Echoes of a man much-loved

Al Jazeera speaks to Nelson Mandela’s peers who shared their memories of a leader who fought to unite a nation.

“In real life we deal, not with gods, but with ordinary humans like ourselves: men and women who are full of contradictions, who are stable and fickle, strong and weak, famous and infamous,” Nelson Mandela wrote in one of his two books, Conversations with Myself .

While he might not say so in the book, Mandela could easily have been referring to himself. However, his words have done little to extinguish the love of his admirers.

Al Jazeera spoke to some people who shared experiences with the former leader to find out what it was that gave him such an endearing spirit that was seen the world over.

Yusuf Wadee, hid Mandela before he went underground

Wadee knew Mandela at a more strained time, when he was referred to as the Black Pimpernel and when he was establishing the armed wing of the ANC, Umkhonto we Sizwe.

Mandela stayed with his family for three or four months before going underground.

“He used to get up in the morning, and then have his breakfast, he was very fond of my mother, my father had already passed away.

“He used to put on what we used to call the Samson overall, the worker’s overall, to avoid detection by the security forces. And then put on a cap to show that he was a worker going to work and he used to take his lunch-tin with him. My mother used to pack food for him for lunch … and then he would come back in the evening.

“He used to come back late and have a chat with us, discuss politics and other matters and so on.

“What intrigued me a lot was that he was constantly having this concern of loss of lives, arriving out of the struggle that he was engaged in.”

“His constant fear was that the young blacks particularly… supporters of the congress movement, through the violent tactics that were being adopted by the ANC, would lead to the loss of innocent lives…”

“He had a deep-seated feeling for the well-being of people at large. And that was irrespective of the people at large … irrespective of race, colour or creed.

Ahmed Kathrada, co-accused and served jail term with Mandela 

Kathrada says Mandela’s decisions of principle and discipline informed his leadership.

He recalls the moment that he landed on Robben Island with Mandela at which the former statesman made an announcement that directed their conduct throughout their time on the island.

“His words were: ‘We are no longer leaders, we are now just prisoners … Our leaders are outside of prison, they make policy, they give instructions, and [here] we are ordinary prisoners.'”

This is how Mandela engaged with fellow inmates on Robben Island , says Kathrada – with equality and the rejection of preferential treatment.

“He refused all preferential treatment. He said whatever happens we must fight for equality.”

But Kathrada says that Mandela was a complex individual with a complex character.

“He was born into royalty, he was born as a chief, and taught from childhood [to be one]. On the other hand, because he was born in a rural area, the peasantry also made a mark on him.”

Kathrada says that he “was a combination of so many different characteristics”.

[Interviewed by Sumayya Ismail. View more here.]

Phathekile Holomisa, president of South Africa’s Council of Traditional Leaders

Holomisa, was from the same clan as Mandela, the abaThembu. He says that Mandela was the kind of leader that considered himself a servant of the people, rather than a leader that would be served by other people.

“He was able to serve us, for instance, when we went to see him [at Victor Verster prison, ahead of his release from prison], though there were servants in the form of guards, who could have served us biscuits and drinks.”

“It was not a question of acting either, it came from him naturally,” says the chief.

Holomisa says that Mandela combined pride and humility at the same time, while also being able to identify with people of all classes.

But he says Mandela was also a stubborn person. “If he was set on a particular position, it was not very easy to convince him otherwise.”

He explains that Mandela was usually the first person to concede that he was wrong, when he was.

Johnny Clegg, world-renowned South African musician

Clegg wrote a song about Mandela while he was still imprisoned, Asimbonanga, says that the former statesman was at the centre of what he calls the greatest moment of his life.

“In 1997, we were touring Europe and we were invited to close a show” in Frankfurt, Germany.

“Right at the end of the show, we sang Asimbonanga .

“Just as I was getting into the first verse, the audience went Waaaah!!!, and I thought, my word, they know my song. And I carried on singing and then, again, in a weird place, Waaahh!!!”

“I looked around – and there was Mandisa, my dancer, walking onto the stage with Nelson Mandela.” 

Clegg describes that moment as the height of his career and a “massive validation” as an artist.

“I would never have thought, 11 years previously, in 1986, in the State of Emergency in South Africa [when he wrote Asimbonanga] that 11 years later I would be singing in Germany, and the man that I wrote the song for would dance and sing it with me.”

He says Mandela had two very extra special qualities: “When he looked at you and talked to you, you felt that you were the centre of the universe. He was only interested in what you were saying. You had that sense that he had engaged you. And the way that he had engaged you was to try and release information that he was looking for.

“He was interested in finding out what your family values were? Were you healthy? He was naturally curious. So you felt mentally comfortable.”

He says Mandela’s second quality, was his sense of humour.

“He loved to look at the irony and to make jokes. He always had that little twinkle in his eye. So you felt comfortable.”

South African jazz musician, Pops Mohamed

Known for his jazz and traditional fusion music, it was a phone call and a handshake it was the personable nature of Mandela that stood out for him. 

Mohamed and his band used to open for conferences for the African National Congress party to which Mandela belonged – in 1993 in the lead up to the country’s elections.

“You know I helped to carry Madiba’s cake onto the stage for him for his 75th birthday. But the cake almost fell and he couldn’t remember my name and he kept saying Popo, Popo, Popo,” Mohamed chuckles at how Mandela mixed up his name.

He says Mandela used to leave his bodyguards and come up to the band to shake all the members’ hands and say, “You guys are here again, that means we are going to have a good time.”

He described Mandela’s face as looking like a painting, saying that it was like “noor” or light was being emitted from it.

“Whether you knew who he was or you didn’t, and you entered a room, you would know that there was something special about him,” he says.

Mohamed says that one day Mandela phoned him. “I didn’t know who it was but he said, ‘Popo, your song [Jackel] was beautiful.'”

Mohamed says it was “amazing” for such a great man to call him and tell him that.

Dr Essop Essak Jassat, a former parliamentarian and fellow activist

Jassat was a member of Transvaal Indian Congress. He says he remembers Mandela’s modesty and humbleness.

“One evening there was a function at one of the Johannesburg hotels, and the newspaper people were interviewing [Mandela] so [my wife and I] moved on and sat about four or five tables away from him.

He says that he wanted to greet Mandela, but his wife was too shy to join him in front of the crowds, so he went alone.

“[Mandela] wanted to know where my wife was. He left his table and he came to her.”

“I thought was just too, too humanly of him,” says Jassat.

Another thing that Jassat remembers him for was his discipline.

“Before he took office in parliament, there was a threat against him … by the right wing so he stayed at my house. Because it was considered a safe house – an Indian’s home for an African person.

“It was amazing how disciplined he was about his eating habits. Being our guest, my wife started cooking exotic foods, but he just wanted one meal a day.”

“He said her biryani was the best he’d eaten, compared to those he’d eaten in India.”

Moosa “Mosie” Moolla, activist, member of Transvaal Indian Congress

Moolla says that they were co–accused with Mandela during the treason trial for almost five years, and that in that time he came to know Mandela as a simple and outgoing personality.

“One thing he wouldn’t like is for people to glorify him and make him into a mythical figure.”

“He used to be very well-dressed … but he was a plain, simple human being, with a very dynamic personality.”

He recalls a time when he was imprisoned in Pretoria 1960, just after the Sharpville Massacre when the ANC was banned.

“I had two lady friends … one was in Johannesburg and one was in Pretoria, so sometimes they used to clash because they used to only allow one visitor at a time.

“When the one used to come, the warder didn’t allow the other to come in.” But Moolla says that he had no idea that Mandela had been witnessing this charade every week.

“When I met him again in Sweden in 1990, after his release, he asked how’s Juby, that was my late wife.

“Then after a few seconds, he asked, ‘and how’s the other one,'” he laughs.

“Mandela had this force of attraction and he was a very good looking chap, so the women were also very fond of him.

“If there was argument, the sheer forcefulness of his argument … It was the strength of his argument, what he said, how he argued and made the position clear, that if we adopt this policy – it will be destructive, and if we adopt the other policy, it will be constructive.

Mandela was meant to Moolla’s best man at his wedding but was imprisoned first.

In his own words …

Even in Mandela’s final years it was his humbleness that spoke loudest. He says in his book, “As a young man I … combined all the weaknesses, errors and indiscretions of a country boy, whose range of vision and experience was influenced mainly by events in the area in which I grew up and the colleges to which I was sent.

“I relied on arrogance in order to hide my weaknesses. As an adult my comrades raised me and other fellow prisoners, with some significant exceptions, from obscurity to either a bogey or enigma, although the aura of being one of the world’s longest serving prisoners never totally evaporated.”

“One issue that deeply worried me in prison was the false image that I unwittingly projected to the outside world; of being regarded as a saint. I never was one, even on the basis of an earthly definition of a saint as a sinner who keeps trying.”

Follow Safeeyah Kharsany on Twitter: @safeeyah

Source: Al Jazeera