Knowing Mandela: a short book about a big man

The world celebrated Nelson Mandela’s life in many different ways. (Image: Shamin Chibba)

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Lucille Davie

“This is a short book about a big man I was fortunate to get to know, Nelson Mandela.”

With these words respected British journalist John Carlin begins his book Knowing Mandela, a record of the years 1990 to 1995, when the late Mandela “faced his most daunting obstacles and achieved his greatest triumphs; it was the time when the full flower of his genius as a political leader was most vividly on display”.

Carlin spent those five years reporting on Mandela’s feats, trials and tribulations for the London Independent, and was one of the few foreign journalists at the time to cover both the former president’s release from prison and his early years in the presidency.

The book draws on conversations with Mandela, and interviews with those close to him, and writes about Mandela, with his flaws and his gifts, “neither superman nor saint”.

The 141-page book is Carlin’s second; the first being Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made a Nation, which focused on how Mandela used the 1995 Rugby World Cup to unite a scarred nation by encouraging the Springboks to win the cup, which they did. The book was made into the movie Invictus, focusing on how Mandela used the 1995 Rugby World Cup to unite a scarred nation by encouraging the Springboks to win the cup, which they did.

“My hope is that readers will come away from this book with a more profound understanding of Mandela the individual and of why he has been the towering moral and political figure of our age,” writes Carlin in the preface to Knowing Mandela.

Carlin meets Mandela in his Union Buildings office shortly after he became president, and is charmed that the president remembers his name, greeting him with “Ah, hello, John!” with what Carlin describes as “genuine delight”. They start the hour-long interview with Mandela saying sorry: “I must apologise. I feel certain we have obliged you to work very hard these last weeks.” Carlin responds by saying: “Not as hard as you have been working, Mr Mandela, I am sure.” And the quick response is: “Ah, yes, but you were not loafing on an island for many years, as I was.” Mandela was using self-deprecation to help relax Carlin, and it worked. It would be a tactic he used often elsewhere, with great success.

Mandela’s first press conference

Mandela had called a press conference the day after he was released from prison, on 12 February 1990, and Carlin recounts his words: “I am absolutely excited at getting out and I am also excited to have the opportunity of addressing you because throughout these difficult years in prison the press, both local and foreign, has been a brick to us. I think it was the original intention of the government that we should be forgotten. It was the press that kept the memory of those who have been imprisoned for offences they committed in the course of their political activities; it was the press who never forgot us and we are therefore indebted to you. I am happy to be with you this morning.”

Carlin was impressed from the beginning. “The press conference lasted forty minutes, and was an exercise in seduction from start to finish.” Mandela recognised the South African journalists’ names, having read their bylines in the newspapers while in prison, and greeted them cheerily.

It appears that not only was Mandela cheery but he seemed as “healthy in body as lively in mind”. Carlin had been allowed to interview Madiba’s doctor, who confirmed that the 71-year-old was as fit as a man of 50; the “fresh air, regular diet, the unstressed routine of life, and even the forced labour had done him much good”.

Mandela was asked whether he harboured any regrets or bitterness after 27 years in prison. He replied: “I have lost a great deal over these twenty-seven years. My wife has been under all sorts of pressures and it is not a nice feeling for a man to see his family struggling without security, without dignity, without the head of the family around. But despite the hard time we have had in prison we have also had the opportunity to think about problems, and it is an opportunity which is also very rewarding in that regard. And you learn to get used to your circumstances. In prison there have been men who were very good in the sense that they understood our point of view and did everything to try and make you as happy as possible. And that has wiped out any bitterness that a man may have.”

He was not bitter and revenge was not on his mind. Carlin writes: “He would now take charge openly, for all to see. Dashing all doubts, his first press conference as a free man was a tour de force, a master class in political persuasion.”

Carlin was bowled over – in 30 years of reporting on politicians he witnessed something he’d never seen before: some 200 international journalists burst into “spontaneous, heartfelt applause”.

Townships on fire

Carlin recounts how Mandela plunged into the challenges of the first years after his release, and before he became president. The townships around Johannesburg were on fire, with nightly murderous raids by hostel dwellers leaving dozens dead, in a bloody war between the right-wing Zulu Inkatha Freedom Party of Mangosuthu Buthelezi, and African National Congress (ANC) members. The situation was exacerbated by the assassination of Chris Hani in April 1993, a year before the first democratic elections. Hani was a South African Communist Party leader, and a leader of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the ANC’s military wing.

Mandela showed his statesmanship: he saved the country from near civil war by going to television and radio, bringing the situation under control. “With all the authority at my command, I appeal to all our people to remain calm and to honour the memory of Chris Hani by remaining a disciplined force for peace.”

Several months later Mandela had to calm the situation again. He went into the volatile Katlehong Township outside Johannesburg, but this time the battle to control the crowd was more difficult. For an hour he went back and forth, winning them over, then shocking them, telling them that they were not disciplined, and killing innocent people meant that they didn’t belong to the ANC. Their task was reconciliation, he insisted. The crowd was restless and didn’t want to hear this message.

“Listen to me! Listen to me!” Carlin reports him as saying. “I am your leader. As long as I am your leader I am going to give leadership. Do you want me to remain your leader?” Mandela challenged them, but had to repeat the question, and after some thought, the crowd yelled back in the affirmative. “Mandela responded with a ghost of a smile and curt nod of the head. Then, with a sharp, ‘I thank you,’ he declared the proceedings over.”

The violence receded and three months later South Africa’s constitution was ratified. Mandela said: “We are at the end of an era. We are at the beginning of a new era. Together we can build a society free of violence. We can build a society grounded on friendship and our common humanity – a society founded on tolerance . . . Let us join hands and march into the future.”

Talking to the far right wing

But Mandela had another challenge before elections could take place in April 1994: the far right wing in the shape of the Afrikaner Volksfront, led by General Constand Viljoen, had thousands of followers, armed and combat ready, standing by to fight to the death to stop the elections from happening.

While in prison Mandela had taken a two-year correspondence course in Afrikaans, and used it to disarm people like Viljoen. It took him six months to work on Viljoen, but in the end Viljoen had his men lay down their arms and vote in the elections. He said: “That first impression Mandela made on me made it less difficult later for me to make my decision. The important thing when you negotiate with an enemy is the character of the people you have across the table from you and whether they carry their people’s support with them: Mandela had both.”

Viljoen managed to get a third of the Afrikaner vote, and went to parliament. Ten years later, once Viljoen was retired from politics, Carlin asked him whether he would like to see Mandela again. “Yes, I would. I would love to see him, though I do not wish to impose. But, yes, yes. I would love to see him again. He is the greatest of men.”

Carlin contemplates whether Mandela’s behaviour to old enemies was self-serving, with a political motive, or to ensure that people who worked for him served him loyally. “Certainly, Mandela had a clear political purpose with these deliberately staged acts of public forgiveness.” But he discounts it. “Mandela was big-hearted and generous in the use of the power he commanded, and as a man, too.”

He says he had learnt two things in particular from South Africa’s first democratic president. One was to be kind. “The second lesson Mandela taught me is as simple as it is rare to find: that one can be a very great politician and a very great person at the same time.”