It is Mandela Day in South Africa.
This piece was first published by Playboy South Africa to coincide with President Mandela’s inauguration.
When I was running away from the army in Swaziland I came across Nelson Mandela's book, No Easy Walk to Freedom. It was a time when I had difficulty with any literature except pornography and Doris Lessing. All the devils of the military were on my tail and it was hard to concentrate. But I read some of Mandela's speech from the dock and finally realized why he was in jail and why his writings were banned. It came as a shock because it was so simple. So down-home, common-sense simple. The lies about why he was in jail were convoluted and gothic and worked on; art at it's most artificial and evil. And one grew up on a gruel of those lies. Fed and fattened we were on the lies about why Nelson Mandela was in jail.
Steve Biko was my first black hero and I only found out who he was after he was murdered by the police. The front page of the Daily Dispatch had a head-line and picture of the man. Nothing else. That took up the whole front page. And I had no idea who he was. I had to ask my sociologist friends in the bar.
This is because I spent a happy, privileged youth getting an education in interesting and sometimes useless subjects. Or if not actually useless, irrelevant. I can still remember a snippet of Virgil. But of Nelson Mandela's first language, Xhosa, all I remember is: Umnqundwakho njanihashi. (Your arse resembles that of a horse.) I grew up speaking Xhosa but when I went away to boarding school at St Andrew's College in Grahamstown they replaced it with Latin. Xhosa was not in the syllabus.
Nelson Mandela was never spoken about at home. Ian Smith, prime minister of Rhodesia, he was an issue. "A bloody fool," was my mother's comment. Kennedy's assassination, the shooting of Verwoed, the first man on the moon, Harold Wilson; these, “grown ups” spoke about. Nelson Mandela, no.
The fact is, the evil laws worked. People disappeared out of history like the politician who is airbrushed out of the photograph in the beginning of Milan Kundera's Book of Laughter and Forgetting. They sat incarcerated on Robben Island and luxury yachts wheeled around them. If you were rich and liberal you could buy Nelson Mandela's book overseas, smuggle it back, and read his banned words as you wheeled round Robin Island on a yacht. You could look up from the book and reach for a Stuyvesant and survey the beautiful view of Capetown while you meditated on the meaning of Mandela's words. But for most white South Africans, Nelson Mandela just disappeared out of history.
In spite of these successful suppressions, by the time I was ready to drop out of university something had become clear to me. "The evil racist regime" was in fact just that. It was the inverted commas that were lying. Much of my last year was spent worrying about whether I should go to the army or leave the country. Eventually I chickened out. I told myself I was giving up all pretensions to morality and reported for duty in Johannesburg. On July the 4th 1979 I boarded a train and travelled out to a place called Burke's Luck in the Eastern Transvaal. It was horrible.
You can read the rest of the piece here.
Causes James Whyle Supports
Treatment Action Campaign, South Africa.