July 4, 2013 § 4 Comments
Twenty-three years ago when Nelson Mandela was released from 27 years of incarceration for fighting for his right to fight for the right to be a free man, I was too young to know what was happening. I knew that whatever it was that was happening was a significant event. Why it was I was not sure. What I knew of Mandela was what I’d heard from my cousin in the rural village just outside the no-horse town of Mount Ayliff, Dutyini, in the then “free” homeland Transkei. I believed the legendary MacGyver-esque stories they told me about this Mandela.
One of the stories that stick out in my mind is the one about how Mandela was able to make a bomb using a mere spoon at his disposal. He was so dangerous and heroic that they never gave him metal spoons in prison to eat with. Since they knew what he was capable of they gave him wooden spoons and he was locked in solitary confinement. This is all I knew about him. I knew he was in prison and that he had to come out because white people were scared of him, why I didn’t know. His name was constantly on the lips of adults. We were never allowed to listen to adults engaged in conversations. It was bad manners in our culture. I so trained myself not listen that I never really heard anything unless I was spoken to.
When my older cousins spoke of him it was always in secret, when there were no grown-ups in the area. It was from 1989 that I started hearing word that he would be released. It would not be until the following year that he would be released. I was in boarding school, aged 11, the year he walked out of prison. The previous year, 1989, my mother had made me read a number of works by Alan Paton — (Sponono) short stories. I remember they were about oppression. Since I hadn’t really encountered many white people in my life at the village I never really understood what it all meant really.
Although I remember when I was a little younger, home for the holidays from boarding school, I’d be looking after my grandfather’s cattle by the side of the road and always see white people driving to the coast, caravans trailing behind their nice cars, fishing rods sticking out the windows, happy white kids waving. Every now and then they would stop and take pictures of these black boys dressed in clothes that were several sizes too big, carrying sticks, a little dirty. I remember that particular year wondering why it was that it was always white people who seemed to have all the nice things. It never made any sense to me. Years later I would come to know why.
The boarding school I went to is in Qumbu, it was certainly one of the best schools in the Transkei at the time. It was a Catholic school, Little Flower Junior Secondary School, LFJSS. Since my mother had started forcing me to read, I started developing a habit for newspapers too. So, on February 12 when the Daily Dispatch arrived the day after Mandela’s release from prison, I remember reading the paper. As I read about this momentous occasion, the headmistress of the school, an imperious 73-year-old Austrian nun who went by the name of Sister Daniel read the paper with me and said: “What’s the point? He’s old anyway, he’s going to die soon anyway. Why did they wait so long to let him go?” I was puzzled because she was a year older than him and she was also the same age as my grandfather. I said nothing because, really, I didn’t know much about the events of the previous day, nor their future impact. Interestingly enough, she has since passed away and Madiba is still alive.
Another memorable quote I remember is by my mother. She had come to pick me up for the Easter holidays. There were roadblocks all over the Transkei as was customary at the time. She was talking about what a great thing it was that Mandela was free and then said: “I pray that God would be kind and give him at least another 15 years of freedom.” Well, God has been even kinder by another five years and counting.
It would not be until the following year that I’d benefit from Mandela’s freedom. In 1991 schools in East London voted to allow black children to go to their schools. I would be one of the first blacks at mine. I was the first black child in my class, in a school of more than 900 children there would be no more than 15 black children in the school.
The idea of black children going to a white school was such a novelty in those days that when we walked to catch taxis home or to school we’d be stopped by older inquisitive black people who were shocked at the sight of a black child wearing a “white child’s school uniform”. “Do you play with the white kids? What do they say to you? Say something to me in English!” Then they’d call their friends and you’d be surrounded by people who were marvelling at this little Mandela miracle. A black child going to a white school.
One day, during physical education, we were playing soccer and as is usually the case, two boys were selected to choose who would play for their teams. As the only black boy, naturally, I was the first one picked because the assumption was that I would be good at it. No one ever made that mistake again.
A year later, in 1992, I would go to high school. A white school. This time the high school had no more than 25 black kids. I decided to enter a speech contest at the school. I went before a sea of red blazers and white faces and white only teachers to deliver my speech. In my speech I said that Mandela had freed white people more than he had freed black people because now they could go anywhere in the world without being ashamed of saying they are from South Africa. Back then most lied and said they were from Zimbabwe when travelling the world — not a mistake they would make nowadays. There was another miracle the release of Mandela gave me, the right to express my opinion without fear or favour. Interestingly, at the end of my speech I had some of the black kids come up to me and ask me if I was trying to get the black kids expelled.
October 21, 2008 § Leave a comment
I read a rather hypocritical article penned by former Limpopo premier Ngoako Ramatlhodi in the Sunday Times where he decried the treatment of former president Nelson Mandela during an ANC national executive committee (NEC) meeting in 2002.
Mr Ramatlhodi was present in that meeting. In the article he details how NEC members called Madiba divisive for having told the NEC that certain of its members had approached him to let him know that dissent was not allowed in the ANC. Madiba was then asked to name the people who made those claims. In his attempt to protect these individuals, he refused to name them — for this he was called a liar. Some even said he wanted to rule from the grave. He was taken to task for this, as we say in Xhosa, bakhwela bezehlela kuye.
Ramatlhodi details how speaker after speaker went after Madiba while Terror Lekota chaired the meeting. He was so insulted that that he never attended another NEC meeting, according to Ramatlhodi.
To quote Ramatlhodi: “The tragedy of the episode is that senior leaders, who today are vocal about the recall of Mbeki as president, were there when Madiba was being violated in the most brutal manner by junior leaders of the movement.
“None of them had the courage to stand up and defend an innocent old man, our former president and icon of our struggle. They must have been genuinely afraid of Mbeki, a president who has somehow turned out to be the ANC itself. He has become larger than the movement. They were scared; I was scared.
“It was, indeed, a very sad day for those of us who were unfortunate to be there as witnesses.”
Obviously, it was not sad enough six years ago for him to speak out; he only realised six years later how sad a day it was. Now that it is politically convenient to speak out, he does.
It’s easy to show courage when you are part of a majority and part of the winning team. True courage is standing for what you believe even when you know in your heart that you have a 100% chance of losing everything you’ve worked for. I have no respect for one who only speaks out when it is easy to do so. He should have spoken out when it wasn’t.
If Ramatlhodi was such a man of honour, why then was he silent? Why did he not stand up for Madiba then? We can only deduce that his silence meant that he agreed with every single word that was said to Madiba.
In his open letter to Terror Lekota, Minister Jeff Radebe savaged Lekota for having presided over that meeting and for having allowed Madiba to be treated in the manner he was. If Ramatlhodi and Jeff Radebe were so concerned at the treatment of Nelson Mandela, why did it take them six years to speak out?
Indeed, if Terror Lekota presided over a period in the ANC where dissent was not permitted, then why should we trust this new party? How different are they going to be from the ANC?
But back to Ramatlhodi: Should we suddenly applaud him for taking a moral stance now? We should all be equally appalled at the manner in which Madiba was verbally attacked by the NEC members. I don’t know who was at the meeting, but we know who the members were: Terror Lekota, Jacob Zuma, Trevor Manuel, Thabo Mbeki, Ngoako Ramatlhodi, Sam Shilowa and many more. None of them said a word in defence of Madiba. Not one according to Ramatlhodi. How dare now they use his name now to get what they want!
This whole saga clearly shows us that no one is innocent. No one has clean hands.
This is clearly an attempt by the ANC to use Nelson Mandela’s name in order to shore up support for itself. What can we make of these leaders who seem to have a moral compass of convenience?
There is no courage in speaking out when it is safe to do so. There is no honour in defending a man’s honour only when it benefits you. Ramatlhodi and Jeff Radebe should have demonstrated their moral fortitude when Madiba was viciously attacked in that meeting, precisely because it was not the politically safe thing to do then. Their political careers were more important than standing up for what was right apparently.
What I have never been able to understand was how Thabo Mbeki, as one man, was able to stifle debate. The men and women who were there, who sat and allowed that to happen from day one, can only blame their lack of courage.
What is the point of speaking out when the majority is speaking out? Courage is not when you speak out when it is safe or beneficial for you to do so.
We need to have leaders who are able to do so especially when it is unsafe to speak out. Right now they are in short supply.
* first published 20 October 2008 on thoughtleader.co.za/khayadlanga