Mandela walks with us

As a prisoner, Madiba once walked the streets of South Africa unseen

December 7, 2013 7:15AM ET
Former South African President Nelson Mandela and his wife Graca Machel outside Pollsmoor Prison. While imprisoned at Pollsmoor, Mandela was occasionally taken on escorted outings through the streets and suburbs of Cape Town.
Gallo Images/Oryx Media Archive/Getty Images

The news was expected, indeed rehearsed too many times, and still I am in shock. Nelson Mandela is gone. Go well, Madiba. Hamba kahle Mandela. Mandela has passed away.

I am surrounded everywhere by reminders: On my desk, a dog-eared copy of his autobiography, which I have just been teaching to undergraduates. Radio 702 streaming South African voices into my ears in the first hours after the announcement of his passing, beginning with the words of the current president of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, "Mandela has departed ..."

There is, in the particular choice of these words, a sense that, in the end, he seized the moment, and, as he did so often, lifted his spirit over the expected, the ordinary, and beyond the speculation and handwringing. For 26 weeks, South Africans have known that Mandela has been gravely ill. It has been a difficult time, rife with rumor and conspiracy theory, and punctuated by heart-stopping moments of impending announcements. He has not been seen in public since the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, but now, suddenly, his image is everywhere. Voices, both known and unknown, are trying to put into words exactly who the man was to them, what he means, how and when they knew him. Again and again, his image, his words, the sound of his voice.

Walking the streets unseen

It is incredible now to think that for 27 years before Feb. 1, 1990, no one had even seen a picture of Mandela taken after the early 1960s. The apartheid regime's control was that thorough. And it has always fascinated me that, for four years before his release from prison in 1990, Mandela went invisibly among the people of South Africa, like some modern day Caliph from "One Thousand and One Nights," to reacquaint himself with the country that had held him prisoner for so long that no ordinary person recognized him. Mandela had already been moved from the infamous Robben Island prison to Pollsmoor Maximum Security Prison just outside of Cape Town, when, shortly before Christmas of 1986, the deputy commander of that prison asked him whether he would like to see the city. Still a prisoner, Mandela was shocked, but intrigued. It was to be the first of many such excursions.

Always accompanied by a prison official or a junior officer, he was taken on outings through the city streets and suburbs of Cape Town, stopping occasionally at a shopping center or café for a Coca-Cola or cup of tea, and ever further afield to Stellenbosch, Cape Point and Laingsburg, on the edge of the Great Karoo desert — landmarks of the Western Cape. Initially, Mandela was troubled, even fearful. Were the authorities tempting him with these small pleasures in order to extract larger compromises and concessions from him in exchange for his freedom? Or were his jailers willing him to attempt flight so that they might shoot as a runaway convict the troublemaker whom their imprisonment had turned into a hero?

If we take seriously the way his words — and those days of heady political change — resonate with us, then we may yet take heart from his passing.

Those scenarios are possible. But the realpolitik of the day was compelling: Since 1985, secret talks had been underway between Mandela, the African National Congress in exile, the South African government and international and business leaders — talks that would culminate in the transition from white rule. Government officials needed Mandela to refamiliarize himself with a country that had changed profoundly during the years of his imprisonment (except, that is, in its central tenet, the racial classification and ordering of its society, wealth and politics). 

They needed him to stop the vicious cycles of violence that gripped South Africa in the 1980s and that had led to the imposition of consecutive states of emergency, even as the resistance stepped up its efforts to render the country ungovernable. And so, Mandela walked among his people then, unseen, always aware that he was still a prisoner, and step by step laid the groundwork for a new beginning in South Africa. No one ever recognized him.

His absent presence since 2010, particularly in these last few months, has been as reassuring as his anticipated death has been worrying. If, as we believe in Africa, those who have recently joined the ancestors have the power to affect the living — and if we take seriously the way his words, his memory and those days of heady political change resonate with us — then we may yet take heart from his passing. He will continue to be the touchstone for our own moral courage; he will continue to walk, unseen, among us.

History, unabandoned

I teach a class on South African history at the University of Minnesota, entitled "Waiting for Mandela." It is inspired by the memory of Madiba's absent presence, which has accompanied us these many weeks. This year, for the first time, in lieu of a textbook, my students read his autobiography, one section every week. They have just completed Part 11: "Freedom." As President Barack Obama stated on the evening of his death, Mandela was a man who took history into his own hands. He did indeed have a deep understanding of the importance of reading and an astute ability to read. His sense of history was profound and passionate, and his political reasoning and authority were legendary.

When it became clear in 1948 that the challenge to colonialism was to be met in South Africa with the formation of a racialized system of government — the likes of which anti-colonial nationalists could not have imagined in their worst nightmares — Mandela, with Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu, rethought the premises of their politics and the form that resistance would take. They, with others like Robert Sobukwe, Winnie Mandela, Steven Biko, Ruth First and Chris Hani, would do so many times over as the fight against apartheid wore on. If there was any limit to Mandela's anti-apartheid vision, it was in his own (or the new government's) capacity to turn it into reality. His knowledge of this limitation was perhaps also the source of his humility and dignity. But if this constitutes a sadness, it also opens a possibility.

In grappling with South Africa's present predicaments and the troubling legacies of its past, there is concern over the failure or limitations of the transition, the hardening fronts of nationalism, neoliberalism and globalization, and the specter of race that continues to haunt the post-apartheid present. Even if history sometimes seems to fail us, however, or the promise of the future is called into question, we cannot waver. As the philosopher and historian Georges Didi-Huberman pointed out, the persistence of the ethical problem of racial hate, humiliation and cruelty means that we must never stop protesting against — never abandon — this history. Mandela knew this.

My students know that, too. They have read Nelson Mandela's words. He gives us reason to pause, to think again, to read and to consider history. Mandela is very much with us.

Helena Pohlandt-McCormick is a professor of history at the University of Minnesota. She spent most of her childhood in South Africa and Namibia. Her dissertation, "I Saw a Nightmare: Doing Violence to Memory. The Soweto Uprising, June 16, 1976,” examined competing historical memories and representations of the Soweto Uprising.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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