SA’s literary giants offer diverse views on Mandela

2013-12-07 16:41

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South African Nobel laureates Nadine Gordimer and JM Coetzee, as well as acclaimed author Zakes Mda, have all written high-profile reflections on Nelson Mandela this week.

The most talked about is The Contradictions of Mandela, an opinion piece by Mda in the New York Times.

Mda recalls Mandela as a fiery, disciplined young lawyer who would visit his family home.

“I remember Nelson Mandela. No, not the universally adored elder statesman who successfully resisted the megalomania that comes with deification and who died Thursday at age 95, but the young lawyer who used to sit in my parents’ living room until the early hours of the morning, debating African nationalism with my father, Ashby Peter Mda.”

Although Mandela – who felt at the time that the ANC was “outmoded” – was fierce and strict, what struck Mda about him was his “avuncular” spirit towards people younger than him.

Mda is not shy of criticising a young Mandela, the “Xhosa traditionalist with aristocratic tendencies” as a result of his close relationship with Kaiser and George Matanzima.

“Perhaps here we could already see the flicker of tolerance to those with opposing views for which he later distinguished himself,” Mda writes.

This must have irked his comrades who believed the bantustans had betrayed the black liberation cause.

Mda also believes Mandela’s loyalty to the ANC and his comrades was a mistake, even though he saved South Africa from a bloodbath.

“I fear that, for Mandela, loyalty went too far. The corruption that we see today did not just suddenly erupt after his term in office; it took root during his time. He was loyal to his comrades to a fault and was therefore blind to some of their misdeeds.”

Gordimer is far less critical, writing about the Mandela that she met frequently, about “his wit, his quick humour in surprising circumstances” that endeared him to everyone he met.

Nadine Gordimer Picture: Johann Hattingh/Beeld

In Mandela My Countryman for The New Yorker on Friday, Gordimer wrote: “Mandela was not a figure carved in stone but a tall man, of flesh and blood, whose suffering had made him not vengeful but still more human – even toward the people who had created the prison that was apartheid.”

Another local literary great, JM Coetzee, wrote in The Sydney Morning Herald: “Mandela held a turbulent country together during the dangerous years 1990-94, exercising his great personal charm to persuade whites that they had a place in the new democratic republic while step by step emasculating the separatist white right wing.”

JM Coetzee

Coetzee continues: “He was, and by the time of his death, universally held to be a great man; he may well be the last of the great men as the concept of greatness retires into the historical shadows.”

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