‘Madiba, you are still beautiful!’
By Chenjerai Hove
My parents tell me I was born on February 9, and I have no reason to doubt it except that the other event accompanying my birth was said to be the ‘year of the railway line’, which meant the year the construction of the railway line arrived in our village, breaking homes apart as the bulldozers roared and razed homesteads to the ground. But since it took quite some time for the railway to be completed past our village, the exact year is a matter of debate.
Although I don’t celebrate my birthday as a matter of principle, in 1990, I celebrated it two days late. Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was released on 11 February, and I took that momentous event as my personal birthday gift, although two days late. Time does not really matter when such huge events, like my birth and the release of Mandela, happen to walk the same footpath.
I was working for a news agency, and when I and my journalist friends got the news of his pending release, we decided to buy all the drinks that we would need to celebrate the event. Sceptics, including me, doubted the honesty of the Afrikaners, especially Mr F.W.de Klerk and his like. After all, one of his predecessors had banned me from entering the Republic of South Africa seven years before. I had graduated, through distance education, with the University of South Africa in 1983, and I felt it was a good idea to use the graduation ceremony to touch first-hand the bitter pulse of apartheid. My country had had its own mini-apartheid before 1980. The apartheid bosses had discovered that I was a co-editor of an anti-apartheid monthly magazine, and so they banned me from entering the republic to collect my degree.
How could I trust them about the release of Mandela with the indefinite ban still so fresh in my mind?
Absolute silence, and then I had the idea to play Hugh Masekela’s song, full-throttle, with trumpet and voice:
‘Bring Back Nelson Mandela,
I want to see him walking
down the streets of Soweto,
with Winnie Mandela.’
Nobody danced. Nobody dared disturb the tense air. Nobody winked an eye…….and then…
‘Here comes Nelson Mandela, hand in hand with Winnie Mandela’, the BBC man announces live on the TV screen.
Then I contact my good friend, Professor Njabulo Ndebele, South African academic and novelist, exiled in Lesotho where he rose to become head of the only university there. ‘How about a literature festival to celebrate Mandela’s release,’ I said. And everything was soon in motion. ‘Mandela is still discovering the real world,’ Njabulo says. ‘He will be more relaxed in a few months, we must plan to get the whole literary world of Nobel Prize winners to come and harvest this event’, we dreamed.
‘Madiba, you are still beautiful!’ a woman screams at the Harare International airport as all journalists and dignitaries waited outside the plane to welcome Mandela. As he calmly walks down the steps of the plane ladder, I looked up at the airport balcony, and the Indian-looking woman would not stop,’ Oh, Madiba, still so beautiful! So beautiful!’
On both sides of the red carpet, everyone stretches their hands to shake Winnie and Madiba’s hands. As I shook his long-lost hand, I feel the charm of his warmth. And a fellow journalist whispers into my ear: ‘Oh, Winnie, so beautiful! How could apartheid take away such a handsome man from such a beautiful woman? Terrible!’ he sighs. Then I notice: no journalist, in that magical moment, remembered to write anything, including me, mesmerised. The Mandela and Winnie magic, we said in our newsrooms later.
And a year later, we were celebrating his release with poetry and prose, at Witts University in Jo’burg. My South African colleagues and I worked 36 hours a day. I was exhausted and fell ill in my hotel. A doctor appeared urgently searching for me.
‘I have been sent to attend to you by Mr Mandela. I am his personal doctor,’ the man of medicine says to me, showing me his papers and credentials in case of doubt. He was genuine, not fake. Four times a day, he would visit, with street regularity, and ‘get-well-soon’ greetings from Madiba. ‘Mr Mandela wants to know how you are progressing,’ he says.
Soon I was back on my feet again, energetically running around with the rest of the organizing team. All the oldies of the South African liberation struggle were coming to see our show. All of them: Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Joe Slovo, Cyril Ramaphosa, Thabo Mbeki, Winnie Mandela, Desmond Tutu, all of them whom I cannot remember now.
The festival days came and Mr Mandela insisted on meeting the organizing team backstage, ‘to appreciate your work before the show starts.’
Hand shaking, personal chat with everyone, and when he comes to me: ‘Yes, you are the young man who works so hard and forgets about health. I hope you are fine.’ We laugh about it. And we walk him to his guests, as he walks calmly, greeting each writer with requests for personal details of Madiba’s choice: ‘oh, I like your shirt, where do you come from? What a beautiful woman, thanks for coming to honour me? Maybe I will buy your book one day,’ and he goes on, personal, an ordinary man who makes you feel he is just as ordinary as you.
At election time in 1994, I go to cover the elections for a Dutch magazine. I ask my friend to take me to Shell House, headquarters of the ANC in central Jo’burg. No appointment. I want to ask him what he is going to do about the laws. ‘Ask Thabo,’ he says to me and my novelist friend. He wants to know if I am still over-working as before. He bids us farewell, with a broad, white-toothed smile, plus a hand comforting handshake.
Many years later, I would go back to South Africa from my first exile in France. One of his former prisons had been converted to a museum, right in the centre of Johannesburg. He chats with dozens of invited guests. We hear his humour echoing through the walls of his former prison cell as he sits there with his personal assistant, a Ms La Grange, born of hard Afrikaner stock, but now absolutely in ‘love’ with the former prisoner of apartheid.
I had had an almost disastrous operation on my broken ankle in France. But I survived. And as I sat on the South African Airways plane, I took my note book and dreamed in a poem:
I refused to die
Before I could write
A tribute to you,
You who gave flowers of the heart
Just as others gave bullets
And tears for their inheritance.
I refuse to die
Before this poem
Of the flowery mushrooms
You gave to our lands.
Those who plant love
Harvest only love;
Those who plant hatred and bullets
Harvest only death.
May you pour libation
To your parents
Who are now everyone’s parents.
Even in the Tokyo underground,
Their graffiti said it:
(Published in ‘Blind Moon,’ 2003)
The Thursday night of his death at 8.50pm, I hear on the radio: Madiba is no more. And tears the whole night. A member of my family has died. It has been a long road to freedom, indeed.
And as his body lay in state, I write to my son studying at Pretoria University: ‘Please view his body for me. He once sent his personal doctor to treat me. He is a gentle man who knows how to handle public power. Remember to take pictures of the long queues of people who knew his love, their last farewell.’
© Chenjerai Hove, 2013, Stavanger