A country starts reflecting on itself

Now that Mandela is gone, he is once again with us. It has always been like that. Even in prison, the world and his people only imagined him. Johny Clegg’s song "Asimbonanga' literally means "we have not seen you." After prison, South Africa saw him only for nine years, between his release in 1990 and his retirement as president in 1999, when he said "don’t call me , I'll call you." For the rest, his orphaned nation had to make do with images, words, dreams. Mandela’s absence is his presence, more or less like the picture of parents that a recently orphaned child clutches in his hand.

Mtunzi broke down when he heard the news. "I do not know why", he says. Dressed in T-shirt, wooden beaded necklace and Mandela’s ‘Conversations with Myself’ wrapped under his arm, Mtunzi is my fellow passenger on the train to the memorial ceremony. "We had known for months that this was to happen. Even years. I was prepared. But I’ve been in a bad state all week. I kept thinking about my mother. Crying for my mother and her life. Strangely, it was more about her than about Mandela himself."

His thoughts had kept going back to that day that the whole family was watching Mandela’s release on TV in the living room in Diepkloof, Soweto, on February 2, 1990. "He walked out of prison and everyone went crazy, on TV and in our house. I knew that this was our leader, but I could not understand that none of us had ever seen him. I was only eight years old so it was not so strange that I did not know him. But how could my mother not have seen him, and she was the most important adult person that I knew? "

Where his mother is now? "In Orange Farm." Orange Farm is a squatter camp outside Pretoria. She will certainly be in the stadium today, nods Mtunzi, but unfortunately they will not meet. "I have to be in the office. My company sells T - shirts. And it’s a busy day.” Ah, hence the nice arty T - shirts with really well made Madiba portrait in pastel colours, which he and his companion, Mogomotsi, have donned. The irony that he will likely make some good money with the very same image that made such an impression on him and his mother 23 years ago, does not escape Mtunzi. “It’s funny. But it’s right that we should market our own images, don’t you think? They are ours anyway. So many foreign companies make money in South Africa. We should too. I only wish we would receive a little more support from our new leaders.”

Like his companion, he believes that Madiba’s vision of black empowerment was better than the way it was implemented by those who came after him: Mtunzi clearly owes more to his mother in Orange Farm than to anybody else. “I thank Mandela a lot though. Thanks to him, we have not had a civil war. If that had happened, I would not have been able to start a company at all. We would have had only destruction.”

I ask him if he contacted his mother since Mandela died. “No. As I said, I was in a miserable state.” Did he not want his mum to see him like that? Just like she, probably, kept up a brave face when she was bringing him up in Soweto and Orange Farm? I get a smile and a shrug.

"Me, I am bitter", says Mogomotsi, his companion, who turns out to be a journalist. “We have a super-rich elite and a people living in poverty. My good friend here battles day and night with no support. Our government is not doing well. How can it be that no leader today even tries to follow in Mandela’s footsteps?” I quote Mandela's own explanation for what others have called his wisdom: “Well, you know, 27 years in jail is a very long time to think ... about yourself.” I mention that Mandela's generation –for his contemporaries Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu were just as celebrated for their mature leadership as he was- reached adulthood in relative freedom, in a period before apartheid. Furthermore, Mandela hailed from Xhosa aristocracy and had been prepared for his role as a statesman.  Such education was non-existent in the Soweto of the seventies, where the then youth grew up among gangsters and police, with fury and aggression.

Mtunzi asks how, then, to explain Jacob Zuma.  The current president may not be quite as old as the Mandela generation, but he should be ‘mature’ too, shouldn’t he?  I suggest that, as a journalist, Mogomotsi could investigate this question. Who are our leaders, what determines them, what makes them tick?  If we need new and better ones, where do we find them? "I wish the bosses of my paper would allow such investigations," is his answer. "Because of the economic crisis we lack people. We only get to go to press conferences. There is no time for depth."

Yolisa can’t access the depths of his past either, at least not with his family. "If I tried to talk to my mother about our history, she would disintegrate," he says as we stand in the pouring rain at the Mandela house in Houghton, Johannesburg. Mogomotsi  and Mtunzi are off to Soweto, but Yolisa and I have agreed to meet here, 'away from the masses.” Yolisa 's background, compared with those of Mtunzi or Zuma, is ' special' : the son of a businessman from the former Ciskei homeland, he grew up as part of an ‘elite who drove expensive cars and sent their children to Oxford', courtesy of the apartheid regime, which paid for the ‘black government’ structure in the artificial reserve. But he cannot talk about this with his parents. "My mother is fragile, my father committed suicide when the homeland structure was abolished."

Yolisa thinks he belongs to the lucky ones: he hasn’t suffered hunger or physical pain, and attended, if not Oxford, then still a very good school. His conversation is peppered with healthy self-deprecating jokes about how 'articulate ' and ' intellectual' he is compared to ' other' blacks. It is the kind of ‘compliment’ he receives every now and then, invariably from whites. “Then I just don’t know where to look. It can come as a bolt out of the blue.”

Yolisa's mother had been such an ‘other’ black. "A family of farm workers in the Karoo. They had had land and cattle, but that was taken from them. Bit by bit. One day, their property would be declared a nature reserve, another time it was suddenly a white area."  An uncle of Yolisa's mother had resisted the taking of his land and cattle and had been shot dead by the new owners. "Uncle Kiki’s photo hung in everyone's living room. But I never knew about the history until much later. We visited my mother’s family, but never spent time in their houses. We would stay in a bed & breakfast. My mothers’ family was given our old clothes."

Yolisa was twelve and at boarding school when he started to understand the background of his elite existence. "Friends at school showed me books that were banned, about our history, about Mandela. I understood that my father and the homeland rulers who were his friends were crooks. They were in cahoots with the same government that had impoverished and disenfranchised my mother's family.” Did his mother ever say anything about this to her husband or her son? "No.  But when I became an activist, she asked me if I was now Mandela’s adopted son.”

How traumatized his mother's family was, he noticed only when he, now an ANC activist of 19, discovered that the street sweeper in the village where the family lived, was a great-uncle of his, a brother of Uncle Kiki. "I asked my aunt why they had never introduced me to him, and she got angry, as if that was a bad question." But when this uncle retired, and then started going on day-long trips, Yolisa asked him where he was going all the time. "Looking for my cattle on the mountain," he said. But he had not had cattle for many years. I understood then that something was wrong with his mind. I later learnt that he had given up his land and cattle to the whites without fighting like uncle Kiki had. So, additionally to losing his land and cattle, he had also been called a coward by the family."

Yolisa also learned that uncle Abie, though entitled to a state pension as a street sweeper, had never received this. “A cousin who was also an activist, and myself, decided to take him to the white town’s pension office. The whites were not going to get away with this. After everything they had done to him, they were now not going to take his pension, too.” Together they took uncle Abie to town. “But when we got to the office he did not want to move. He clung to a tree and absolutely refused to go in. My cousin and I fought with him, trying to loosen his grip from the tree.” The skirmish attracted the attention of the white lady in the pension office, who recognised the street-sweeper. “We were totally surprised to see this madam come out and meet us, with my uncle’s pension money counted out in an envelope. She wanted to give it to him. She said: “Abie, why did you never come for your pension? Do take it, it’s yours. My cousin and I looked on in amazement as my uncle broke down, went on his knees and started apologising. “Sorry madam, sorry, I did not want to bother you….it’s them, they made me bother you.”

Yolisa and his cousin, who had been prepared for anger and a fight, were not prepared for this. “He was defeated. So defeated. It was terrible. After it was over, my cousin and I sat on a bench and cried.”

Trauma? It’s not so bad, he insists. "My uncle, yes. My mother, yes.” Jokingly: “I am British-educated after all. Stiff upper lip, old boy." Only this week, he has also not been able to get it together. “Yes, it hit me hard. I had to go on a bit of a pilgrimage, with friends, to memorial places. The first day, I could not work.”

I mention I saw emotion yesterday, when our group of friends was discussing the present state of leadership in the country. He nods. “That is the worst thing. The fake leaders. Those who make speeches and drive expensive cars but can’t do their jobs. You used to see them only in Ciskei, but they are everywhere these days.” In the rain in front of the muddy floral tribute at the Mandela house he points at a man with clenched fist, singing ANC songs, filmed by German TV. "He doesn’t know the words.”

Let him be? "It would not annoy me so much if such people weren’t in government. With no idea of the work they must do. Just pushing paper.” Yes, but what is the cause of such incompetence? Laziness ? Stupidity ? Lack of moral values ? "It’s fear of failure. An inferiority complex. They are defeated before they even try to get anywhere. Like uncle Abie.  There are differences but the defeated part is the same. My uncle tried to disappear; they try to cover up and fake it. The public image, the speech, is all they have; they must never be seen to fail in public. When someone criticises them, they can’t reflect and learn, like Mandela would have done. They attack, they start shouting. I guess it is trauma, but it is not being recognised."

It’s true, quite a few ministers have behaved that way even recently. Agriculture. Education. Public works, about Nkandla. That very day, Zuma’s spokesperson will vehemently accuse the –very many- people who booed the president at the memorial service, of being ‘disrespectful’ and ‘anti- ANC’.
As the scandal of the ‘fake interpreter' breaks out a day later, a tweeter from Botswana says he is ‘amused’ by the “'fake it until you make it’ attitude of South Africans”. And of course it is funny, too. The best jokes always accompany the greatest tragedies. Until we are back into tragic mode with a tweet from @Comrade Sipho:  "Why is everything fake? Who the hell broke South Africa?”

The truth is that South Africa has long been broken.  Nine Mandela years were clearly not enough to fix it. Maybe it can’t be fixed at all, not completely. It may take a long time.  But it is once again Mandela’s absent presence this week that has made his people reflect about wisdom, leadership, and overcoming.  The old man may still get this country to start having some long overdue conversations with itself.

Evelyn Groenink is ZAM Chronicle’s investigations editor. She wrote this impression in December 2013, in the days after Mandela's passing. 

Photo: Nelson and Winnie Mandela gives a fist salute on 11 February 1990, after he is released from 27 years' imprisonment.