Living in the time of Nelson Mandela

2013-12-07 00:00

I STARTED my working life at the University of Durban Westville in 1994, the year that democracy came to South Africa. And Nelson Mandela became our first democratically elected president.

In that time my admiration for the man has never wavered.

Just the other night, I was telling my daughter we must feel blessed that Mahatma Gandhi has such strong links with Pietermaritzburg, and that we lived in the time of Nelson Mandela.

I live in the knowledge that there will never be a greater person than Nelson Mandela in my lifetime. To see such a hand of friendship being extended to his former persecutors — this is the stuff of legend.

When I met Ahmed Kathrada in Booktown Richmond, I asked him if he would help me with a dream of mine — a Nelson Mandela Festival on Robben Island. Kathrada was quick to alert me to the challenges; it was very difficult to use the name Nelson Mandela, and logistically, the seas were sometimes choppy and that would prevent boat trips to Robben Island.

So I started the J.M. Coetzee + Nobel Laureates Festival. So that we could still include the greatest Nobel Laureate of them all. In that time, I got to know Mandela quite well through books others had written on him.

Kathrada’s A Simple Freedom was the best. It told a story for instance of how Mandela had to wear shorts, even in winter, because all African prisoners were not allowed long pants. That famous photograph of Mandela in sunglasses in the lime quarry of Robben Island fails to convey the damage dust and working in the glaring sun caused to Mandela’s eyes.

Mike Nicol told the story of how Mandela’s captors were very quick to write books on how he had changed their lives. And of intimate moments they had shared. And in many cases, they bordered on lies.

Anton Harber enthralled us with the story of how Mandela was disguised for months as a gardener at Lilliesleaf Farm.

But for me Mandela’s love letters to Winnie Mandela tells me he had a poet’s heart. Go and read them. Sheer poetry. Yes, his Rivonia trial speech will be immortalised, but his love letters to Winnie belong on every bookshelf in South Africa.

Unlike the political elite, I will never be able to claim to have known Nelson Mandela. But I am proud that when he was cornered by security police just outside my hometown of Howick, in a failed effort to escape capture, he proclaimed: “My name is David!”

Almost 30 years later, this “David” would slay the Goliaths who had held this country prisoner since time immemorial.

And for time immemorial may South Africa be known, in the words of Denis Beckett, as Madibaland.

• Darryl Earl David is Afrikaans lecturer at UKZN, a winner of the True Stories competition in 2011 and organiser of literary festivals across the country.

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