Praised by his persecutors

December 9, 2013

British socialist and writer Mark Steel remembers that some world leaders praising Nelson Mandela today had different things to say about him before apartheid fell.

I WONDER if it was like this 2,000 years ago. If it was, when Jesus died, Pontius Pilate would have appeared on Sky News moments after the cross was taken down and said, "The world mourns today a man of great integrity. It was an honor to have known him, and even when I sentenced him to crucifixion, he showed great forgiveness, and that shows what a great figure he was."

On the BBC, the anchorperson would say, "With me here is one of his closest associates. Judas, what memories do you have of Jesus?" And Judas would say he always displayed dignity and humility, and, most importantly, forgave those who betrayed him. He'd finish with an amusing anecdote, about how persnickety he could be about which bread to break at supper.

On Radio 5 live, the moneylenders at the temple would say he was a heroic figure, who may have thrown over the moneylenders' tables in the temple, but said he was sorry for the mess that was caused, which is the main thing. And every newspaper would tell us, "Tributes have flooded in from across the Roman Empire, led by King Herod, who said 'It is a sad day for Nazareth, and a sad day for Rome.'"

Nelson Mandela incarcerated on Robben Island
Nelson Mandela incarcerated on Robben Island

MANY OF the official tributes to Nelson Mandela, such as the one from British Prime Minister David Cameron, have emphasized his ability to forgive, and his apparent rejection of bitterness is part of what made him extraordinary.

But the reason his capacity for forgiveness toward the rulers of apartheid mattered was that he'd organized opposition to it, took up arms against it and overthrew it. If he hadn't--if his notable achievement was forgiveness--he would simply have been a kindly chap who'd passed away, with no one outside his family taking much notice.

Few people now defend apartheid, but someone must have liked it at the time, or it wouldn't have been such a nuisance to destroy.

Margaret Thatcher, idol of many who made tributes to Mandela, bragged with a fervor that actually made her look drunk that she'd rejected sanctions against the apartheid regime, as Mandela's African National Congress was a "typical terrorist organization." Many sportsmen and musicians broke the boycott, repeating the sentiments of Dennis Thatcher, who said "We play our rugby where we like." There were the 'Hang Mandela' t-shirts, and countless commentators and politicians who belittled the demonstrations and boycotts.

I visited Robben Island prison, where Mandela had been incarcerated, in 2003. To get my ticket, I visited an office in Cape Town, with glossy posters on the wall, covered in flowery lower-case jolly African writing, exclaiming your trip to South Africa wasn't complete without taking the unique opportunity of a trip to the famous island. I got on a catamaran with Americans and Germans, who smothered themselves in sunscreen and took pictures of each other as they held out their arms and giggled.

Had they turned the prison into a theme park, I wondered--maybe with a water-cannon slide, and or a helter-skelter built around a giant Desmond Tutu?

But tours of the prison are conducted by ex-prisoners. As we wandered around the cells, our guide explained how he and fellow convicts had been allotted different amounts of bread according to their race, and how they were made to work 16 hours a day on the land.

"One day," he said, "as I was digging, on the day of the month my father was due to visit, a guard called my name. I stood before him on that spot there, and he said, 'Your father won't be visiting today as he's been shot. Now get back to work.'"

His father lived, it turned out, but never walked again, and the guide told us the three people responsible for the attempted murder were free under the rules of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee, and were now wealthy businessmen. To my left, a woman in shorts and a bright silk top put her camera away and started sobbing onto her sunscreen.

On another day, I was taken around Soweto by a friend of the family I was staying with. We toured the roads from which, under apartheid, its residents hadn't been allowed to leave without a pass, and met countless children running along dusty tracks selling water, as if auditioning for a film that Morgan Freeman will probably be in. We went around the museum built where the schoolchildren were massacred.

My host was fascinated by England and cricket and the Premier League, and overflowing with tales of his youth--of plantains and preachers, and pondering why after apartheid, there were still hundreds of thousands living in squalor, in the camps outside each town.

"What a memorable day," I said when I got back to the people I was staying with. "Marvellous," they said, "but you were lucky today. That lad you were with was arrested in the 1980s, and tortured by the police in the station at John Foster Square. He made such a noise that they called him The Screamer--and whenever they brought in new prisoners, they would torture him again, so his screams would terrify them and make them talk. Sometimes, he's still a bit jittery, but he was on good form today."

SO IT was indeed remarkable that Nelson Mandela endured this regime and yet displayed no malice. But the real reason he was remarkable is that he took on its wealth and weaponry and brutality, its distinguished friends and its air of impregnable authority. He became the figure of a global movement against apartheid, and he beat it.

The kids of Soweto who weren't legally allowed past their street, the protesters throwing flour at rugby players, the students who took their 20 quid out of Barclays in protest, the pensioners who left South African grapes at the checkout counter, the Specials with their song "Free Nelson Mandela," the prisoners and the screamers and Nelson Mandela--all were united in opposition to this heavily armed barbarity, and they won.

During the campaign against apartheid, Nelson Mandela was a distant figure, locked away, but a name on mugs, posters and student union halls, barely more real than Batman. But the De Klerks and Bothas were alarmingly real, an air of menace in their presence, like the bouncer that orders around the other bouncers.

Now the hazy, distant figure is revered above all, and the defenders of apartheid have to scramble in his shadow for a space to declare that really they admired him, and the people they helped to torture.

The precise nature of his legacy will be debated for centuries. His capacity for forgiveness was impressive, and perhaps it isn't surprising if that's emphasized by some of those paying tribute, rather than his role in overturning inequality, as they're now arranging inequality of their own.

Because surely his most important achievement was to prove that bastards and their bastard regimes can be overthrown, against seemingly impossible odds, by all of us, as no one knows which unsold grape was the one that finally brought down a tyranny.

First published at Mark Steel's website.

Further Reading

From the archives