Address to the Faculty Senate of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst
December 12, 2013
When I first heard the news last Thursday that Nelson Mandela had passed away, I was listening to a lecture being presented by the writer Zadie Smith, who was on campus as a guest of the English Department. The lecture was thoughtful, instructive, brilliant, but as soon as I was passed that piece of paper with the news, I could no longer concentrate. It took some time for the reality to set in, and in those first few days there were competing emotions and sensations, all equally intense. Like so many others, I felt real grief; it was strangely as if a member of my family had died. But also there was relief—that after a long struggle, a very long walk towards the freedom of so many, and a long illness, Nelson Mandela was at rest. Of course there was gratitude—gratitude for everything he had done. And part of me wanted just to go away and be quiet for a long time.
I want to say at the outset something that hasn’t always been remembered over this past week, that Nelson Mandela was not alone in what he did. Rather, over the decades, he worked with many people—some well-known, others not so well-known—with whom he forged his vision. As someone who started out his life as a resolute African nationalist, he came to work with people of all races in South Africa—and this was in the 1950s, long before he came out of prison to announce that vision to the world. When we remember Mandela, we must also remember others who helped make a free South Africa, and so let me say just some of their names here: Albert Luthuli; Oliver Tambo; Robert Sobukwe; Govan Mbeki; Yusuf Dadoo; Bram Fischer; Helen Joseph; Walter Sisulu; Albertina Sisulu; Neil Aggett; Steve Biko; Ruth First; Joe Slovo; Chris Hani. And yet in the midst of these luminaries, there was something special about Mandela. I remember a telling detail from his autobiography: that when he travelled across country on some political task or other he enjoyed nothing so much as setting out on his own by car at three o’clock in the morning. He was a leader; he journeyed ahead, alone if need be; and others followed where he went.
When I was growing up, he was a mythic character, as he has almost become mythic again now. He could not be quoted; his image was banned, so that no one knew what he looked like. While political awareness filtered through—we read in the newspaper of the Rivonia Trial, of torture, of deaths in detention—it was at university in the 1970s that things came more clearly into focus. It was a different time: the ANC banned and underground, the Black Consciousness movement on the rise, so hard for young liberal and radical whites to understand. On June 16th, 1976, the Soweto Uprising erupted, a day emblazoned on my mind. We students protested, and for once could escape the police cordon of tear gas and dogs that kept us tied to the margins of our campus. Suddenly, it felt like a moment of freedom: there we were, marching through the streets of Johannesburg. As we returned towards the university, white railway workers, who had surreptitiously joined us, opened up with chains and crowbars, crunching bones and skulls. And yet, even as this happened, we knew it was nothing compared to black schoolchildren facing bullets in the townships.
To grow up in South Africa was to be aware of disparity in every aspect of your life, every last cell of your being. It was to contemplate fate—the fate of being born this color or that, to have life determined by that reality. It was to know that our world was nothing more than a distortion, a hall of mirrors pretending to be real. And yet how would we emerge from it? Who would bring clarity, and how would it come? The strange secret that Mandela knew perhaps better than anyone was that it could not come from the oppressors. It could only come from the oppressed. This has been the lesson of the great liberators everywhere, from Mahatma Gandhi to Martin Luther King. And this is why I repeat what I have been saying over the past week: that Nelson Mandela understood what liberation truly means. He understood that it is indivisible, that my liberation depends on your liberation, that yours depends on mine. And so, as many have been saying this past week, he brought liberation not only to black South Africans but also to whites—and indeed to people of all races who live in the country. Commentators have been talking about Mandela’s forgiveness as if that were the key, but to me it was at base about something else: an essential vision and understanding of liberation, of what it can truly mean.
I met him in December 1991, when I was researching my book on Bram Fischer, the white Afrikaner lawyer who led his defence at the Rivonia Trial and who was himself later sentenced to life imprisonment. Members of the legal fraternity in Johannesburg helped me make contact, and it was with one of them, George Bizos, that I went to see Nelson Mandela. The circumstances were quasi-clandestine: we were told to go to an apartment in one part of Johannesburg, and then we followed two young men in ANC uniform across town to where Madiba was staying. It was a difficult period: he was then in the midst of the taxing negotiations that led to the political settlement of 1994. At that stage, violence was erupting everywhere, everything was in danger. And yet Nelson Mandela took the time to speak with me. He came into the room, angular, tall, lean. He thought carefully about my questions, he thought carefully about his answers. He had an extraordinary presence, an air of immediate command, and by the time I left I felt that if he asked me to do just about anything, I would comply. It was a day and a few hours I will never forget.
How to sum up Nelson Mandela? It is impossible of course. And there is always the danger of turning him into what he wasn’t: simply an icon, a sentimentalized being whom everyone can love but very few will follow. It’s worth saying: he was tough; he was canny; he had steel when necessary. But underlying that was an extraordinary compassion, and an understanding that grasped how people could be trapped within an evil system. I have said that he understood the meaning of liberation, and I think that is true. But I believe that he also understood liberation as an horizon towards which we still march—if we have the courage to follow in those footsteps. Much remains to be done in South Africa; the vote is one thing, and poverty another. Some of those same disparities still apply. If Mandela were a young man now, what would he do? If he were a young man in America, what would he see? Liberation is indivisible: his questions face us here in the USA just as they do in South Africa.
He was, as they say, a serious man. But one thing I do not want us to forget in this moment of parting is his joy. For he had a tremendous capacity for joy. He said to me, not of himself, but of Bram Fischer: he was at peace with himself, and therefore at peace with the world. Those words were true of him too. He could bring liberation to others because he himself was liberated, free in his mind, his body, his soul. He also said, more than once, it is music and dance that make me at peace with myself, and therefore at peace with with the world. Think of those many images of Nelson Mandela encountering children; that inimitable smile, that joy. Think of him dancing on one stage after another, as he literally did after he was released from prison. When I heard the news of his death, as I listened to Zadie Smith, she was describing how writers bring imagined worlds into being. That is what Nelson Mandela did. He was a great artist of the political imagination: he was able to bring what did not yet exist into being. That is a gift he gave to us all. So now he is freed from prison forever, and he helped free us too, just a little bit. Let us think of him dancing, wherever he is, with that smile.
Nelson Mandela wrote, “If [people] can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite. . . Man’s goodness is a flame that can be hidden but never extinguished.”
As we say in South Africa: hamba kahle, Tata Mandela. Go well, Father Mandela, go in peace, you who brought peace to so many. May your vision stay with us, and may we find a way to continue in your footsteps.
Stephen Clingman is Professor of English and Director of the Interdisciplinary Studies Institute at the University of Massachusetts. His recently re-released biography, Bram Fischer: Afrikaner Revolutionary, won the Alan Paton Award, South Africa's premier prize for nonfiction, and has just been named one of the top ten books from the generation of the struggle by Johannesburg's City Press.