I grew up in the most openly reviled country in the world. Before I was old enough to understand the reasons, I was aware that hatred of South Africa was built on essential misconceptions. Its flagrant disregard of pretence made it conspicuous, not because it was worse than the more nuanced and subtle hatreds, the hypocrisies that lay concealed under laws elsewhere, particularly in Britain, but because its were worn onthe sleeve. It was easy to target what was visible. Yet I believe that that very visibility contributed to its redemption. Mandela was called out by that essential and brutal honesty, however deeply misguided its expressions. Reconciliation needs the truth as fundamental to it, and the truth was inescapable.
My early life was spent close to others not far from heroic, in quiet ways and my family all served South Africa with the deepest affection, the most emphatic allegiance. When Mandela walked downstage into the spotlight of South Africa’s liberation it was to eclipse the many others left in the darkness, and those he called out from the wings were, understandably, those whose loyalty he embraced and acknowledged. Mostly his fellow sufferers, and mostly black. Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo, Steve Biko, Desmond Tutu, so many self controlled stars that ushered him forward, and stood back. There were many white ones too but in the black and white simplicity of the foreign press they are seldom seen. That is the way of a very bright light and his extraordinary self-effacing heroism flattens the perspective. I am driven to want to call out others, to fill the curtain-call of his life with those whose love for South Africa he expressed, and they were many, and many were white. He acknowledged it, always, but others forgot.
His death has struck in me a deep well of longing and homesickness. It is a longing to recapture something seldom expressed. The country he loved and saved from itself was always more complex than portrayed. From a distance South Africa was reduced to easy generalisations. Apart from all whites as the oppressors there were smaller ones: Afrikaners were ‘verkrampte, at best paternalistic; Capetownians were smug and the citizens of Jo’burg rude, thrusting and materialistic; English speakers ( well sort-of English) were too selfish to heed their consciences but held privilege ( and mining rights) instead. From a distance these clichés could survive, ( and clichés all hold vivid but only part truth) and the man whose long walk to freedom bound them into a new alliance seemingly did so un-aided. F.W de Klerk gets occasional acknowledgement, though not enough, because his courage was to risk complete loss, on the strength of his personal trust, and to take the frightened ‘wuth’ as we might say.
Nothing I would like to write is to diminish the ‘favoured son’ Mandela’s qualities or achievements, but perhaps to explain the dancing in the street outside his home in Soweto. We all loved what he loved. If Madiba was the ‘father’ it was to the family we grew up in, and the love for which never left us, even in its darkest days. Of course there were, and are, opportunists, who turned their coats in the political winds, the new members of the ANC in 1990 no different from the new minted Nationalists in 1950 but that would be true anywhere.
Alan Paton’s ‘Cry the Beloved Country’ was written and published in 1948, the fateful year in which South Africa was closed, the Nationalists, having rigged the constituency boundaries swept to power while Jan Smuts was helping to create the League of Nations and had his back turned, disregarding his country’s own fortunes. The classic literature of South Africa; Olive Schreiner’s Story of an African Farm; Herman Bosman’s Mafeking Road, Fitzpatrick’s ‘Jock of the Bushveldt’; all express the intense and conflicted affection for not only the landscape but the people, all the people. This remains so in its contemporary fiction: Andre Brink, Nadine Gordimer, J.M Coetzee, Athol Fugard, Lewis Nkosi (who was for a time, before he had to flee in 1960, a close friend). It is too easy to imagine these are the words of the elite, liberated to ‘expose’ or articulate only because somehow, against the odds, enlightened and international.
I was blest with a possibly unique family; unique in how many divides it straddled, how many influences it absorbed. I have stories to tell, vignettes, and episodes, and perhaps the time has come to tell them. In honour of Mandela and to remember the raw material he had at his disposal. I believe it was that he recognised, and which tempered his self-control, because few were outright villains, and none were saints, but almost all were lovers.