Mandela's long walk to freedom

As his 94th birthday approaches, the former leader of South Africa has moved home to his ancestral village.

    Nelson Mandela once told a UN meeting that he wanted to retire and become 'as old as the trees' [GALLO/GETTY]
    Nelson Mandela once told a UN meeting that he wanted to retire and become 'as old as the trees' [GALLO/GETTY]


    "I have fought against white domination. I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."
    - Nelson Mandela, April 20, 1964

    New York, NY - On May 29, 2012, Nelson Mandela took what may be the last step in his long walk to freedom when he moved from a leafy suburb in Johannesburg to a new home in his ancestral village of Qunu in rural Transkei in the Eastern Cape of South Africa.

    When he spoke to the UN nearly 20 years ago, he suggested that move would be imminent so he could live out his final years to become "as old as the trees". But he was too busy responding to global political challenges to really retire.

    Riz Khan - Inside the mind of Nelson Mandela

    He turns 94 on July 18. The occasion will be marked by an international day of service in his honour.

    Over the years, despite sporadic visits to his birthplace, he remained in Johannesburg, South Africa's largest city, as a living icon, and the patriarch of a large and sometimes troubled family, flitting in out of news attention when he was sick, or receiving visiting dignitaries such as Michelle Obama.  

    Clearly his body has been slowing down but his mind remained alert.

    In recent years, Mandela has been seeding his legacy through his own Centre for Memory, a branch of his foundation, with a collection of quotations, perhaps in the spirit of the one Mao wrote, as well as Conversations With Myself, a book of personal reflections which dealt with his own peronal flaws and failures as well as the great achievements that propelled him onto the world stage as perhaps the most respected leader on Earth. I am listening now to the audiobook, as read by the great South African John Kani.

    Perhaps the biggest monument to his image will be the major motion picture based on his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, now filming across his country with a cast largely composed of great South African actors and produced by the country's most visible filmmaker, Anant Singh.

    Going underground

    Singh has brought me to South Africa to work with him on a documentary to be produced alongside the movie. It will be the seventh documenting this inspiring political leader that I have been privileged to make.

    At the same time, there are events taking place in South Africa this June marking the publication of a book that I have also contributed to, The London Recruits: The Secret War Against Apartheid (Merlin). It tells the story of a clandestine series of missions undertaken by students in the late 1960s to assist Mandela's movement, the ANC, with a series of "poster bombs" and other covert actions to promote its call for toppling apartheid at a time when Mandela and his closest comrades had been sent to prison.

    "To go underground into South Africa was a scary undertaking back in 1967 and prison sentences awaited any of us who were caught."

    I was recruited when I was at The London School of Economics and, as an American, could enter South Africa at a time when ANC members could not - because they were denounced as "terrorists" and hunted.

    The recruits were organised by the ANC's Ronnie Kasrils, who fought in the movement's armed struggle, Umkhonto We Sizwe (Spear of the Nation) - his first book was Armed and Dangerous - before he left the shadows to become the minister of intelligence. He introduces our book, along with long time ANC intellectual stalwart, and now retired member of parliament and ex-minister, Pallo Jordan.

    To go underground into South Africa was a scary undertaking back in 1967, and prison sentences awaited any of us who were caught (as one was). At the same time, it was a way of showing international solidarity in the way some of an earlier generation of US citizens had in Spain in the 1930s - although we were not involved in armed combat.

    I didn't know any of the recruits back then, because of the secrecy that surrounded the effort. It was like my generation's international brigade.

    Over the years, I remained, in spirit, an activist on South African issues while becoming more of a journalist and filmmaker. I had many projects about Mandela - starting with a PBS special on the day of his release from prison - but I never enjoyed the access of fellow American, Richard Stengel, now the editor of Time magazine, who worked with Madiba on his books for commercial publishers.

    The elite corporate media always has privileges that the independent media lacks, including the ability to finance high profile books such as his.

    Observations on Mandela

    My main contribution was not as a student who the government branded "a terrible terrorist" but as the producer of the 156-week news and public affairs TV series, South Africa Now that allowed South Africans to tell their own story of the transition from apartheid to democracy on TV worldwide. The Mandela films I directed picked up the story after the series ended in 1991.

    What I observed over these long years of immersion in South Africa's saga is a story most of the celebrity-oriented top-down media missed: how Mandela continually grew and reinvented himself:

    • From a regal elite member of a royal tribal family to a populist leader of the masses as he transitioned from the rural areas to the big cities, from the world of venerable indigenous traditions to a life of struggles in a chaotic industrial society;
    • From a lawyer who fought for poor clients to a leader who made the laws and appointed judges for the nation;
    • From a "ladies man" to a family man, and then the "chief" of a large clan of his own children and grandchildren;
    • From a black nationalist to the leader of a nonracial multi-national movement;
    • From the head of a non-violent movement to the commander-in-chief of an armed organisation;
    • From a trial where he said he was prepared to die, to confinement in draconian prisons in which he lived a disciplined life, for 27 years, planning for the country's transformation;
    • From a militant troublemaker to a negotiator and peacemaker, from a comrade to a candidate; from anonymous prisoner with a number (46664) to an esteemed Nobel Prize winner;

      "He was an inexperienced politician who later became one of the most adept."

    • He was forced to transcend tough contradictions, first feared as a captive of communists only to become best friend of big South African industries and global business leaders - who he then seduced into becoming donors to his many funds and projects. Rock stars gave giant concerts in his honour, even as he became the biggest rock star of them all;
    • From a "Peoples President" with a political ideology embodied in an idealistic-socialist "Freedom Charter", to a very flexible pragmatist who was forced to compromise on many principles to steer his volatile country away from civil war, while he tried (and often failed because of resistance from other power centres including global institutions and big business) to create a "better life for all" - his 1994 campaign slogan;
    • During the negations that led to the elections, business had lobbied him extensively on the advantages of trickle down economics that, predictably, did not trickle down too far, but did lead to the growth of an affluent black middle class;
    • From the leader of one nation to a key player in a globalised international order where economic inequality is growing within nations and between nations - despite his many outspoken criticisms;
    • From a husband of the equally iconic Winnie Mandela, whose person and practices he later distanced and divorced himself from, only to remarry at age 80 to the respected Graca Machel, the wife of the assassinated president of Mozambique. His late-in-life love story enchanted millions. His gutsy example earned even more respect;
    • He was an inexperienced politician who later became one of the most adept. He went to prison well before South Africa even had television but soon became a global TV star as a master of soundbites and symbolic stances. As if to underscore the cultural gap he confronted when his comrades were told they had been sent a fax freeing them, they asked: "What is a fax?";
    • He mastered a media that lionised him, christening him as a hero for all. That media would soon turn him into a lovable brand, often depoliticising his stands for justice;
    • He managed to mask his authoritarian traits to become more reflective and insightful as he manoeuvred through political land mines and accepted his fame, moving from poverty in the townships to the comfort of a large home in the suburbs - while still keeping a schedule of walking and physical exercise dating back to his days as boxer. He still makes his own bed every day;

    Unlike most leaders in Africa, he stepped down after one term to devote his energies to fighting AIDS and championing children in need, even when his approach conflicted with that of his successor, and former deputy president, Thabo Mbeki. In early June, I watched as former US president Bill Clinton told an international NGO in New York that it was Mandela who pushed him into leading a global fight for cheaper AIDS medicines that now saves millions of lives.

    For now, Mandela's long walk has turned in to a long and well deserved rest, but my own efforts to understand, learn from, and communicate the values of this giant of our times goes on.

    News Dissector Danny Schechter blogs at His latest book Blogothin reports on South Africa (Cosimo Books.) His Mandela films are listed on He hosts a program on Comments to

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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