People & Power

When Mandela was White, and other big stories from the 1980s

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By Bernard Tabaire

Posted  Sunday, December 15  2013 at  02:00

In Summary

There was the Lebanese civil war and its various militia units, the Green Line dividing Beirut, Gen Michel Aoun, Christians, Muslims.


In the 1980s, as a little boy curiously interested in the news, several stories played repeatedly. Locally, it was the Museveni bush war. I was too young to understand the fire driving it. What stuck was, with hindsight, the fanciful tale of how Mr Museveni would turn into an anthill, a cow or vapour to evade Milton Obote’s security operatives.

Internationally, it was a myriad of stories that seemed in my mind to have melded into one not-so-clear narrative received mostly via radio. Now I know it was a narrative of big political turmoil.

There was the Lebanese civil war and its various militia units, the Green Line dividing Beirut, Gen Michel Aoun, Christians, Muslims.

The Iran-Iraq war – Saddam versus the Ayatollahs – was somewhere in the picture. So was the Goukouni Oueddei-Hissene Habre rivalry for supremacy in Chad, with Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi playing the ready spoiler. Their deadly legacy lives on in that country.

In Latin America, I think something nasty was going in El Salvador with the Farabundists, and also in Peru with the Shining Path. The Sandinistas and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua registered on my pre-teen radar too.
Out in South Asia, the Afghani president’s name – Mohammad Najibullah – reverberated more than the Soviet tanks. Who ever knew the Mujahideen and the Taliban would rise there in later years?

Then there was Shujaa Nelson Mandela and his comrade wazalendo fighting the Makaburu wa Afrika ya Kusini. I always found the Swahili words for dissident-hero, patriots and Boers nice-sounding. Fittingly, the word makaburu also means bullies.
Mandela, the ANC, Tambo, Archbishop Tutu. Soweto. All these were on the news menu all the time yet they bore a mythical quality just like Achebe and Okonkwo.

It would be years later before I got to grips, somewhat of course, with the South African story primarily through music, essays, visits to Robben Island and Vilakazi Street in Soweto, books – including Mandela’s own A Long Walk to Freedom – and conversations with South African friends.

I spent much of March 2004 on a road trip in South Africa: Cape Town-Grahamstown-Durban-Johannesburg.
The death of anti-apartheid activist and minister Dullah Omar found me headed to District 6 Museum in Cape Town. Taking me around all of Cape Town was a famous Afrikaner intellectual, journalist and writer. She had dared betray her race and class by founding an Afrikaans language magazine decades earlier to crusade against apartheid. She became close with influential people in the ANC. Which is why a call came through to her immediately after Mr Omar passed. Someone wanted to know something from someone who knows so much.

We lunched at a Xhosa restaurant by the Mandela Gateway on the Waterfront, with the “native” fare washed down by umkomboti, that drink made famous to many Ugandans by the singer Yvonne Chaka Chaka.
It was then that my hostess told me a joke then going around. White people, she said, were arguing that Mandela was not black. That sounded bizarre, if a little intriguing. Aha? Apparently, the man was so different, so capable of rising to the occasion, so able to rise above all fray in service of a higher purpose that he could not possibly be black. That is to say black people are not capable of that sort of lofty thing. “Can’t you see, the man is actually white. Look at his light skin!”

All right! It was a loaded joke, like most effective jokes. But Mandela’s mzungu skin, one would say, was a function of intermarriage between his Xhosa ancestors, the first group of Bantu peoples to arrive at the Cape, with the indigenous and “copper-coloured” Khoisan.

Now the man is gone. He did his bit as a human being and stepped aside. Successor One, Thabo Mbeki, turned out to have a megalomaniacal itch, wanting to smuggle himself back into the presidency after his term by holding on to the headship of the ANC for longer and longer. The party dumped him.

It went for Mr Jacob Zuma. He has turned out to be quite a character more tragi-comic than presidential. Whether it is unprotected sex with an HIV+ daughter of a friend or bribe-taking charges and alleged illegal use of millions of public dollars to secure his rural home, President Zuma leaves some of his compatriots befuddled.

At the Mandela memorial on Tuesday, in front of tens of the world’s assembled heavyweights and a viewing global audience of millions, South Africans made a stand: they booed their President.

Finally, they cannot abide a man who diminishes office and country. Mandela had elevated both with elegance. That is the man South Africans were mourning and celebrating. The contrast could not have been starker.

The stories from my childhood have turned out variously. But the ANC lives. Tutu lives. And Mandela lives. Somewhat.

Mr Tabaire is a media consultant with the African Centre for Media Excellence.