Nelson Mandela was 43 years old when he went abroad for the first time, in January 1962, controlling his nerves as he drove across the border into what was then Bechuanaland and is now Botswana.
He was a far cry from today’s blasé travellers, for whom a hop by air to Maputo or a bus ride to Windhoek is nothing to get excited about.
Mandela was already a long way down his personal road that would lead to Robben Island, the Union Buildings, and global reverence.
He had been living underground in South Africa where the security net was starting to close around him and other leaders of the African National Congress (ANC).
In those days, Nelson Mandela was not a household name by any means, and certainly not in the newly independent countries of Africa where he would spend the next months, under the pseudonym David Motsamayi.
He was at times dejected by the popularity which the ANC’s rival, the Pan-Africanist Congress, enjoyed in more radical African presidencies. Julius Nyerere advised him in Dar es Salaam, kindly but firmly, to put the revolution on hold until Robert Sobukwe was a free man again and able to take charge.
Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah didn’t even bother to receive him in Accra, such was the ambient mood of scepticism about the ANC on that first African odyssey.
Mandela and his travelling companions, who sometimes included Oliver Tambo, spent hard hours trying to dispel the view that the ANC was too multiracial, too Xhosa and too Communist.
“There are many who say they (the Pan Africanist Congress) may be naïve but they are the only organisation in South Africa that is in step with the rest of Africa,” Mandela wrote during his African travels. He pressed on, criss-crossing Africa to promote and explain the ANC and to raise money for its infant armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe.
His journey, from Tanganyika (now Tanzania) to Egypt, from Sierra Leone to Mali, and many stops in between, was an eye-opening adventure. Lions in the bush, whites and blacks rubbing shoulders in hotel bars, and fighting a wave of panic as he boarded an Ethiopian Airways plane at Khartoum airport and saw that the pilot was black. In his autobiography, a Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela
described how he quickly pulled himself together. “I had fallen into the apartheid mindset, thinking Africans were inferior.”
The fundraising went well. His hosts donated $5 000 here, $5 000 there, with a few plane tickets and passports thrown in.
Guinea’s Sekou Toure sent over a fat suitcase of cash to Mandela and Tambo’s hotel. Unfortunately it was the wrong kind of cash – unconvertible Guinean francs – but a sprint to the Czech embassy found a diplomat friend of Tambo’s who was ready to trade it into a more useful currency.
Mandela was dazzled by Ethiopia’s tiny and magnetic emperor, Haile Selassie, and he thought the battle-hardened Algerian guerrillas were role models for the military force which the ANC would have to build if it was to make any dent in apartheid’s iron shell. Both countries agreed to give training and weapons, and Mandela himself spent eight weeks being trained by the Ethiopians, handling firearms for the first time.
Mythical, Biblical Ethiopia had always occupied a special place in Mandela’s imagination and he looked forward to going there more than anywhere else.
“I felt I would be visiting my own genesis, unearthing the roots of what made me an African,” he wrote.
The ANC smuggled him back into South Africa to help launch a militarised struggle. Instead, he was arrested at Rivonia and his long nights in prison began.
Africans heard about him gradually, like the rest of the world, through speeches, music and the ANC in exile. But the seeds he planted during that trip in 1962 flourished; Africa’s moral support for sanctions and boycotts against South Africa was pretty much unanimous. Cote d’Ivoire was one of the few exceptions with President Felix Houphouet-Boigny stubbornly steering a course of positive engagement with Pretoria.
In numerous countries, schools and roads were named after Mandela. There were scholarships for young South Africans in African exile. And the rich states – oil producers such as Libya and Nigeria – donated substantial amounts of money to the cause.
When he was released in 1990, Mandela flew around like a joyous bird, seeming to land in every country on every continent.
I was in west and east Africa during those years and vividly remember the jubilant scenes wherever Madiba touched down, to deliver the same message: “Here I am! Thank you for your support during all those years!”
One felt that the crowds hoped the sheer passion of their welcome to Mandela the hero would give their own shoddily elected presidents something to mull over the next time their motorcades swept through deserted streets.
Most leaders accepted that they just had to grin and bear it when they were outshone by the Madiba sun although Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe was one who could seldom conceal his pique.
There was nothing forced about the panache and the emotion of Mandela’s return to Africa in the 1990s, 30 years after his tour. But his hand was much less sure when it came to dealing with the continent’s crises and conflicts.
Of course, expectations were far too high and it was clear that his government’s priorities would have to be domestic ones. His foreign policy advisers were either ANC idealogues, whose understanding of African reality seemed to be stuck in the sixties, or former servants of apartheid who looked cruelly out of place.
President Mandela and his team were metaphorically lost at sea in 1997 when South Africa’s mediation during the collapse of the then Zaire foundered embarrassingly. Peace talks were held on board the SAS Outeniqua – an ice-breaking vessel, appropriately enough – but the photographs of Mandela’s pained expression as he sat between a scowling President Mobutu Sese Seko and a shifty-looking Laurent Kabila tell an eloquent story of failure.
Two years earlier, Mandela and his aides miscalculated tragically when they convinced themselves that quiet diplomacy would persuade the worst dictator in Nigeria’s history, General Sani Abacha, to spare the life of Ken Saro-Wiwa.
The writer and activist had fought for his Ogoni people against the environmental destruction caused by the oil industry. Mandela’s government was leading the international campaign to save him from the gallows. Abacha picked his moment, having Saro-Wiwa hanged in Port Harcourt prison while Mandela was in New Zealand, the centre of attention at his first Commonwealth summit.
Saro-Wiwa’s son, Ken Wiwa, had flown to Auckland at his father’s request to try to get Mandela to take a tougher, public stance with Abacha. The desperate young man was ignored, the writer was put to death with eight comrades and a furious Mandela was instrumental in getting Nigeria suspended from the Commonwealth.
“I suspect that when Mandela came out fighting after my father was executed, he was mad at the humiliation and at the sullying of his hard-earned reputation,” Ken Wiwa wrote in his moving book, In the Shadow of a Saint.
I remember Tunis 1994, and Mandela’s first Organisation of African Unity summit as South Africa’s president. It was an inspiring moment but my strongest memory was of the fear and anguish on the faces of Rwandese delegates as they telephoned home for news, one month into the genocide and while the slaughter of 800 000 people was in full flow.
Yet Mandela’s humanity lifted some of the darkness in Tunis.
While his po-faced peers hid behind shields of bodyguards, I remember Madiba almost ambling through the hotel lobby with a smile and a wave for everyone, stopping for photographs with the cleaners and bellhops.
» Nick Kotch is a journalist and Africa commentator based in Johannesburg.