The Mandela I knew, and why I wept buckets
Cameron Duodu writes about the days he spent with Nelson Mandela, and how the hero’s charm worked on him. After one interview, “I asked to be photographed with him. He got up, shook my hand, and said: ‘Now, you are going to make me famous!’ He had a wicked sense of humour.”
My first meeting with Nelson Mandela was at Johannesburg’s Oliver Tambo Airport (then called “Jan Smuts”). It was August 1990, and I had arrived in South Africa at the invitation of the former owner of Drum magazine, Jim Bailey, to work on a collection of articles from the Ghana edition, which I had edited in 1961-65. South Africa was teeming with journalists, for Nelson Mandela had only been released from prison six months earlier, and many international publications lived in the daily hope of securing an exclusive interview.
Despite the scepticism of the journalistic fraternity, I put in a request to the ANC press office, for an interview with Mandela. I got no response. But I was trained in the trenches of Drum’s notorious warfare against the tongue-tied (my personal scoops included interviews with the Soviet leader, of the 1960s, Nikita Khrushchev and the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin!) and I kept phoning the ANC office. Then, one day, I struck pay-dirt. When I mentioned my name, the guy at the other end of the line said: “I know of you! When I was in exile in Lusaka (Zambia), I used to listen to your dispatches from Accra to the BBC.” After a whispered conversation with colleagues, he came back on the line: “Listen,” he said, “can you get to Jan Smuts right away? Mr Mandela is about to travel and – and we haven’t told the other media.” I got the message at once: he was offering me the coveted “exclusive”. I thanked him and drove straight to Jan Smuts. I went into the VIP lounge – surely, that was the only route a celebrity like Mr Mandela would use on his way out of the country right?
But after hanging around there for half an hour, I saw no hubbub. There was absolutely no sign of Mandela. Had the ANC press office played a hoax on me? Frustrated, I made my weary way to the general departure lounge. Instinctively, I scanned the faces of people in the concourse. No dice.
Then my heart leapt with joy – I could see the clean-shaven pate of the ANC treasurer-general, the late Thomas Nkobi. He was on the fringes of the crowd, and seemed to be waiting for someone. I went across to talk to him. Then, suddenly, the tall figure of Mr Mandela shot into view. He was walking towards us, holding a beautiful young granddaughter in each hand. My mind did a double-whammy: the greatest threat to apartheid in South Africa was walking, unguarded, through the concourse in the departure lounge of Jan Smuts?
What physical bravery, I thought. What panache! But I was wrong: unseen, Thabo Mbeki sat somewhere close by, smoking a pipe. He, of course, had received military training, and if any racist nut had approached Mandela, he would have been stopped by an “MK” (Umkumto we Sizwe) bullet, I reckoned.
Indeed, after Mandela had gone inside into the restricted area, I caught Thabo getting into an inconspicuous VW Karmann Ghia at the airport car park. I went over to introduce myself to him and cool as a ninja, he shook my hand and drove off. My respect for the ANC grew considerably. These were not the “amateurs” many in the World press thought they were.
As soon as Tom Nkobi introduced me as a journalist from Ghana, Mr Mandela’s face lit up. “Ah, Ghana!” he said. “I was there in 1962. I went there to see President Kwame Nkrumah (pictured) below). But I never got to see him.”
“I waited for several days, but the foreign minister, Ako Adjei, said I would have to wait as the Osagyefo was about to address a meeting of other freedom fighters. I would have a chance to talk to him then, he said. But I had been warned that A.K Barden, director of Nkrumah’s Bureau of African Affairs, preferred the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC) to the ANC. So I didn’t think it would be useful to hang around in Accra and I left.”
I later learnt that the person who briefed Mandela and Oliver Tambo was the South African-born confidante of Nkrumah, the immensely charming Genoveva Marais.
She held a dinner party at Tesano in Accra for her two compatriots. The irony of what Mandela said about his visit to Ghana did not escape me. At the time, Nkrumah was considered to be the greatest champion of the African liberation movement.
Yet the pompous bureaucracy around him had denied him the opportunity of meeting the one person destined to become the greatest liberator in Africa.
Now, if the witless bureaucrats of Accra had asked me, I could have told them all about “The Black Pimpernel” who had been giving the slip to the feared and “ubiquitous” Bureau of State Security (Boss) all over South Africa. Here he was, in person, having undertaken a secret and dangerous trip across Africa to gather support for his people’s struggle against apartheid. He had made it to Accra, the so-called “Mecca” of the African liberation movement. But he had been denied sight of the Ka’bah, as it were, for ideological reasons. How comical.
The second occasion on which I met Mandela was when I visited his home in Houghton, in the company of the Nigerian politician, the late Chief Moshood Abiola. We were waiting in his living room downstairs, which was packed with ANC cadres, when he suddenly made his entrance. He took one look at the room and realising there was no empty chair left, he darted towards the dining table and grabbed a chair. He was making his way into our midst with it when I jumped up like a bitten rabbit and took it off him. It was quite a heavy chair. How could a 74-year-old man even contemplate picking up such a heavy object, when there were at least 50 younger people around, each of whom would have been willing to relieve him of his burden, if asked? That brief incident taught me a lot about the psychology of Mandela. Prison had made him extremely self-reliant.
As in our first meeting, he talked about his trip to West Africa in 1962. Again, he astonished me with the sharpness of his memory. After 27 years in jail, complex names and titles like “Alhaji Sir Ahmadu Bello, Sardauna of Sokoto [Nigeria]” and “Alhaji Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, prime minister of the federation of Nigeria” rolled off his tongue with ease.
He gave us an insight into realpolitik when he revealed that the Sardauna of Sokoto, who had largely been written off as a “conservative” Anglophile, had given the ANC £10,000 – a considerable sum in 1962, and worth at least a quarter of a million pound sterling in today’s money. President William Tubman of Liberia, another so-called “reactionary” whose country enjoyed extremely close relations with the United states, gave him $5,000. And the King of Morocco, a feudal overlord if there was one, arranged for Mandela to be given military training, despite the ANC’s traditional alliance with the Communist Party of South Africa. Interestingly, Mandela also received military training at the hands of the pro-Western Ethiopian regime of Emperor Haile Selassie!
At the same time, he managed to get invited to dinner at the home of the Algerian ambassador in Ghana, the famous Frantz Fanon, author of The Wretched of The Earth. The third occasion I met him was also an unforgettable moment. Mandela was now installed in the Union Buildings in Pretoria, as President of South Africa. He had invited me and a friend to have lunch with him and his foreign minister, the late Alfred Nzo, to brief them about the arrest and detention of his friend, Chief Moshood Abiola, by the Nigerian military dictator, General Sani Abacha.
As we lunched on fried chicken in the dining room of the presidential residence, I came to realise that Mandela faced a really difficult task as President of South Africa. Alfred Nzo, the foreign minister who was supposed to advise Mandela on difficult foreign policy issues, did not seem to be the slightest bit interested in the conversation Mandela was holding with us about Abiola and the Nigerian political situation. He in fact did not utter a single word!
Mandela would months later, send Archbishop Desmond Tutu and his then Deputy President Thabo Mbeki – one after the other – as emissaries to Abacha to plead for Abiola’s release from prison. Abacha made promises, but did nothing. Finally, on his way back home from an African heads of state meeting in Tunis, Mandela himself made a detour to Abuja, the Nigerian capital, to see Abacha.
But he realised he had failed with Abacha when the latter tried to turn the meeting to his own political advantage. Abacha released a statement claiming that Mandela had visited him to “discuss the World economic situation!” Mandela’s office was stung – unusually – into issuing a counter-statement, pointing out that Mandela had gone to Nigeria, “at the request of Chief Abiola’s family”, to intercede with Abacha.
The finale in relations between Mandela and Abacha came in November 1995, when the Nigerian writer, Ken Saro-Wiwa, and eight other Ogoni environmental activists were sentenced to death by a military tribunal set up by Abacha. Appeals went out to Mandela to talk to Abacha to reprieve them. Again, Mandela tried secret diplomacy. And again, Abacha rebuffed him. Abacha in fact hanged Saro-Wiwa and his eight fellow condemned men on 21 November 1995, whilst Mandela was in Auckland, New Zealand, attending the biennial Conference of the Commonwealth Heads of Government (CHOGM). The World press, gathered at Auckland and insensitive to Mandela’s dilemma of being asked repeatedly about what he was doing to bring Abacha to heel, whilst he was in the act of making secret overtures to Abacha, excoriated Mandela. On the day after the Ogonis were hanged, one newspaper even described Mandela as “The man who wasn’t there”.
At this point, my journalist’s nose sensed that Mandela might want to tell his side of the story to someone he knew and trusted. So I faxed him a request for an interview. I sent the request on a Tuesday. I got a reply back asking whether I could be in Joburg on Friday! Pay-dirt again!
At his Houghton home, President Mandela gave me the most astounding interview in my entire professional career. Uniquely, in relations between serving heads of state in Africa (which was once described as a “trade union of mutual back-scratchers”) Mandela bluntly described Abacha as a “brutal dictator” who had set up a “kangaroo court” to murder Ken Saro-Wiwa and his fellow Ogonis. He called on the Nigerian opposition to intensify their efforts to get rid of Abacha. An African head of state urging the nationals of another African state to commit treason against their government of the day?!
There was more to come: Mr Mandela added, “Abacha is sitting on a powder keg and I am going to explode it beneath him.” The interview was published in both The Observer in London and the Sunday Independent in Johannesburg on 6 November 1995. Despite the interview being criticised by some sections of the ANC as constituting “Mandela’s own foreign policy” as against the foreign policy of ”the Government of South Africa”, Mandela never did anything to show that he regretted having said what he said.
I realised the government’s concern when I was visited at my hotel that Sunday morning by my old friend, Joel Netshizenge, the government’s spokesman of the time. Joel wanted to verify that his boss had really said those things. I assured him he had, and that it was all on tape. In fact, I lent the tape to the BBC correspondent in Johannesburg, Richard Downs, who made a lead story out of the interview. He rewarded me by keeping the tape for several days, even though I had told him I needed to transcribe it for syndication purposes.
Now, in spite of the fire he had breathed against Abacha during the interview, Mr Mandela was able to exhibit a great sense of humour when, after we had finished talking, I asked to be photographed with him. He got up, shook my hand, and said: “Now, you are going to make me famous!” He had a wicked sense of humour, No wonder I loved that man to bits.
My love affair with South Africa and its politics had begun in 1960 – 21 March 1960, to be exact. I, as a young editor at the news division of the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation, was studiously watching the newsroom teleprinter, waiting for an item that concerned a census that Ghana had begun the day before. Suddenly, the teleprinter stopped clacking. There were a few erratic noises. Then silence. But after a few seconds, its rhythmic clattering resumed. And I read the words: “Reuters Newsflash”.
The unbelievable news that came through was that 67 Africans had been killed at Sharpeville, in South Africa. This sad story had a profound effect on me. Because, as I tried to make sense of the bits of news that came through, I could see that the people who had been shot were all Africans and that they had mainly been shot in the back, as they were fleeing from the police.
The teleprinter was telling me of pure premeditated murder! And there I stood – an African editor in the national broadcasting station of his country, with no white man supervising me as I did a job once done by white men sent from Britain by the BBC. And I could imagine that if I was in South Africa, the “Job Reservation Act” would never allow me into the newsroom in the first place.
I was immensely angry at the injustice of people being denied opportunities, just on account of the colour of their skin, and I became very interested in the South African struggle. And I was all the time hoping and praying that the situation could be changed by our people fighting back. Just as we in Ghana had fought for our independence, and now, young as I was, I was an editor at the national broadcasting station.
From the radio station, I went on to edit Drum in Ghana, which gave me an even greater insight into South African affairs, because I gained access to the South African edition of Drum. So, by the time I became the editor of Ghana’s leading newspaper, the state-owned Daily Graphic, in 1970, I was as well informed about the South African situation as any foreigner could hope to be.
Because of my immersion in South African affairs, I became immensely troubled when the Ghanaian government, led by Dr Kofi Busia, began to dabble with the idea of engaging in “dialogue” with the apartheid regime of South Africa. I strongly opposed the idea, and said so in the Daily Graphic, because I perceived that the “dialogue” move was a charade which the apartheid regime was trying to use to weaken the united front that the African nations had adopted in support of the anti-apartheid struggle.
If the black South African populace was told that Black Africa was now maintaining diplomatic and trade relations with to the apartheid practitioners, the South Africans would feel deserted and demoralised, in my view. The UN might even be persuaded to lift sanctions against South Africa, which had been imposed against the wishes of the Western powers, but which they could do little about, because of the repugnance felt throughout the World against apartheid.
Ghana, in particular (I argued) should not lend its name to the opening of contacts with the apartheid regime, because many black South Africans had lived – and been trained – in Ghana during the government of President Nkrumah and would feel betrayed by the Ghanaian people, if Ghana went along with the “dialogue” movement.
Besides, I reasoned, if the South African regime wanted real “dialogue”, why did it not want to start it with its own black population? In what way was Dr Busia of Ghana, or President Houphouët-Boigny of Côte d’Ivoire, or Dr Kamuzu Banda of Malawi, Omar Bongo of Gabon or Jean-Bedel Bokassa of the Central African Republic, better qualified to engage in “dialogue” than Oliver Tambo and his eloquent colleagues who were leading the South African struggle from exile?
Mandela had by then been in prison for over a decade, with no end in sight to his life sentence. Thabo Mbeki was an exile in London. Why didn’t the apartheid rulers invite them in for a chat?
I was dismissed as editor of the Daily Graphic because of the strong arguments I published in the paper against the “dialogue” idea. But the idea died; in fact, when the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) discussed it at a special summit, the Ghana delegation did not vote for it, despite the fact that the Ghanaian prime minister was one of its leading advocates!
Fast forward to 1990. We hear that the apartheid rulers had come to their senses and had been having a secret “dialogue” with Mandela in prison. Then we got the news that the ANC had been unbanned, and that Mandela was going to be released on 11 February 1990! Was it really going to happen? Was South Africa going to be governed by the black majority, not through the war we had been fearing, but through peaceful negotiations?
The negotiations were successful, and it was announced that, on 10 May 1994, Nelson Mandela, after having won the first all-race elections in South Africa, would be installed as president of South Africa!
People think wrongly that apartheid, or racial discrimination, only started in South Africa in 1948, after the National Party had come to power. But in fact the earlier English-speaking (British-controlled) administration was also racist. So black South Africans had been discriminated against for over 100 solid years. It was oppression of such longevity that was coming to an end.
I was invited to come to the installation of President Mandela. When I got to the Union Buildings in Pretoria, I couldn’t believe what I saw. There were these South African Defence Force top brass in full uniform – including the feared police; the murderers!
I sat in the front row of the dais amongst the VIPs! And there, before my very eyes, was this black man who had been in prison for 27 years, swearing the oath to be the President of South Africa.
I mean – I cried like a baby! And after Mandela had been sworn in, they played the ANC’s national anthem, “Nkosi Sikeleli’ Africa”! And everybody in uniform – white and black – stood to attention and saluted that ANC anthem! Ah? Was I dreaming?
But it had still not sunk in. I was crying buckets now, but it had really not quite sunk in. Then I saw Thulami Tambo, one of Oliver Tambo’s daughters, standing on that dais, amongst the top military brass, holding up a clenched fist: the ANC salute! In front of all those uniformed people who, only five years or so earlier, would not have hesitated to shoot her dead if she had dared to brandish a clenched fist at them. I mean – the Bureau of State Security (BOSS) had its armed agents all over the place!
But Oliver Tambo had involved his children, as young kids, in the struggle, and the moment Nkosi Sikeleli Africa was played, up came the clenched fist – automatically – from Thulami! There was no negotiating that away! And that was when it sank in.
Yes! We had won! We had won! We had won!
But that was not all. After that, South African military jet planes flew over our heads, saluting us. There were all these African leaders: Julius Nyerere, Kenneth Kaunda and others – people who had been fighting against the South Africans for years, trying to make this moment happen. The jets were saluting us. It was quite simply incredible. Beyond belief. Never, ever, to be forgotten. And as I wiped the tears away, I just thanked God I was blessed to be there.
One of the men who made that possible, Nelson Mandela, is now gone to join the immortals. What a life he had to lead – full of sorrows, but also full of joy. My prayer is that his successors will not fail their people and Africa, but will eschew corruption and the effete lifestyle it spawns, and bring real improvements into the lives of all their people.
If they fail to do that, then the massive outpouring of joy we experienced on 10 May 1994, will turn to dust in our mouths and become a mere ejaculation of short-term hubris, which history will be entitled to ignore.