we have is a remarkable story about a remarkable man. He was patient and kind. He was not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. He never insisted on his own way. He was not irritable or resentful. He did not rejoice in wrongdoing, but in the truth. He bore all things, he hoped for all things, he endured all things. Oliver Tambo made a significant and indelible contribution to the liberation of his country. He was one of the great leaders of the twentieth century.

For the Joy of Reading: Going to the Mountain

This book is a unique view of Nelson Mandela. It is written by his grandson, Ndaba, and it tells the story of being brought up by Mandela, and what it meant to have him as an example, a mentor and the patriarch of the family. Of course, he was not the usual patriarchal figure because for 27 years he was not there. He was in prison. Ndaba Mandela did not meet his grandfather until he was seven years old, and the meeting took place in Victor Verster prison, a few months before his release. In those years between Ndaba’s birth and the release of his grandfather, the Mandela family endured the constant harassment of the apartheid security police. Winnie Mandela was arrested, imprisoned, tortured, banned and sent into internal exile. Her daughters, Zenani and Zindzi Mandela, had to be sent to school in Swaziland to escape the constant harassment that was inflicted on them. Mandela’s eldest son, Thembi, was killed in a car accident, and Mandela was not allowed to attend his funeral. Ndaba escaped from this by going to live with his grandmother, Evelyn, Mandela’s first wife, who had left him when she joined the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Ndaba lived with her in Cofimvaba, a small town in the Eastern Cape, until his parents decided that he should come to live with them in Soweto. It was not an easy childhood by any means.
But his family took a life-changing decision for Ndaba when he was eleven years old. It was decided that he would go and live with his grandfather. By now, the date for the election had been set and Mandela was campaigning for the Presidency, to which he was inaugurated on 10th May 1994. So Ndaba was living there with an icon of the struggle, just at the point of transformation. What we have is an insider’s view of what was happening remembered from the point of view of a child.
It is a remarkable tale. We see how the two began to grow together, learning to live with each, to respect each other and through the process of getting to know each other becoming friends.
The phrase “going to the mountain” is used for the initiation ceremony of Xhosa boys into manhood. It is a period when the initiates are kept away from their families and begin to learn about the history and rituals of their people, and the duties of a man. It ends with circumcision and recovery from that rite. It is an indication of Mandela’s view of the world that he had no doubt that this ceremony was important and that he had a role to play in preparing his grandson for it.
This book gives a view of Nelson Mandela that only his sons (now both dead) and his grandsons, such as Ndaba, were familiar with. His sons, of course, did not really get to know him like this because he was in prison when their initiations took place. Nor is it something that Mandela talked about in his autobiography. But this respect for tradition is probably essential towards an understanding of the man.
This is a short book. It is easy to read. It gives a view of Mandela that you will not otherwise have. It is, for that reason, an important book.