Mangope’s end of days

2018-01-28 06:01
Lucas Mangope

Lucas Mangope

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I had been passing time while on holiday at my mother’s house, on the outskirts of Zeerust, North West, when my phone rang.

“My father is ready for the interview,” said the familiar voice at the other end of the line. “Can you meet us in town, now? You will find us at Thagamoso Lodge. It’s quieter there.”

It was Keabaitse on the line, another one of former Bophuthatswana president Lucas Mangope’s daughters. For dozens of months on end, I had been nagging her to help me secure an interview with her father.

Naturally, I needed no second invitation. The elusive interview that I had been chasing for a good four years was finally happening. I hastily wrapped a tie around my collar, threw a jacket on my back and reached for my thick file of research material, a voice recorder, a pen and a notepad.

You don’t interview a man of Mangope’s stature for an hour or two, especially when you are ambitiously flirting with the idea of documenting his life story. This was to be the first of many days to come, listening to the man as he reflected on his 90-odd years on earth.

Although town is a stone’s throw away from my mother’s house, for some reason it seemed further today. I stepped on the gas. After what felt like hours, I brought the car to a halt in front of a deserted Thagamoso Lodge, east of Zeerust. Only Mangope’s car, a Japanese SUV, was parked outside. His driver cut a lonely figure behind the wheel of the stationary vehicle. I waved at him as I hurried towards the lodge entrance.

Entering the lodge, the sound my shoe heels made as they banged against the ceramic floor tiles echoed across the eerily quiet lobby as I approached the receptionist.

“Hi. I’m here to meet ...” Before I could finish my statement, the lady behind the front desk interjected and pointed to the adjacent couches. It was clear she was briefed about my imminent arrival.

Across the foyer, Mangope and Keabaitse sat quietly on the sofas. Next to them was his three-legged cane. He could no longer rely on his elderly legs alone to carry him around. The limbs had grown lame. I extended my hand to greet him. He was in high spirits, preferring to address me in English.

Though he seemed to be full of beans, Mangope showed no real sign of improvement. If anything, his condition was getting worse. He was clueless as to who I was. For some strange reason, he was convinced that I was the owner of the lodge.

“How is business?” he asked. “How is this hotel doing compared with others like it?”

A rather embarrassed Keabaitse intervened, telling her father that I was not the hotelier. But the questions continued to come thick and fast. At this point I gave up on the interview. If ever there were doubts, this was the clearest indication that Mangope was not on a road to recovery.

We had hardly been there together for 10 minutes when he started hinting that he wanted to retire to his house, about 30km away.

“I’m cold,” he said repeatedly.

Keabaitse offered an apology. I nodded in acknowledgement. She helped her father to his feet and brought the cane closer. Mangope wobbled into the bathrooms with the help of the walking stick before they headed home.

I later learnt that Mangope suffered from dementia, a mental condition that involves a decline in memory or other thinking abilities. The decline is severe enough to reduce the ability to perform everyday activities.

“His memory fails him. It is to be expected,” Violet [Mangope’s wife] told me much later. “He forgets some people, unless you were very close to him.”

She added: “He is well and does manage to walk without the cane, but he tires easily. He sits down to rest after a short walk before continuing again.”

Although I saw Mangope several other times after this meeting, I never attempted to interview him again.

It had been difficult for me to reconcile the character of this Mangope with that of the man who rose meteorically from the dusty streets of his poverty-stricken rural village to become one of South Africa’s most powerful, cunning and influential political figures of the 20th century.

The Mangope I had been interacting with was a far cry from the man that gave former president Nelson Mandela and his peers headaches prior to and during the Codesa talks, on the eve of democracy.

He was weak and helpless, a shadow of his former self.

Unfortunately, in many ways, his state of being was a sad metaphor for his eventful political career. He took to the murky world of politics like a duck to water. His career shot up astronomically in the late 1970s and reached its prime a decade later, before things took a spectacular tumble in the early 1990s.

Although he did attempt a comeback, Mangope largely remained trapped in the political wilderness.

This is an edited extract from a book manuscript Segalwe is writing on Mangope’s life

Read more on:    lucas mangope  |  book extract

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