Last December, the world said goodbye to Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first democratically elected black president, credited with bringing an end to apartheid. Glen Retief, associate professor of English and creative writing, grew up under apartheid rule and, as a young adult, became involved in the movement to overturn the racist form of government. Retief reflected on his memories of “Madiba” in a Philadelphia Inquirer article published on Dec. 15. The following excerpt is from that article.
I had just turned 21, and, of course, I understood the world. After living in fear for years as a teenager in a bully-infested, militaristic, whites-only apartheid school, I’d blossomed into a left-wing student revolutionary, and as young idealists often do, I had a pat answer for everything …
At the national student movement conference in Durban in December 1991, the collective mistrust was palpable. The Mandela-led constitutional negotiations were just beginning in the elegant glass skyscraper near the Johannesburg airport. The student conference was overwhelmingly black, but student activists of all racial backgrounds expressed fear and suspicion.
We didn’t like the talk of compromise with racism, exploitation, and dispossession. At plenary after plenary, speakers stood up to condemn the leaders of the liberation movement for showing such apparent willingness to sell out core principles. We cheered and shook our fists.
Then, on the final day of the conference, our keynote speaker arrived: Nelson Mandela.
I don’t recall much about his actual speech … What I will never forget, though, is the question-and-answer session that followed. As I recall it, he stayed up there for about three hours, a lone figure fielding what can only be described as barely contained abuse from a crowd of about 1,000.
That day, we attacked his integrity for meeting apartheid leaders while in jail, without telling the rest of his organization. We lambasted him for being a dupe of tricky politicians like F.W. de Klerk. The words Uncle Tom might not have been spoken out loud, but they hung in the air nevertheless, unmistakable and ugly. We predicted his negotiating strategy would lead to more war, since the black majority would be so enraged at the compromises being considered. …
Looking back today, I ask myself: What do Americans imagine happening next in this story? After the tributes we’ve all been hearing to this man’s capacity for love, forgiveness, and generosity, perhaps we expect him to sigh, smile, and defuse the situation with what will soon become his legendary one-line, self-deprecating jokes. As when a friend who works in the South African government met him a second time, with years in between their encounters, and she asked him, “Do you remember me, Tata?” and he replied, “I remember you, but do you remember me?”
Or perhaps we expect Mandela to say to this crowd of young people, Oprah-like: “I understand how you feel.”
Not that hot December afternoon. What Mandela did, instead, was take a step toward the rim of the stage.
“I have had enough!” he thundered. I could see the younger boxer in him then, the man who had literally floored political rivals in his university days. I could also see not just the grandfatherly peacemaker, but also the man who had launched the armed struggle against apartheid, blowing up railway lines and power stations.
The room was silent—his personal authority so powerful that not one of his thousand hecklers now dared interrupt him.
“Comrades, I will not permit me, my movement, or the African National Congress leadership to be slandered.”
My heart pounded. I was thrilled, impressed, awe-inspired—and terrified.
“I have been young, like you,” Mandela said. “I have been fierce. But I am here to tell you, you have no idea what you are asking for when you ask me not to sit down and talk with our enemies. You don’t know what it is to ask an old man like me to sacrifice young people like you in a terrible war. Comrades, you are asking me today to kill you. You are asking me to maim you and hurt you and ruin your lives. You are asking to inherit not a country, but a wasteland. You are asking me all this, but I tell you, comrades, I will not give you what you want.
“War may still be needed—the ultimate sacrifice may still be needed from you, as it was from me— but if there is any chance of a peaceful transition, I must pursue it. My integrity demands it, and I will not waver.” …
In my memory, we all stand stunned, outmaneuvered. … I realized, for the first time: This man is right. At this moment, he is the father of all of us here, and he is acting like a true parent, refusing to let us get ourselves into trouble.
“I remember you,” Mandela told my friend, “but do you remember me?”
Madiba, father of my country, you weren’t a soft man, not a saintly man. Rather, you were a man fierce enough to love your people without fear. In doing so, in large measure, you saved us from ourselves. May we never forget you.
Glen Retief is associate professor of English and creative writing, and director of Susquehanna’s Global Opportunities (GO) program Travel Writing in South Africa.