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Mandela: 'A man of the people'

South African photojournalist Louise Gubb shares the story of the Mandela she knew - from behind and beyond the lens.

Last updated: 10 Feb 2014 10:23
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Photojournalist Louise Gubb spent many years documenting Nelson Mandela's political career

"The first day he was out of prison there was a press conference, and that was the first real sighting of him [in decades]," photojournalist Louise Gubb says, recalling that day in February 1990 when Nelson Mandela stepped out of prison - a free man after 27 years.

"He was up there [on the podium before the crowd] and he was wearing [his wife] Winnie's glasses to read his speech, because he didn't even have a pair of glasses," she chuckles at the memory.

Gubb was born in apartheid South Africa. She later moved abroad and cut her photojournalist teeth covering the conflict in Beirut in the 1970s, but returned home to document the anti-apartheid movement in the mid-1980s. "We had a lot of access to Mandela, particularly before he became president, so you could get up close and personal," she says, remembering her early days photographing the transition. Gubb managed to amass an extensive collection of images of Mandela that she continues to cherish deeply.

 Images by Louise Gubb

But unlike many other photographers, she was among the lucky few who also socialised in circles close to Mandela in the years after his release. "I would meet him personally at Amina [Cachalia's] house sometimes when she would have the Indian ambassador or some struggle friends over for lunch, and she would invite Madiba [Mandela's clan name] along," Gubb muses. "She would invite me, I suspect, to some extent because I had a camera and could take pictures of the occasion for everybody. Because everybody wanted their picture taken with Madiba."

Cachalia, a struggle veteran and a close friend of both Gubb and Mandela, passed away early in 2013. For years, Mandela and Cachalia were rumoured to have had more than a platonic relationship. And in her autobiography, Cachalia finally admits to the brief romantic encounters they shared over the years. "He was a very close friend [of Cachalia's]," Gubb says. "So many of the people who were involved with the struggle were real characters. And both of them were."

But Mandela and Cachalia remained simply dear friends for most of their lives. "My relationship with him was quite dented with me being a friend of Amina's, because he was always enquiring after her," Gubb remembers. "Sometimes he would see me at a rally and I would be up on a ladder, somewhere fairly close, and he would catch my eye and say, 'Oh, hello Louise, How's Amina?'"

 Images by Louise Gubb

"And quite close to the end, he still seemed to remember my name, which was quite an honour," she says. "I think he had quite an eye for good-looking women. If you look at Winnie, she was an absolute beauty when she was young and she kept her looks for a long time."

Winnie Madikizela was Mandela's second wife. They divorced after he became president. Years later, on his 80th birthday in 1998, Mandela married Graca Machel, whom he lived with until he died.

Gubb was impressed by Mandela from the outset. "When he came out [of prison] one of the big TV networks had offered like a million dollars for the first interview. And he was a guy who had a large family and he could have used the money, because obviously, he wasn't earning any money, he was in prison. But he refused," she says. "The reason he refused was because [he said] the people of South Africa had freed him and therefore his liberation was for everybody, not for anyone exclusively. He just put his stamp of democratic behaviour on it right from the beginning."

She says Mandela was "a man of the people" and someone who always singled out the downtrodden or less fortunate." He would say to them ... you mustn't feel stigmatised, you mustn't feel different, you are just like me. Everyone loved to be around him, and it was just fun covering him because you could see everybody sort of glowed in his presence."

 Images by Louise Gubb

But Gubb does not want to make him sound like an icon, because, she says, he never saw himself as one. "He did consider himself very much a lowly human being. I had heard him several times saying and alluding to 'I am no saint'. I think he wasn't a saint, as more and more comes out about him."

"However, if we hadn't had a person like him to lead South Africa out of the morass that the country was in when he was released from prison, if we hadn't had someone who had the values that he does of non-racialism and treating all races the same, coming out of that very polarised society, it could have been another Beirut. We could have really had a cataclysm. I think a lot of it is due to him and his influence," she says.

To many who encountered him, Mandela was an enigmatic leader - warm and all-embracing while at the same time aloof and distant. Gubb says she saw two distinct sides of his personality over the years photographing him. "Mandela was very unsettled about the violence," she says, recalling a meeting of the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA) negotiations that took place between the apartheid government and the liberation struggle in the early 1990s. Mandela flared at former South African Prime Minister FW de Klerk over accusations that the apartheid government was fomenting violence in the townships in an effort to undo the peaceful handover process.

 Images by Louise Gubb

"The implication was that the government knew about it and were doing nothing about it, and that people were getting slaughtered. And that really made him lose his cool. That made him incandescent with rage," she says. "But I have also seen the other side of him, where he has been so elated," she says, recounting the story of a visit she made with him to a "dusty little township in the Free State".

"It was all very formal with huge security, and then he got into a helicopter and came to a small dusty village. It was so amazing, and delightful. He loved the little people ... the ordinary people, they would turn out and he just shined. You could see the pleasure. He really wore his heart on his sleeve a lot of times … When he is with the people, or children, that's when his guard would drop. In front of children, he becomes childlike. But I think on a political level, he was extremely shrewd and calculating or he would not have been able to get everything that he got," she says.

"It was a very tumultuous and often heartbreaking but a very exciting time then. For a photographer, it was really quite a golden age going through the turmoil and the release of all the ANC and PAC and other prisoners - the political liberation."

"Somehow we were on the abyss, and snatched back from total disaster," she says. "I could not have wished for a more varied and in many ways very exciting story. I feel quite privileged for having got to cover five, seven years of apartheid and then the advent of democracy and Mandela's time."

Follow Sumayya Ismail on Twitter: @SumayyaIsmail

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Al Jazeera
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