“That man is as healthy as a horse and as tough as they come. He’ll live to be a 100.” It was 1978 and prisoner 46664, Nelson Rolihlala Mandela, had just turned 60.
The speaker was a delegate of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) who, by virtue of international law, was twice a year permitted by the South African government to meet in private with the Robben Island political prisoners. He had access also to their prison medical records.
Rumours of Mandela’s failing health had been swirling around the newsrooms, as they periodically did. In those halcyon days of journalism when even junior reporters had expense accounts, the ICRC delegate was a prized contact with whom regularly to probe beyond the veil of security legislation.
The usually anally proper Swiss had just returned from the Island and was more loquacious than usual at lunch. “In fact”, he predicted, “those who think he is going to fade away quietly are mistaken. Nelson Mandela will be making history long after the government that’s jailed him is history.”
Unfortunately, the ICRC man was likely wrong about Mandela getting his century. But 94 is a fine innings by any measure, especially when it’s a match winning one. And not many nonagenarians hospitalised repeatedly with a serious, deteriorating to critical condition, survive for weeks.
That’s testimony to Madiba’s resilience, further tempered by a life of frugality and discipline. There have been many well-wishers who in the past weeks have articulated that Mandela should be allowed “to now let go”. But this is a man who by every instinct honed over a lifetime of resistance, has followed poet Dylan Thomas’ advice, “do not go gentle into that good night”. And so, he hasn’t.
With the National Party indeed history, it is unsettling with Madiba’s impending passing to be reminded of a time when, though very much physically alive, he was to all official intents dead: coffined for 27 years in a eight-foot by eight-foot prison cell, not only his words banned in his land but even his visage.
For the anti-apartheid movement and African National Congress, both inside the country and in exile, he was of course very much alive. Not only as a symbol but actively engaged in formulating strategy and preparing the Robben Island “University” graduates for the daunting challenges of a liberated South Africa.
Perhaps the most telling indication of Mandela’s stature was that the apartheid state that had imprisoned him came cap in hand to negotiate with him his release and their end. It was astonishing, exhilarating: a regime desperate to free the man whose death sentence for “terrorism” they had once demanded, while he in turn refused to leave prison before far-reaching political concessions were made.
It is a further political irony of the kind that this country perversely excels in, that the whites who did most to harm Mandela are now the most fulsome in their admiration and love. While many blacks for whom he sacrificed unstintingly, now loudly denigrate him as a sell-out, dismissing his legacy as a worthless compromise.
A giant is about to depart, leaving political pygmies to divide his cloak and squabble about who is rightful heir. The media will be wall to wall with plaudits, the world will groan with grief.
As good as epitaph as any would be that of William Henley’s Invictus. The poem sustained him in prison, Madiba said, and in the film of the same name he supposedly gives a handwritten copy to Springbok rugby captain Francois Pienaar, to inspire the nation-building triumph of the 1995 World Cup victory. In goes, in part:
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.