Growing up in Mandela’s looming absence

This comment was published on page 3 of The Independent the day after Nelson Mandela’s death was announced


To be a teenager at a white South African boarding school in the 1960s was to exist in a state of media isolation unimaginable today. The internet was still decades away, there was no television – Calvinist hard-liners in the white government kept it at bay until 1976 – and news on the state-controlled radio service was little better than propaganda.

The only faintly objective coverage of the world-shaking events taking place in our own country was on the front page of the local newspaper, the Diamond Fields Advertiser, which was pinned to the noticeboard every day. Here we read uncomprehendingly of the Sharpeville massacre, the declaration of a state of emergency, the banning of the African National Congress and the hunt for Nelson Mandela, head of the ANC’s newly-formed military wing, who had gone underground.

The DFA could not but reflect the relief of its mainly white readership when Mandela was captured in August 1962. He was sent to Robben Island, first sentenced to five years for incitement and leaving the country illegally, then to life, after another trial in 1964 for sabotage. And with that, as far as most of South Africa’s white population was concerned, he simply disappeared.

Newspapers were forbidden to quote any of Mandela’s words, or even to publish his photograph. Some believed his eloquent statements in court were exempt from the ban, but by the time I went to university in Johannesburg in the late 1960s, few publications were prepared to test the issue. Clandestine resistance had been all but stamped out, and South Africa’s pervasive security police welcomed any opportunity to pounce on student dissent, however feeble. If the Mandela name was heard during these years, it was usually because of the constant persecution of Nelson’s wife, Winnie. But she too was a “banned person” who could not be quoted.

In the harsh days of the early 1970s, as Mandela admits in his autobiography, “the ANC seemed to sink into the shadows”. Before his imprisonment, however, he had warned that the next revolt against apartheid would leave the regime wishing they had compromised with his generation, and the uprising among young black township dwellers in 1976 seemed to prove him right. But the authorities claimed that the country faced a communist-inspired “total onslaught”, of which Mandela was the figurehead, and most whites chose to believe them. Endemic unrest, and the imposition of international sanctions, heightened their fears in the years that followed.

As the “Free Mandela” campaign gathered pace in the 1980s, forcing the government finally to open negotiations with him, he was still pictured among the privileged elite as some kind of scowling revolutionary. It was a pleasant shock, therefore, to see his photograph for the first time in nearly 30 years, Whites saw a dignified old man, radiating calm authority. By the time he was released in 1990, most – apart from crass diehards like the late, unlamented Eugene Terreblanche – had realised that far from being their nemesis, Mandela represented their best chance of averting the bloodbath so many feared would ensue if they ever let go of power.

As Mandela led South Africa through the peaceful transition to a “rainbow nation” at the 1994 election, white support for him became near-universal, particularly among the young. But there is a negative side to this near-adulation: many still seem to think that after his journey from a prison cell to the presidency, no further change is required, and that the whites’ overwhelming economic privilege can be maintained.

Whites often appeared to cling to Madiba, Mandela’s clan name, as if to banish the thought of what might happen when he was gone. They are probably right to fear that without his forgiving presence, chillier winds may blow around them. South Africa has lost the greatest figure in its history, but Nelson Mandela’s death merely marks the end of the first phase in the country’s revolution. There is much change yet to come, and little of it will be palatable to those who imagine things can stay the same.