Nelson Mandela has, fittingly, been recalled to public consciousness this week in the various statements and events marking the 30th anniversary of his release in February 1990.

Millions of South Africans alive today were not yet born when the man feted as a kind of political messiah took his first steps as a free man after 27 years behind bars.

But even for them, the instant of his freedom and, some hours later, his delivering the first words that could permissibly be heard in public since his final day in the dock at the conclusion of the Rivonia Trial in June 1964, is acknowledged as the moment when everything changed and the path to a democratic future was ineluctable.

What may be less obvious – even for those who were there on the day, as I was, waiting on the Grand Parade on that broiling summer afternoon – was that while the event itself was undoubtedly a signal turning point in modern South Africa’s history, the speech itself, which Mandela delivered from the City Hall balcony to a crowd of some 80 000 and a world audience of countless millions, was at once curiously forgettable, but also portentous in a way that was not, and perhaps could not have been, appreciated at the time.

Not insignificantly, Mandela brought his first speech as a free man since the 1960s to a close in the gathering dusk of Sunday 11 February 1990 with a reprise of the passage of principled defiance in that famous address to the court at the Rivonia Trial. ‘In conclusion,’ he told the crowd, ‘I wish to go to my own words during my trial in 1964. They are as true today as they were then. I wrote: I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the idea 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.’

He meant, he seemed to imply, to go on as he had promised to do all those years earlier.

But this was the coda of an address which, for all the intensity of the global focus on his re-emergence, was not really about him.

In the giddying euphoria of his long-imagined political resurrection made manifest, and the fabling that went with it, what was arguably the most important line of his speech was if not overlooked, then certainly misappreciated for its significance as an all too decisive factor over the years and decades to come.

For all the generous scope of his opening promise – ‘I greet you all in the name of peace, democracy and freedom for all. I stand here before you not as a prophet but as a humble servant of you, the people’– his fealty, as he declared it later in the speech, was more narrowly defined: ‘I am a loyal and disciplined member of the African National Congress. I am, therefore, in full agreement with all of its objectives, strategies and tactics.’ And this, also often overlooked, followed his asserting: ‘The factors which necessitated the armed struggle still exist today. We have no option but to continue.’

One observer not swept up in the awe of the moment was poet and essayist Stephen Watson, who would not have been loved by Madiba sentimentalists for recalling in 1994 that he had gone to the Grand Parade in February 1990 ‘with the awareness that few other human beings had ever been better set up by history to say unforgettable things than this man on this particular day … yet all he had produced was a string of party-political platitudes…’.

Mandela himself grinningly confided a day later that among the masses of messages he had received on his release was one from a Cape Town housewife who had written to say that she was ‘very glad that you are free and back among your friends and family, but your speech yesterday was very boring’.

In hindsight, it was perhaps unfair for anyone to have expected Mandela to deliver a Gettysburg address at a moment when the African National Congress (ANC) was at its most strategically vulnerable, caught on the back foot by President F W de Klerk’s unexpected announcements just nine days earlier (unbanning the liberation movements and declaring his commitment to a negotiated solution), with virtually nil organisational structure on the ground and undoubtedly considerable uncertainty between exiles and those at home about who was in control, and what should or could be done next. None of this could have been made any easier by the not entirely unexpected, yet still quite sudden re-emergence of the liberation icon himself.

Under such circumstances, could Mandela have said anything other than that he was a ‘loyal and disciplined member’ of the ANC, fully committed to its objectives, strategies and tactics?

In the often heady rapture of the Mandela era, his frequent resort to the plural pronoun ‘we’ when expressing what might otherwise have been taken to be his own opinion was usually read as a quaint, even charming token of collegial generosity.  

Though he had no small sense of the grandeur of history and his place in it, it was also part of his nature to defer to others, to disclaim attention or credit. His capacity for humility – part of his charm, but also of his political toolkit – was memorably reflected in his narrative asides, which bore the traces of an endearing self-effacement.

He delighted in recounting how only months after his release from prison he had been invited to rest and restore his energy at a benefactor’s bushveld retreat. One morning, he recalled, he went for a walk in the forest where, after some solitary meandering, he encountered a group of village women coming in the opposite direction. He stopped to chat. Others joined them. The topic of conversation was a forthcoming wedding in the district, and now and then Mandela was asked for his opinion, which he gave, much enjoying this ordinary social exchange after almost three prison decades without any such opportunity. Eventually, once the matrimonial topic was exhausted, one of the women turned to him, this one among the handful of the century’s most famous men. ‘By the way,’ she asked, ‘who are you?’

It was obvious he enjoyed telling this story, seemingly at his own expense. What really mattered, of course, was that he knew the answer to that woman’s question, and with a certainty that defined his steely resolve as a politician.

The question, all these years later, is what it meant for the country.

Useful, here, is the judgement of a man who could not at any stretch be described as a weak-kneed Madiba devotee. And, in former opposition leader Tony Leon’s estimation, ‘(that) South Africa stood much taller after his storied five-year presidency, and was so much more at peace with itself and the world, having secured its democratic and constitutional foundations on once fragile ground, owed much to this singular man’.

‘Paradoxically,’ he writes in his 2014 memoir, Opposite Mandela – Encounters with South Africa’s Icon, ‘Mandela, the most partisan of politicians, was also able to look beyond the interests of the party and make tough calls on it to meet the needs of the country-in-the-making.’

There is no doubt that he succeeded in holding always before him the vision of a common South Africanhood, and inviting a mostly devoted and willing citizenry to help him realise it.

In this, his influence was immense, and indispensable to what had long seemed an unthinkable – and unthinkably bloodless – transition.

Yet, no more than three years into his presidency, in a marathon address at the turning-point Mafikeng conference of the ANC in 1997, Nelson Mandela lent his authority to the ruling party’s reorientation towards the racial nationalism and all-levers-of-power hegemony it has pursued with unrelenting vigour since.

Leon observes: ‘Mandela’s address was in its own fashion unprecedented and revealing. Gone was the gentle, national conciliator and the emblem of South Africa’s rainbow aspirations.’

He records that, by November 1998, the ANC National Working Committee had established a National Deployment Committee, headed by Jacob Zuma, ‘and adopted a strategy for the employment of ANC cadres in all areas of government and society which “the movement regarded as crucial for the transformation of the project”’.

Months earlier, at the beginning of the 1998 parliamentary session, Leon had sought to ‘reconcile Mandela’s correctly and universally acclaimed decency with his stance at the party’s national conference’, and decided that, as he put in a speech in parliament, Mandela’s ‘moral stature may not be in doubt, but his political judgement may well be’. Mandela chose not to respond to the Leader of the Opposition on this.

Ultimately, Leon concludes, ‘while the exceptions, such as Mafikeng, were often as revealing and important as the general thrust of Mandela’s leadership, it remains incontestable that as president he transcended the narrow partisan and racial divisions of South Africa’.

And this is true.

Yet, in a much-changed South Africa of 2020, two decades after the end of a Mandela presidency that inaugurated the democratic dispensation and did, indeed, inspire a sense of indivisible nationhood, we might well be moved to see his fealty to his party, declared so unambiguously 30 years ago this month, as the most telling statement at the moment of his return to public life – a portent not of his own leadership, but of a political culture to which his imprimatur could be said to have lent devastating authority.

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