As a boy, award-winning author Zakes Mda knew Nelson Mandela as his father’s imposing friend. He shares his recollections of overheard conversations, childhood lessons and sweets.
My childhood memory of Nelson Mandela is that of a man with unique contradictions.
He was a lawyer from the Johannesburg firm of Mandela & Tambo, who drove all the way to the Eastern Cape to represent my father in a libel case. My father had sued a village headman and an Afrikaner Native Commissioner for calling him a communist, which was tantamount to a crime those days.
The battle was between Mandela and Malherbe & Saayman, a firm of Afrikaner Free State lawyers that still operates from Zastron to this day.
Although I have no clear recollection of the outcome of that case, I remember crowds of spectators outside the courthouse who exploded into applause after a spirited cross-examination of the Native Commissioner by Mandela. He was reputed to be a sharp attorney, though he had not been the most brilliant of law students.
My mother, who moved in the same social circles, told me he repeatedly failed some courses at law school before he passed them.
The Nelson Mandela I remember quite fondly was a family friend who used to sit in my parents’ living room arguing with my father about the correctness or not of African nationalism in their fight against the apartheid system.
He was the secretary general of the ANC Youth League when my father, Ashby Peter Solomzi Mda, was the president. His deputy was Oliver Tambo.
This was in the early 1950s before my father, a theoretician of African nationalism, broke away from the ANC with the Pan Africanists.
When sickness drove my father from Johannesburg to healthier climes in the Eastern Cape, he formed a caretaker committee composed of Mandela, Tambo and Walter Sisulu to run the Youth League in his absence.
Mandela therefore regularly drove to our home in Herschel and spent days there conspiring with my father.
As an expert eavesdropper, these were moments that brought early political consciousness to my life. I also learnt a lot of tolerance towards those who hold different views from my own.
Such tolerance I saw in practice when people like Kaizer and George Matanzima, the brothers who later became leaders of the first Bantustan, also came to my house to meet Mandela.
They were Mandela’s close relatives and though they held different political views, he always treated them with respect and deference. They would all be joking, filling the house with raucous laughter.
The Nelson Mandela of my childhood was an avuncular man who always had a kind word for us kids. He never forgot to bring us sweets, which irked my mother no end.
This was a Mandela that my mother and her friends referred to as ‘a lady’s man’, though I didn’t understand why they called him that. Yet he was a hard taskmaster and was just as strict as my father was. He did not suffer fools gladly and prided himself on being a disciplinarian.
I often tell the story of how my two brothers, our nanny and I were in his car, driving from Park Station, as Joburg Station was then called, to his house in Orlando West.
We were following a car that was so old it was falling apart and was filling the road with black smoke. We laughed at the spectacle and commented on how the black car we were riding in was much more beautiful. Mandela was furious with us for laughing at an African who had worked hard to buy his own car.
‘You don’t even have one like that yourselves,’ he said.
This story lives forever in my memory because it taught me that you don’t laugh at the misfortunes of others, or at their attempts to rise above their circumstances. You treat them with compassion, with generosity of spirit and with tolerance.
There, you see, tolerance pops up once again. Even in those days, though he was an imposing and handsome figure, Mandela exuded humility.
It is the humility that we saw in his post-Robben Island era blooming to its fullest. Remember, he is the man who resisted the megalomania that comes with being put on a pedestal.
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