From the NS, 19 January 1990: Mandela at large

After 27 years in detention the release of Nelson Mandela was awaited like a second coming. On the eve of the prison doors opening Ivor Powell wondered if he could fulfil these great expectations.

When Nelson Mandela is ­finally released, the first disappointment is likely to be the absence of attendant trumpeting angels or a darkening of the skies at noon. In the minds of ordinary South Africans, the myth surrounding the world’s most famous political prisoner is so powerful that the man is scarcely any longer flesh and blood.

Here is Lucky, a notorious and hardbitten Soweto gangster on the subject: “Let me get one thing clear. I don’t support the UDF or the MDM or the ANC. I’m not a politician and I’m not waiting for liberation. I’m a man who makes his own freedom. But that man is my leader. He is bigger than all the parties and the movements. I don’t think they can afford to release him because that day there will be chaos in this country.” Lucky sketches a ­scenario in which the people rise up, rally round Mandela; the Boers get their come­uppance; the tyranny is toppled.

The blunt truth is that it’s not going to happen like that. Mandela is going to be released from the limbo of Victor Verster Prison so that he can take his place at the negotiating table. And negotiating a settlement is going to take a very long time. The signs are that the Mandela of real life will preach compromise and conciliation rather than revolution and take-over. In truth he could do little else. If Mandela does hold mass rallies it will still be under the watchful eye of the authorities, and only on their tolerance and after he has applied to the relevant magisterial authorities. And it will only be as a concession from the government that the ANC will cease to be a banned organisation. Pretoria still has the muscle to call the shots in any face to face confrontation. The people may be expecting King Nelson, but, willy-nilly, they are going to get Citizen Mandela.

But Citizen Mandela remains a personage of extraordinary force and prestige, both inside the country and beyond its borders. At least in his absence he looks to be the one figure who could effect unity among the various factions of the South African resistance. Or at least this is how it will appear initially – opposing black politicians will be loath for some time to tackle the myth head on.

One activist returning from a visit to ­Mandela recently described the encounter by saying: “You know all the nonsense that gets written about Mandela, how youthful he is, how he has a stomach like a washboard and can convince you that green is pink? Well it’s all true, he’s even more impressive than that.”

Perhaps the most significant factor though, as far as the ANC is concerned, lies in Mandela’s enormous credibility within the movement itself. As the prospect of negotiations looms, large sectors of the ANC’s internal grassroots support grows increasingly bewildered. Long nurtured on the rhetoric of revolution and the adrenalin of confrontation, the slogans and myth of a total transfer of power, the militant youth is approaching the prospect of negotiations with a certain dubiety. For such as Marcus, an 18-year-old Soweto youth activist, veteran of several ­detentions and tortures, the principle of a negotiated settlement is a hard one to swallow. “If the climate is right I can believe in negotiations,” he says. “We are young and we understand there must be democracy and people’s power. But we don’t understand the best ways of moving in that direction. But there can be no negotiations for the youth without Comrade Mandela. Then we will know that de Klerk is serious and there will be no sell-out.”

However, as the prospect of a settlement looms, cracks are starting to appear in the coalitions which have characterised the resis­tance in the past. Leading trade unionists have been heard to say in private that nothing short of a transfer of power will be acceptable to their membership. And the alliance of the South African Communist Party and the basically social democrat ANC, always only secure in its shared opposition to the South African state, is showing signs of strain. It will fall to Mandela to resolve all these tensions and to re-cement the alliances in the face of all the ideological difficulties and contradictions which loom as reality ­begins to erode the dream.

One difficulty, however, is the trial of the so-called “Mandela Football Team”, the ­private thug detachment surrounding Mandela’s wife Winnie, accused of murdering child activist Stompie Seipei in 1988, which seems to have been carefully contrived to coincide with the release of Mandela. It is more than likely Winnie will be named in the trial.

Though her husband is personally untouched by the scandal, he reportedly blames himself for what he perceives as the lack of guidance given to her. Whatever emerges ­regarding Winnie’s role, Nelson is almost certain to stand by her. Admirable as this attitude is, it may prove politically problematic: she remains one of the most feared and hated women in the country. Should she be deeply implicated by the accused in the trial, her husband may be forced to take a more retiring political role.

One more fact needs to be mentioned in connection with the phenomenon that is Mandela. When his jailers first consulted him regarding his release, he referred the matter back to his fellow prisoners. In secret, the cell block consulted and deliberated, ­finally making the decision by referendum.

For all his charisma, for all the manifest power of his personality, the man is no autocrat. He will abide by the consensus of his comrades. He will no more submit to the pressures of his own personality – or that of his wife – than he will be bought by crumbs from the white man’s table. That is the force de Klerk will now face. That is why blacks look to his release like a second coming.

 

elson Mandela and his then-wife Winnie raise fists upon Mandela's release from Victor Verster prison in Paarl, South Africa on February 11, 1990. Photograph: Getty Images
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In defence of orientalism, the case against Twenty20, and why Ken should watch Son of Saul

My week, from Age Concern to anti-semitism.

Returning late from a party I never much wanted to go to, I leap up and down in the middle of the Harrow Road in the hope of flagging down a taxi, but the drivers don’t notice me. Either they’re haring down the fast lane or they’re too preoccupied cursing Uber to one another on their mobile phones. My father drove a black cab, so I have a deep loyalty to them. But there’s nothing like being left stranded in NW10 in the dead of night to make one reconsider one’s options. I just wish Uber wasn’t called Uber.

Just not cricket

Tired and irritable, I spend the next day watching sport on television – snooker, darts, cricket, anything I can find. But I won’t be following the Indian Premier League’s Twenty20 cricket again. It’s greedy, cynical, over-sponsored and naff. Whenever somebody hits a boundary, cheerleaders in cast-off gym kit previously worn by fourth-form Roedean girls wave tinsel mops.

Matches go to the final over where they’re decided in a thrashathon of sixes hit by mercenaries wielding bats as wide as shovels. Why, in that case, don’t both teams just play a final over each and dispense with the previous 19? I can’t wait for the elegant ennui of a five-day Test match.

Stop! Culture police!

I go to the Delacroix exhibition at the National Gallery to shake off the sensation of all-consuming kitsch. Immediately I realise I have always confused Delacroix with someone else but I can’t decide who. Maybe Jacques-Louis David. The show convincingly argues that Delacroix influenced every artist who came after him except Jeff Koons, who in that case must have been influenced by David. It’s turbulent, moody work, some of the best of it, again to my surprise, being religious painting with the religion taken out. Christ’s followers lamenting his death don’t appear to be expecting miracles. This is a man they loved, cruelly executed. The colours are the colours of insupportable grief.

I love the show but wish the curators hadn’t felt they must apologise for Delacroix finding the North Africans he painted “exotic”. Cultural studies jargon screams from the wall. You can hear the lecturer inveighing against the “appropriating colonial gaze” – John Berger and Edward Said taking all the fun out of marvelling at what’s foreign and desirable. I find myself wondering where they’d stand on the Roedean cheer-leaders of Mumbai.

Taking leave of the senses

My wife drags me to a play at Age Concern’s headquarters in Bloomsbury. When I see where she’s taking me I wonder if she plans to leave me there. The play is called Don’t Leave Me Now and is written by Brian Daniels. It is, to keep it simple, about the effects of dementia on the families and lovers of sufferers. I am not, in all honesty, expecting a good time. It is a reading only, the actors sitting in a long line like a board of examiners, and the audience hunched forward in the attitude of the professionally caring.  My wife is a therapist so this is her world.

Here, unlike in my study, an educated empathy prevails and no one is furious. I fear that art is going to get lost in good intention. But the play turns out to be subtly powerful, sympathetic and sharp, sad and funny; and hearing it read engages me as seeing it performed might not have done. Spared the spectacle of actors throwing their bodies around and singing about their dreams against a backdrop painted by a lesser, Les Mis version of Delacroix, you can concentrate on the words. And where dementia is the villain, words are priceless.

Mixing with the proles

In Bloomsbury again the next day for a bank holiday design and craft fair at Mary Ward House. I have a soft spot for craft fairs, having helped run a craft shop once, and I feel a kinship with the designers sitting bored behind their stalls, answering inane questions about kilns and receiving empty compliments. But it’s the venue that steals the show, a lovely Arts and Crafts house, founded in the 1890s by the novelist Mary Ward with the intention of enabling the wealthy and educated to live among the poor and introduce them to the consolations of beauty and knowledge. We’d call that patronising. We’re wrong. It’s a high ideal, to ease the burden of poverty and ignorance and, in Ward’s words, save us from “the darker, coarser temptations of our human road”.

An Oscar-winning argument for Zionism

Speaking of which, I am unable to empty my mind of Ken Livingstone and his apologists as I sit in the cinema and watch the just-released Academy Award-winning Son of Saul, a devastating film about one prisoner’s attempt to hold on to a vestige of humanity in a Nazi death camp. If you think you know of hell from Dante or Michelangelo, think again. The inferno bodied forth in Son of Saul is no theological apportioning of justice or deserts. It is the evisceration of meaning, the negation of every grand illusion about itself mankind has ever harboured. There has been a fashion, lately, to invoke Gaza as proof that the Holocaust is a lesson that Jews failed to learn – as though one cruelty drives out another, as though suffering is forfeit, and as though we, the observers, must choose between horrors.

I defy even Livingstone to watch this film, in which the Jews, once gassed, become “pieces” – Stücke – and not grasp the overwhelming case for a Jewish place of refuge. Zionism pre-dated the camps, and its fulfilment, if we can call it that, came too late for those millions reduced to the grey powder mountains the Sonderkommandos were tasked with sweeping away. It diminishes one’s sympathy for the Palestinian cause not a jot to recognise the arguments, in a world of dehumanising hate, for Zionism. Indeed, not to recognise those arguments is to embrace the moral insentience whose murderous consequence Son of Saul confronts with numbed horror. 

This article first appeared in the 05 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred