South Africa's first black president and anti-apartheid leader, Nelson Mandela, has died at home aged 95 following a long illness. Here journalist Karen Bartlett, who worked in post-apartheid South Africa for years and interviewed the Mandela family, remembers a statesman who changed his country – and the world…
When Nelson Mandela retired after serving one five-year term as President of South Africa in 1999 he laughingly said, “It’s important to step down while one or two people still admire me…” A joke, clearly, because, as the outpouring that greeted his death proved, Mandela was one of the most admired – and loved – statesmen on the planet.
Growing up as the son of a Xhosa tribal chief in South Africa’s rural Eastern Cape, the young Mandela rarely saw a white person. It was only when he began his education, and then moved to Johannesburg to train as a lawyer, that he experienced the reality of living in what soon became apartheid South Africa. “I slowly saw that not only was I not free,” he wrote in his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, “I saw that it was not just my freedom that was curtailed, but the freedom of everyone who looked like I did.”
Under apartheid, introduced by the Nationalist government of 1948, South Africans of different ethnic backgrounds were strictly segregated, with the best jobs, housing, transport and education reserved for whites only. Black South Africans were denied the vote and forced to carry identity cards at all times - requiring permission to travel and work in white areas. Large areas of cities were reclassified as living space for white people only, with thousands of non-white South Africans driven out of their homes. Police oppression was brutal, with many who opposed the government being imprisoned, and notorious massacres like the Sharpeville killings of 1960 when 67 unarmed black protestors were shot dead by the police.
After qualifying as a lawyer Mandela set up his own practice – the first black law firm in South Africa, and became increasingly involved in the anti-apartheid struggle. Tall, handsome and educated, Nelson Mandela was a natural leader who quickly rose to prominence in the opposition ANC movement. He was, after all, the son of a chief – as well as a ‘man about town’ who wore tailored suits, and drew admiring glances as he drove his swanky Oldsmobile through Soweto. With his boxers’ physique and high cheekbones, Mandela was soon known as a ladies man, divorcing his first wife Evelyn, the mother of his first four children, when she wanted him to choose religion over politics. Soon after he spotted a young beautiful Winnie Madikazela standing at a bus stop, and stopped to offer her a ride.
They married and had two more children. Soon, however, Mandela was to give up his family life, and his profession for years on the run as the leader of an underground resistance movement, the ANC. As apartheid grew harsher, he became convinced that liberating South Africa could only be accomplished by organised violent resistance – a course that led to his capture and imprisonment for 27 years, 18 of which he served on Robben Island a desolate former leper colony off the coast of Cape Town. He was in solitary confinement for various periods for smuggling newspaper clippings and organising secret study groups with other prisoners. During that time he was said to have drawn particular consolation from the Diary of Anne Frank – especially when he learnt of his son Thembi’s death in a road accident.
His release in 1990 after an international campaign – including a 1988 charity concert at Wembley – was greeted with worldwide jubilation, and marked a new course in South African history as he led the country to its first democratic elections in 1994.
Despite the many problems the country faced, those early years of democracy were exciting and vivid, with an explosion of protests and opinions. Suddenly South Africans felt that their country, belonged to them. Much to my amazement working as a local journalist there I once found myself ushered into the President’s office for a soft drink and a chat with one of his senior advisors. When I said that such a thing would never happen in Downing Street, he shrugged and said “It’s a government of the people.” At an official function in Johannesburg I watched a room full of white middle-aged business men together with young students from every race throng around their President, hustling to shake his hand – and call him father.
Mandela always said that he would only serve one term, vowing to hand over power to a younger generation, and determined not to fall into the trap of becoming another African aging dictator. In office, he was always a figurehead, offering wide advice, rather than a hands on administrator.
Still, he became a global icon, loved from everyone from Naomi Campbell who called him her ‘granddad’, to The Spice girls, who upon meeting he said were “his heroes”, proving he’d never lost his touch with the ladies. After a messy break-up, Mandela divorced Winnie in 1996 saying he felt “the loneliest man” in their marriage, and wed his third wife, Graça Machel, two years later on his 80th birthday.
But behind the genial image, Mandela had suffered deeply. In the lead up to his 90th birthday in 1998, I interviewed his eldest surviving child, Maki Mandela. “My father had a lot of pain in his life. He has lost three children, and both of his sons,” she told me.
She told of how her father loved spending time with his grandchildren and telling them stories – but she regretted never having those experiences herself. “I was 6 or 7 when he went into hiding,” she told me. “Then I went to boarding school and he went to prison. As a child, you always want your father to be there through your trials and tribulations. I used to be very resentful that he wasn’t.” Famously she said, “He was a father to the world, but not to me,” with their contact limited to a few letters and occasionally visits.
Decades in prison left him “very introspective,” she added – something that other friends commented on when they were reunited in the 1990s. “When he was released from prison he would come for his lunch and would be very relaxed, but a side of him was somewhere else, thinking about other things,” the renowned anti-apartheid activist Amina Cachalia, who died earlier this year, once told me. “He had forgotten how to be with people. He talked to me as if I were a prison warder.”
Mandela was traditional, but could also be witty and irreverent – and loved mingling on first name terms with world leaders. When the Queen phoned he had been known to call her Elizabeth. “Why not?” he teased shocked guests at dinner parties. After all, she called him Nelson.
Above all, he was masterful politician – a good shepherd, he said, who directed his flock gently from behind - and who led his country though a peaceful transition to democracy whilst leaving it unchanged in many ways. More than 20 years after those democratic elections a black elite now rules the country alongside the white elite that always wielded power. For most South Africans, however, poverty remains a way of life, with widening, not decreasing inequality. Crime grew to epidemic proportions during the 1990s and 2000s, while the economy stagnated. Politicians’ unwillingness to get to grips with the country’s AIDS crisis meant that when I visited in 2008 one HIV activist told me so many people were dying the country was “running out of graves.” Mandela’s own son died of AIDS, a fact that he grieved over privately, before admitting the truth.
As a supreme statesman and leader, Mandela never lost the love of his people – but he remained very much human. “He is only a man, not a product that can save South Africa from its worst impulses,” writer, and former head of the Mandela Foundation, Achmat Dangor told me.
It’s safe to say the world would have been a very different place if Nelson Mandela had, as was expected, been sentenced to death at his trial in 1964 – instead of life imprisonment. It was a sentence he was prepared for, scribbling in his court notebook, “If I must die let me declare for all to know that I met my fate like a man.” But ultimately he told friends his greatest legacy was that after 1994 his countrymen no longer had to declare the colour of their skin, “You only have to say, I am a South African.”