African National Cool

2012-01-07 12:37

By the mid-1960s, the ANC had been effectively silenced by the ruling Nationalist government: its top leaders were in jail, in hiding or in exile.

But outside South Africa, under Oliver Tambo’s leadership, the ANC was building itself into one of the best-known and coolest liberation movements around.

In terms of finding the embrace of global grassroots support, the ANC’s ejection from its homeland, could not have been better timed.

Revolution was in the air and a youth-driven counterculture had begun to blossom across Western Europe and the United States.

It was a time of rowdy activism. In the US anti-Vietnam war protesters metaphorically marched alongside African-American civil rights activists, while newly minted feminists rose up and burned their bras in the streets.

Radical new heroes and martyrs were born: Nation of Islam leader Malcolm X, clergyman and civil rights icon Martin Luther King, Bolivian Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara... And in India, in 1966, Indira Gandhi, was voted into power, making her the world’s second woman prime minister.

As ideologies clashed, worlds collided and the cold war between communism and capitalism toppled old certainties, songs were written, slogans were sung and revolutions were televised.

The struggle had become sexy.

The Anti Apartheid Movement (AAM), forged in the months after the Sharpeville Massacre from its tamer predecessor, the Boycott Movement, settled into its London HQ in exile, and got ready to exploit the excitable, unstable mood of the time.

Under leaders like Abdul Minty, the AAM pushed apartheid South Africa further and further into isolation.

Exclusion from the Olympics, an academic boycott and then a headline grabbing sports boycott, hit South Africa where it hurt most – on its cherished Springbok sports fields.

Over the next two decades, apartheid’s pariah status was sealed by a strictly enforced cultural boycott subscribed to by superstars from movie icon Marlon Brando to pop diva Whitney Houston.

Transgressors – like musician Paul Simon – risked being put on a UN blacklist.

Using increasingly sophisticated “struggle media and marketing” tactics, the ANC entrenched its global stature as the only South African liberation movement worth knowing and the designated government-in-waiting.

The value to be gained by turning Nelson Mandela into a global icon was a no-brainer.

Mandela, jailed for life in 1964 after narrowly avoiding a death sentence, had already distinguished himself locally and abroad as a leader of probity, charm and courage.

As the years went by, Mandela’s absence was skilfully manipulated to make him increasingly present in the minds and hearts of South Africans and a growing wave of global anti-apartheid supporters everywhere.

Mandela – even an invisible Mandela – could not hide the fact he had the X-factor, that centre-stage star quality that an elite club of single-name celebrities the world over – Oprah, Obama, Bono, Ronaldo – possess by the bucket.
Some commentators have resisted the making of the Mandela myth, arguing that it trivialised the work of a movement rooted in collective decision-making, not individual ambition.

Indeed Mandela himself has always bowed to party discipline and structures and, since his release in 1991, has gone out of his way to downplay his popularity.

“I am not a saint,” he has said, “unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.”

But a big personality symbolising everything the ANC stood for and fought for was required, and Mandela, with his thoroughbred credentials, his dazzling rhetoric and his glamorous and equally unbowed then-wife, Winnie, fitted the bill perfectly.

And so in the 1960s and 70s, during the early years of Mandela’s imprisonment on Robben Island, a committee of ANC leaders started the Mandela myth and breathed life into a legend.

In 1988 an extraordinary concert took place at Wembley Stadium in the UK capital.

Londoners numbering 72?000 – many of whom were barely born when Mandela went to jail – gathered to hear the top bands of the day play their hits in honour of a man nobody in the outside world had seen for 25 years.

The “Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Concert” was beamed live to more than 6?million viewers in 67 countries (except in South Africa, where it was banned).

That’s star power.

But the really extraordinary moment came 20?months later when Nelson Mandela walked free from Victor Verster prison after 27 years.

Hand in hand with Winnie, he moved towards the prison gates. He looked fit; he looked fantastic; he looked better than Morgan Freeman.

It was a slow walk: despite the mayhem around him – hysterical crowds, hysterical media – Mandela took his time, stopping every few steps to shake hands with anyone who happened to stray into his sightlines – police officers, party comrades, photographers.

In his now trademark deep boom, he spoke. “Hello, how are you?”

Mandela the man was even better than Mandela myth.

The world breathed a sigh.

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