Following in the footsteps of greatness

2010-02-13 16:32

FIRST there were hushed tones laced with knowing smiles.

 Adults were in a ­secretly jovial mood, but obviously did not want to start

counting their chickens ­before they had hatched.

We, the ­ignorant teenagers,

were to learn later that the announcement of the emancipation of political

parties and subsequently Nelson Mandela had been broadcast over the radio.

Then, before township legends could start doing the rounds,

­Tembisa was suddenly awash with “Viva ANC” ­T-shirts bearing the face of

Mandela. The euphoria was almost tangible.

The gates of the Mandela memorabilia dam had been swiftly opened

and, as is the law with business­savvy people, factories had acted promptly and

furiously. We heard a knock on our door.

It was a vendor selling Mandela


“What tribe are you?” my tipsy uncle asked the vendor with unusual


“I am umXhosa,” replied the hawker.

“What tribe do I sound like?” my uncle probed further.

“You sound like umXhosa.”

Uncle: “What tribe is Mandela?”

Hawker: “He is umXhosa.”

Uncle: “So what makes you think you can sell umXhosa to another

umXhosa when you are umXhosa yourself? And for what? R20? We are free now –

where is your Mandela spirit?”

Although it didn’t seem like self-deceit to think the Madiba spirit

would rule our beloved country ­forever, the novelty soon wore off. Even the

movie Invictus, endowed with movie giants such as Matt ­Damon and Morgan

Freeman, and with a fine storyline, has not ­managed to get the people rushing

out to buy tickets.

But for the likes of Manfred Jacobs, a prison warder at the

­Drakenstein Correctional Centre – formerly known as Victor Verster Prison?–

things are as bright as they looked on
February 11, 1990.

It is as if someone has shouted Lights! Camera! ­Action! as Jacobs

gets into the groove.

Using only the most significant?words comes easy for this chap.

Blessed with an impeccable command of storytelling ability, he leads the way

through the Mandela house.

With remarkable enthusiasm on a very hot and sticky day, he begins:

“Ladies and gentlemen, I actually want to start out here and explain that this

lemon tree here at the yard entrance was planted by Madiba himself,” he says,

pointing at a ­20-year-old tree that I’m sure would look better if it had

someone to ­cultivate it.

Perhaps this is what diminished the Mandela legacy: he planted the

seeds, but his successors didn’t ­water the trees. Our forefathers died for the

struggle, and my nieces and nephews ask with their noses in the air just when

the “apartheid fuss” will be put to rest.

But 20 years on, Jacobs’s fervour for Madiba is a thing to behold.

He explains the heavens above and the ground beneath the house where Mandela

spent the final 18 months of his prison sentence as if he is talking about the

Son of Man Himself.

The organisers of the “My Mandela Moment” 20th Anniversary

­celebrations call the campaign a “Call To Service” programme.

No one emulates that concept ­better than our man, who should

­consider taking on this job full-time.

 “The story of Mr Nelson Mandela is something we should all be

proud of. We should feel so lucky to have been born and witnessed his story

unfold right in front of us,” he continues.

“That is not something that people

from other countries or ­generations can add to their lists of lifetime


Yet, when I ask Jacobs for an ­interview three weeks later, he

­hesitates, saying: “Why me, ma’am? If I may ask.”

And then I resuscitate the words of Madiba shirt designer Sonwabile

Ndamase: “Once the Madiba spirit touches you in ­person, you can ­never be the

same again. Madiba has articulated broadly on the ­subject of humility and


As in the Bible, Madiba said to me: ‘you cannot be above the people

you serve’ – and because he lives his teachings, it is not so hard to follow in

his footsteps.”

While Ndamase compares his own first Mandela Moment to that of a

little boy in a sweet shop, Jacobs cannot single out one day and call it his own

Mandela Moment.

“I was 16 and observed and learned from his every gesture and you

must know, he was not above his human elements.”

Periodically, I realised that some of the stories he told of

Madiba’s­ ­acquaintance with the world after 27?years had been told before.

Tokyo Sexwale, who was a member of the reception committee, had an

identical story to tell about Mandela’s confusion between a microwave and a TV

set. The story of the house being bugged for all sounds and conversations has

been told in many different ways.

The adversities that his height brought him;

how he never let a little radio out of his sight; how empty he felt at the

absence of children’s laughter – all these we have read and heard before.

The difference lies in the way that Jacobs unpacks his stories.

When he says: “The next room, ­ladies and gentlemen, is my

favourite. Do you know why? Because this is where Winnie was to be lured into

drinking and spilling the beans. . .

It was filled to capacity with alcohol . .

. you do know the propaganda about her being a drunk?.?.?.

“But the oppressors never gave up, ladies and gentlemen. Even as

Winnie became a regular visitor to this place and it was clear the end or

beginning was near, depending on which side of the fence you stood, they had to

gather as much . . . ”

Getting the story of his life is not so easy when it comes to


“I’m just passionate about ­Mandela’s ideals and will do all that I

can to ignite the fire for those who may have forgotten or have never really had

special moments. It’s not my platform to talk about me, but the man and his



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