Tunde Fagbenle: Conversations with Nelson Mandela

by Tunde Fagbenle


NM: Wasn’t it your Chief Obafemi Awolowo, by the way, one of Africa’s greatest political thinkers, though unappreciated sufficiently in his lifetime, who said: “It isn’t life that matters, but the courage you bring to it”? I never for once wavered in my belief that I would not die in prison.

I plunged straight into the questions; we didn’t have all the time in the world.  Ten minutes max, I had been forewarned. The window of opportunity to meet with Nelson Mandela The Great was a dream; one which any columnist or journalist in the world would give anything to have. Although it was already one year since Madiba, as he is fondly called by his kinsfolk – Tata Madiba (father Madiba), quit as President of South Africa, his image still loomed large and many considered him President-Emeritus, father of democratic South Africa and father of the successor president, Thabo Mbeki. Madiba was on a private visit to the UK.

NM: Yes, Tunde, go ahead with your questions, and sorry you had to wait that long. As you can see it’s a pretty rough day. Well, all days are rough. God asks us to smoothen them as we go along. (chuckles). Hear you are from Nigeria, right? So what are you doing here in England?

TF: My family lives here, Sir. And I was here running my newspaper some years back. That’s when and how James and I became friends. Being out of office one year doesn’t seem like it has reduced your workload: visits, engagements, etc. You could not completely have washed your hands off directing the affairs of South Africa, could you?

NM: O, yes, I have. I am not indispensable. What you see are natural consequences of unnatural circumstances. (Smiles).

TF: Tata Madiba, you were in jail for 27 years. That is a long time by any yardstick. And yet you came out looking not quite the worse for it. Were the conditions in there not exactly horrible and were you sure you would be out one day and strong enough to continue with the ANC struggle against apartheid where you left it? If so, what gave you such confidence?

NM: Wasn’t it your Chief Obafemi Awolowo, by the way, one of Africa’s greatest political thinkers, though unappreciated sufficiently in his lifetime, who said: “It isn’t life that matters, but the courage you bring to it”? I never for once wavered in my belief that I would not die in prison.

And so, as much as possible and as much as I could be allowed by the authorities, I exercised my body, and dwelt my mind not on the circumstance of prison but on the pursuit of solutions to the political, social, and economic problems that beset my people, and I concentrated my mind on how to set my people free from those shackles – of apartheid and of poverty! Each day brought new thinking; each day brought new insight – while the days were going by! (Smiles).

Also remember, I was not alone in my situation, there were great leaders like Walter Sisulu, Andrew Mlangeni, Ahmed Kathrada and Raymond Mhiaba. You must also remember that there are men in history who have served lifetime imprisonment and untold deprivations for their beliefs, political or religious. There was, therefore, the buoying thought that whatever you were going through paled into insignificance to what those “saints” have endured.

TF: So you were actually able to fill your time with sporting and academic activities?

NM: O yes, it was ‘paradise’, would you like to go there too? (Laughs).  Well, yes, especially when I was moved from the notorious and despicable Robben Island to Polismoor Prison and lastly Victor Verster Prison. But I was in Robben Island for 18 years, mostly spent in a damp concrete 8’ by 7’ cell with a straw mat on which to sleep. Even there I was able to continue (on and off) with my truncated LLB degree studies, which took over 20 years to complete. (Smiles). I also studied Islam and Afrikaans. Games and sports, like football, made us prisoners feel alive, even triumphant.

TF: Many see you as a saint, some as a god, an African god like one of those many ancient Roman gods, because to have gone through 27 years in prison and come out loving and forgiving your jailors, your enemies, the enemies of your people, is truly a god-like disposition. How do you see yourself, tata?

NM: (Laughs) Are you kidding me, Tunde? A god? What religion are you? Christianity? Islam? Buddhism? Freethinking? It is a hyperbole, blasphemous hyperbole to allude to me as a god. But thank you. But you forget one thing, and it is easy to forget that when we are blinded by anger, anger provoked by injustice, to forget that those you call “enemies” are also my people – black or white. We are all South Africans who have nowhere else to go and probably have an equal claim to the country. Equal claim. The problem starts when some group believe that they have more claim or more right than the other. But once you appreciate that basis of equality – before God and man – then it is easy to empathise and compromise.

If you are of great learning, then you realise that love conquers all. All religions, all the holy books tell us so.

TF: But it appears you were more forgiving and loving of your Afrikaner jailors and, er, enemies, than you were of your former wife Winnie. Many people believe that nothing Winnie could have done, no crime or failings, be it infidelity, disloyalty, or whatever, that could not have been forgiven.

NM: (Ridges of frown on his brow).

TF: I apologise, Sir, if it is a touchy and private issue.

NM: And you should. (Closes his eyes). I forgave Winnie.

TF: You divorced her.

NM: Two different things. I love Winnie and understood most of what she did, or had to do. She was young when I went to prison. And I was away for 27 years. I am old enough to be her father. You must remember that. But there are some things which, when persisted in, become incompatible with the greater good. The divorce was an “act of love”.

TF: I do not understand.

NM: You are not meant to either. (A little smile). What was that saying: “If you love a thing, set it free; if it comes back to you it is yours; if it doesn’t, you never owned it” Yes?

TF: Yes, Sir, but couldn’t the marriage have been kept at all cost, for the sake of the children and…

NM: (Cuts in) And appearances? Pretence? Then live in disharmony and dis-equilibrium? We never spent one night in the same bed since my release. She wanted, needed, to be free. You have brought up a topic that arouses the greatest pain in my heart. And now the interview is over.

TF: But, Sir, …

(A knock on the door. The Great Mandela got up. I did too. The rap on the door repeated. My head swooned. The morning light shone harshly through the window. I rubbed my eyes. The “dream interview” was indeed that – a dream!)

PS: Most humiliating for Madiba was Winnie’s letter to her young lover, Mpofu, published in a newspaper before their divorce. Angered that Mpofu was “unfaithful” to her by having an affair with a white woman, Winnie ranted: “Before I am through with you, you are going to learn a bit of honesty and sincerity and know what betrayal of one’s love means to a woman. Remember always how much you have hurt and humiliated me…I keep telling you the situation is deteriorating at home, you are not bothered because you are satisfying yourself every night with a woman. I won’t be your bloody fool.”

(Credits: 1. Wikipedia. 2. “Knowing Mandela” by John Carlin).




This post is published with permission from Tunde Fagbenle


Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.

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