Newsmaker – Sello Hatang: The Madiba over my shoulder

2013-05-26 14:00

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New CEO of the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, Sello Hatang, keeps his private life private. Here he opens up and shares his vision for the centre’s role beyond Madiba

When Sello Hatang hurries from a meeting, I have no idea that he is in the middle of a crisis. In fact, the diminutive man in a pink shirt and even pinker tie is quick to crack a joke.

I ask him if he’s ready to step into the shoes of Achmat Dangor, the outgoing CEO of the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory.

“I’m not so sure about that, because Achmat wears expensive shoes and I tend to wear el cheapos,” he jokes.

He says: “I am excited that the board of trustees has shown confidence in young people. That it’s not about concentrating on past legacies, but about building new ones.”

At just 38, Hatang is on the side of the youth. It’s something he returns to often – that the youth feel displaced, left out of the conversation, alienated by social inequality.

“This centre needs to remain relevant. It needs to address current social-justice issues.”

It’s through dialogue programmes that Hatang intends honouring Mandela’s legacy at the centre, the active face of the former president’s foundation.

Upstairs in the Houghton building, a gorgeous new exhibition wing with dark-wood floors and orange walls is near completion.

It’ll be open to the public in September – by appointment. In an adjoining room, there’s a large, circular wooden table for dialogue sessions.

“If there’s some difficult issue, people should say, ‘First port of call, the best conveners of dialogue who can be trusted, is the Nelson Mandela Centre’.”

While Dangor, he says, had to work with Mandela in the building, watching his every move, he is free to chart his own course. “So I don’t feel the heavy weight of having Madiba looking over my shoulder.”

“But he is,” I quip. Behind him is a huge poster of Mandela, smiling and waving, the symbol of goodwill and reconciliation that governs the brand. It’s a spirit you find in Hatang as well.

Very little has been written about his private life because he chooses to keep it that way. Also, until now, he was the centre’s head of communications, arranging interviews for Dangor, not himself.

Yet when I pry, he tells me his story frankly.

Hatang and his elder sister are the only two surviving siblings of six, raised by their gogo in Khuma township in North West.

Their mother worked as a live-in domestic in Stilfontein, a conservative Afrikaans mining town. He worked with her as a gardener from the age of 13.

He remembers running home from school only to find his siblings had eaten all the bread; how the fat from wors poured over pap made you think you were eating wors.

It’s how many South Africans live today, something he is at pains to point out.

No one in his family dreamed the history-loving young man would be their first to qualify for university.

“My mum just went ballistic. ‘How do you think we will support you?’ I started crying. I said I would find a way. I still remember my gogo’s words, in Setswana, ‘If a child is crying for a hot coal, give it to them so they can burn themselves, but let it be their choice’.”

An inspirational history teacher determined his decision to study archival science and teaching at the University of Pretoria.

He wanted to be a teacher, but wouldn’t earn enough to support his family, and so he joined the National Archives of SA, where he helped transform it, and helped preserve stories from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

He later became the director of the SA History Archive. But it was his time as spokesperson for the SA Human Rights Commission that “sharpened” him and forged his political character.

Hatang shows us around the centre, the vast storage rooms housing Mandela’s gifts and awards, his prison diaries and Nobel prize, teddy bears from children, letters from beauty queens, signed T-shirts from Pelé and Maradona, freedoms of cities and honorary doctorates.

He chuckles when I try to draw him on the tough questions – the selling of Madiba’s funeral rights and the daughters suing for control of the finances.

“It’s Madiba’s private life, that,” he says. “At the centre, we deal with his legacy.”

Hatang has three children. His eldest son turned 13 on the day of our interview – the same day he learnt that his 12-year-old nephew died.

He almost cancelled our meeting and struggled, blinking back tears, but decided to continue. Work comes first.

He quotes Madiba often on Twitter, and did it again to describe his nephew’s passing.

“I feel like Mandela when he said: ‘I felt I had been soaked in gall.’”

His favourite quote, gleaned from a stint editing a book of Mandela quotes, is one which sums him up: “It is never my custom to use words lightly. If 27 years in prison have done anything to us, it was to use the silence of solitude to make us understand how precious words are and how real speech is in its impact on the way people live and die.”

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