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Madiba And Me (2007)

Peter Davis

The letter I receive in the spring of 2007 begins: “Dear Peter…”

It is signed, “Ken Livingstone, Mayor of London”.

(Co-signed Richard Attenborough. Lord Richard Attenborough. These are surely names to be reckoned with.) 

Now, I was not aware that the Mayor of London and I were on first name terms. Indeed, we have never met.  However, I have followed, tangentially, through the years, the career of Ken Livingstone, and the least that I can say of Ken is that anyone who can invoke the hatred of Tony Blair qualifies to call me by my first name.

Reading on (in bold type): “Invitation to the unveiling of the Nelson Mandela statue on Parliament Square.

Well, this is clearly an invitation to send money. But I search the letter in vain for any such request, neither actual nor potential. All right, then it’s a hoax. But to what purpose? Why would anyone want to trick me into making a trip to London for the unveiling on the 29th August?

Search as I might, I can think of no reason. This was not even junk email of the type with which I am deluged every day. So, I respond to confirm my place (“places are strictly limited…”) before actually committing to buying the plane ticket – desirous as they are of my presence, they are not so desirous that they are willing to shell out fourteen hundred bucks.

Mysterious as the letter is (and it turns out to be quite genuine), it is less mysterious than why I should have been chosen for this honour, for honour it undoubtedly is. I can think of dozens of people of my own acquaintance more meritorious. I scan my memory for my relationship with Nelson Mandela, for there is one, of sorts. During the 45 year period of apartheid rule I had made a number of documentaries against apartheid; one of these was a biography of Nelson Mandela; another was on Winnie Mandela. I fast backwards, through memories for me still vivid,  but which have lost their impact for a new generation…

Anti-Apartheid Demonstration

Going through my records, I find photos from an anti-apartheid demonstration in Trafalgar Square dated March, 1963.  It was protesting against sales of weapons by Britain’s then Conservative  government  to the Nationalist government  of South Africa.  The British government was at that time under Harold Macmillan, the same Macmillan who three years earlier had heralded the “Winds of Change” blowing through Africa – a wind whose force in South Africa would be substantially weakened by these made-in-Britain weapons.

Among the speakers at that time in Trafalgar Square, on the base of the statue of Lord Nelson opposite the location of the prestigious South African Embassy, was Harold Wilson, leader of the Labour Party, who next year would oust Macmillan to become Prime Minister.  In postwar Britain, where I grew up, the South African question was an adjunct of national politics, with the Conservatives  strongly supportive of even an apartheid South Africa outside the Commonwealth, and Labour opposed on the grounds of human rights.  Of course, it was a class as well as a party division: Conservative elements had substantial business interests in South African, starting in the mines but also in the agricultural land above, and in the new factories that were springing up in what was an economic boom based on cheap labour.  Business in South Africa was at that time run largely by men who held British passports, and who were equally at home in Cape Town and London.  Their relatives – if not they themselves – sat in the House of Lords or the House of Commons.  “Kith and kin” was often intoned by Tories when defending South Africa.  Few, if any, in the Labour Party had such ties. 

In my photos I make out on the rostrum also the face of Oliver Tambo. Tambo was a close friend of Mandela, had been his law partner, and was now his political partner, for Tambo led the African National Congress in exile, while it could be said that Mandela was the lost leader, imprisoned in Pretoria, and a year later to be in internal exile on Robben Island, further isolated in the block for special prisoners.

I would have forgotten my attendance at that Trafalgar Square rally in 1963 were it not for the photos.  But I never forgot South Africa, or apartheid, or Nelson Mandela. I became a documentary film-maker, and in 1974 had the chance to go to South Africa to make a piece for CBS’s ‘Sixty Minutes’ on gambling and sex in Swaziland. Swaziland, which borders South Africa, at that time served as a kind of safety valve for white South Africans who felt restricted by the puritanical laws under which gambling and interracial sex were forbidden in the Republic. They could make the short trip over the border to indulge their tastes in relative freedom, some even kept black  mistresses there. When the short documentary was completed, ‘Sixty Minutes’ complained that it had “too much tits and ass”, about a couple of shots of a striptease dancer that nowadays would not cause a raised eyebrow. So I let them excise the shots, on condition that they take my name off. This in fact served my purpose: I did not want to attract the attention of the South African Embassy in Washington - which would undoubtedly be monitoring the programme – to my name.

I went back again in 1976, this time to do a history of Afrikaner Nationalism, the force that had acted to unite the white Afrikaners against the ‘swart gevaar’, the threat of being swamped by the majority black population. This film was the story of how Afrikaner unity was finally achieved in the 1948 election that introduced the institution of apartheid, strict segregation by law, to South Africa. I called this film White Laager, after the icon central to Boer mythology of the circle of covered wagons under attack by black hordes. I followed this documentary with its corollary, the long history of black opposition to white rule, Generations of Resistance.

By the early ‘eighties, Mandela had been on Robben Island for two decades, convicted of planning armed revolution.  Apartheid had had its difficulties, like the Soweto Uprising of 1976, but it did not seem in imminent danger of collapse. It had staunch friends in Ronald Reagan in the U.S. and Margaret Thatcher in the U.K. For the former, Mandela was a communist terrorist, the latter had contemptuously described him as “irrelevant”. Neither America’s leader nor Britain’s had any real problem with the insult to humanity that was apartheid. They were comfortable with a regime that they considered the only real bulwark against Communism on the African continent, a regime that had close, if covert, ties with NATO. If hairline cracks were beginning to appear even inside the fortress of Afrikanerdom, these were not perceptible from Washington or London.

By the beginning of the ‘eighties, I had already made four films on aspects of apartheid, without perceiving any real change in that regime. Now I had the idea of making a documentary about Nelson and Winnie as a couple whose personal relationship bound them together, but which also made them a powerful political force. In 1982, Mandela had been moved to Pollsmoor Prison on the mainland, but he was still voiceless - it was a punishable offence even to quote from his writings. He could be visited almost exclusively and infrequently by family members, and this made of Winnie not only his link with the outside world, but his voice.

This was in an era when torture still had a bad name, and while Mandela was not physically tortured while in confinement, he was placed under a great deal of psychological pressure by threats against his family, so much so that the African National Congress asked Winnie to take her children and leave South Africa. Winnie refused. In doing so, she refused the discipline of her own organization, the organization of which her husband was a leader. This determination to go her own way turned out to be a choice of incalculable value to the ANC, and in the end, a fatal flaw that would almost almost destroy her. But that was well into the future. Now, in the early ‘eighties, she was a towering figure, one whom African-American actresses fought to portray; but no-one played Winnie as well as Winnie herself.

So I set out to document this partnership. My biggest problem was that I was persona non grata in South Africa – I had been briefly imprisoned and deported in 1976, and a subsequent attempt to cross into South Africa from Botswana had been stopped at the border, so I was on their no-go list. But I set out to exploit a weakness in apartheid that could allow me entrance. The South African design to get rid of unwanted blacks, as well as the age-old device of “Divide and Rule”, had led to the creation of a number of “homelands”.

Under this policy, all blacks were designated a place of permanent abode to which, in the fullness of time, they were supposed to “return” – even though half of South Africa’s black population had been born outside these “tribal areas”, in areas now designated “white”. The aim of the architects of apartheid was to create so-called “independent” states for which white South Africa would abdicate all responsibility, but which would in fact be ruled by puppets whose strings would be pulled from Pretoria. They were given the derisory name of “Bantustans”. Unfortunately for white South Africa, only a couple of homelands had rulers who would go along with this policy; one of them was the Transkei - by now an independent country recognized by almost no-one except South Africa. 


And in fact, the Transkei was where I needed to go. The Transkei was the birthplace of both Nelson and Winnie, and I wanted to start at their roots. If the Transkei would accept me, then – according to the logic of apartheid’s own policy – the dominant power could not deny me access. So I wrote to Kaiser Matanzima, State President of the Transkei, asking his permission to come to the Transkei to shoot my documentary on Mandela. The kicker was, that Nelson Mandela was Matanzima’s uncle. Although their politics diverged radically, they were still family. Matanzima responded with the permission I sought.

The only way to get to the Transkei was via South Africa.  My arrival at Jan Smuts airport caused the officials some concern, but since I would remain in transit to catch my connecting flight to Umtata in the Transkei, South African immigration had to let me continue. Now, Umtata was where I had been arrested nine years earlier, at the classic hour of midnight, by South African security police. But that was then, when the Transkei was still a “homeland” ruled by South Africa, and this was now, with the Transkei an “independent country”.   And this was where my search for Mandela began.

I already had learnt much of Mandela, from people like South African activist and historian Mary Benson.   Mary was a key link with forces outside the country that sympathised with the ANC. She described for me one incident after a meeting with him in South Africa, when he was underground:

“He was disguised as a chauffeur, with a peaked cap and a long white  sort of overall coat, and he offered me a ride home. So he was  the chauffeur in the front, and I was the madam in the back of the car.  But it was a most terrible rackety old car, I suppose the most the ANC could afford at the time, and I was terrified that we were going to break down, and here, Mandela, the most wanted  man in the country, would be discovered.  But he seemed completely unaware of this danger, and to have such courage, and a rather lighthearted approach. I had this impression of a man so full of vitality and optimism, and ebullience…”

A little later, in 1962, when Mandela left South Africa illegally, he visited Mary Benson in her little one-room flat in London. During that visit, Mary showed him around London, and she took a handful of historically priceless photos of him. Mary, crippled by arthritis, lived out her days in that London flat; she could perhaps have lived more comfortably, but this tiny flat had felt Mandela’s presence. She still felt it, and could not bear to leave. She died there in 2000, after the great changes in her home country that she had fought for, a human rights campaigner to the end, one of the greatest - she had been an indispensable link in the chain of defence to the outside world during the Rivonia Trial - whose memory is regretfully much neglected.

Of course, it was the radical politician that dominated the image of Mandela, the young man whose dynamism had propelled the ANC in the ‘fifties and into the ‘sixties; the other dominant image was of the Man Who Wasn’t There, the man who, by the time I stepped off the plane in Umtata in the Transkei, had been in jail for 22 years, and who had radiated an enormous moral strength during that period because of his refusal to give in to his jailers. The man whose charisma was beyond the grasp of a Ronald Reagan or a Margaret Thatcher, but which was felt by millions in South Africa, and millions more beyond…

There in the Transkei, I began with a visit to Qunu, the place where Mandela grew up. This was a cluster of the typical thatched mud houses, whitewashed, on a yellow hillside – this was the southern winter, and the landscape was predominantly burnt yellow. An ancient relative, Arthur Mandela, walked us briskly over the stony soil to show us the spot where Mandela’s rondavel  had once stood.  It had been pulled down, and only the plot remained. But the relative knew precisely where it had stood, where the invisible boundary line was, which were Nelson’s fields. There is an African expression that is translated as “son of the soil”, a term of approbation which means not only that you are rooted deep in Africa, in African tradition, but that you protect that soil, that you are worthy of it. It is a term that goes beyond patriotism, which is a sentimental and often senseless devotion – or mouthing of devotion – to a piece of cloth. It is a realistic recognition that without that soil, you are nothing. There could never be any doubt but that Nelson Mandela was a “son of the soil”.

Closeness to the soil was confirmed with a visit to Mandela’s older sister, Mabel Notancu, who lived some kilometers from Nelson’s birthplace. I found Mabel in her mealie patch, a figure in a flower-printed dress seated on yellow corn-stalks, laying out ears of white corn. Pumpkins from her field were ripening on the roof of her house. She glowed with strength. Nelson was of royal Thembu blood, his father a minor local chief, but this did not imply privilege or elitism so much as obligation. Like other boys, Nelson tended the family cattle, which meant taking them out to graze in the morning, and bringing them back to the kraal at night.  It was his father who gave him the name of “Rolihlahla”, which in the original Xhosa apparently means “someone who shakes the branches”. The word has also been translated as “a troublemaker” – which made Mandela’s father extraordinarily percipient. This is how Mabel described Mandela’s early years to  me (translated from the Xhosa):

“Father’s health began to fail him.  But father, as he was aware how bright his son was, invited  Paramount Chief Jongintaba to a meeting.  As a result, Chief Jongintaba took all the responsibility for raising Nelson. This is how father put it: ‘I place this your servant  Rohlihlahla in your hands.’  I understand what father wanted.  He knew that Rolihlahla would be of great service to his nation.  Chief Jongintaba said to father, ‘Well, grandfather. I am going to take him with me to the Great Place, and I am going to ensure that he goes to school.’ So Chief Jongintaba took Rohlihlahla with him to the Great Place, where he lived himself.”

Paramount Chief Jongintaba’s Great Place is a sprawling rustic bungalow, by no means grandiose, much like a modest Boer farm-house. Nelson lived in his own whitewashed thatched rondavel  close by. A single room with two small windows, the furniture – a simple small table, chair and single bed - may well be the same as those from Mandela’s occupancy, although there would have been two beds, and another chair – Rolihlahla shared with another young man, a relative. Mabel continued:

“As father was old and had died, his clothes were given to my brother, and he wore those at school.  The other kids used to laugh at him, but my brother took no notice. He was determined to get an education.  It was Chief Jongintaba who came to his rescue, with new clothes that made him look presentable.”

At the Great House we came across an unpublished photo of Mandela at about age 18, taken by an African photographer, P.K.A. Gaeshwe. He is certainly wearing the suit given to him by Chief Jongintaba. It is the portrait of a young man of astonishing self-composure, someone completely sure of himself and of his right to be in this world. He was so sure of himself, that, given the opportunity afforded so few blacks of attending a university, Fort Hare, he squandered it on a point of conscience, and was consequently expelled from the university. He refused to apologize and return to Fort Hare, as Chief Jongintaba ordered him to do, and to compound his disobedience, he fled from the Great House to Johannesburg, to avoid marrying the woman the Chief had chosen for him. This gesture of disobedience involved one of the few unworthy acts of his life: to finance his flight, together with his rondavel mate he stole and sold one of Chief Jongintaba’s cattle.

He made his way to Alexandra, one of Johannesburg’s black townships. There, he got work on the mines, as a night watchman, guarding the compound gate. It is hard to imagine Mandela, brandishing a knobkerry as a sign of authority, doing the dirty work for the white baas, and he did not keep that job very long.  He was soon taken under the wing of Walter Sisulu, who became his mentor, an indispensable figure in Mandela’s life. With Sisulu, Mandela’s political education began, and it was Sisulu who set him on the path to becoming a lawyer.  Eventually, they would go through the Treason and Rivonia trials together, and end up on Robben Island.

Researching my Mandela documentary, I came across some footage I had acquired. It is of unknown provenance. It is very short, maybe 20 seconds, and shows a tall, well-dressed black man accompanied by a white man, whom he is obviously conducting around a township. The couple stroll up to a woman carrying a baby, and the black man introduces the white man to her. The white man seems to address the woman cordially – this is silent footage. He is holding a small book, which I suspect is a Bible, and I imagine that he is from some religious organization working in the townships. It is possible that he is the Rev. Michael Scott, a great anti-apartheid campaigner.

I had seen this few seconds of 16mm film a number of times, but one day it struck me that the black man could be Mandela. I showed it to Mary Benson, who confirmed it. What is extraordinary about this is that the film where this single shot came from had nothing to identify the man as Nelson, and it is, to my knowledge, the first known film of him to exist - just as the Gaeshwe portrait is peerhaps the first know photograph (there is another of Mandela about the same time, in a groups shot taken at his school).  It is tantalising because it is certainly not the only piece of film that was shot of this occasion – why would it be?  But where is the rest of it?  And why was it shot at all?

The film is clearly from the early to mid ’fifties, when Mandela and Tambo, were establishing themselves as black lawyers willing to defend people trapped by apartheid laws. There were other black lawyers, but in the Transkei, Chief Mtikrakra described their special appeal:

“Everyone came to know about him, and  black people were very enthusiastic – Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho, Tswana  - all were proud to see a black man who was a lawyer. They were so popular, that their offices were always crowded.  Even at home, after work-hours, Mandela found many of his clients waiting for him.  They always preferred to be defended by the Mandela and Tambo law firm.”

There cannot be any doubt that his constant confrontation with the legal system gave Mandela an enhanced awareness of the infringements of human rights embedded within the apartheid laws from which his rural upbringing had largely protected him up to now. For a natural leader like Mandela, this led inevitably to political activism. He joined the African National Congress, which had existed since before the First World War, but which was now finding a new driving force among the younger members, the Youth League. During this first decade of apartheid, Mandela became deeply involved in the Defiance Campaign and the Congress of the People, actions which were turning the ANC  into a mass movement. The government would react by arresting, in 1956, 156 ANC members – including Mandela - for High Treason.

Another other important piece of film came to light in my research for an earlier film. It was not exactly lost, but oddly enough, had never been used. The film was pulled out for me by Rusty Bernstein, who had been one of the accused with Mandela at the Treason Trial, and later at the Rivonia Trial. Rusty was the only one to get off at the Rivonia Trial, although he was certainly as implicated as the rest.  After his acquittal, he left South Africa for London, where he continued in the resistance.

What Rusty produced for me was a film that had been shot on the last day of the 5-year-long Treason Trial – 29 March, 1961 - when all were acquitted. Some of it was shot inside the court-room when the acquittal was announced, from an upper level, the level of the  spectators’ gallery. I cannot understand how someone could have smuggled a sizable 16mm camera into the court where there was obviously heavy security, and at the strategic moment pointed it toward the judges without detection. The only explanation can be that there was so much jubilation that the police were distracted. 

The Transkei is home to the Xhosa people, the second largest of South Africa’s fourteen or more ethnic groups. Although the larger Zulu nation has received notoriety in being depicted as “warlike” in numerous historical novels and films, their neighbours the Xhosa were no less determined in their resistance to white rule, and produced many leading figures in the African National Congress. The Transkei when I was there was filled with men who had worked with Rolihlahla in the numerous protest campaigns of the ‘fifties, and continued afterwards. These were men who were under observation by Matanzima as potential trouble-makers, and who had to be met in secret. Most poignant was a meeting with a man still young who had not long returned from a 7-year spell on Robben Island. He told me how he had actually been glad when he had received his sentence, because he felt that it would give him the chance to meet Mandela. (It was on the island that the name of Mandela’s clan, “Madiba”, was adopted as a nomenclature denoting affection and respect.) But when this young man got to the island, he found that a handful of leaders like Madiba were kept in isolation in separate cells, not allowed to mingle with the other prisoners. However, he told me how a few days before he was due to be released, he had been smuggled in to talk with Mandela, who had given him instructions on what he had to do when he came out. Of course, there was constant ebb and flow of prisoners. This was the way leadership was maintained even behind bars, decisions made and disseminated, on a remote island.

The Transkei was a homeland of divided loyalties, where family and clan might hold stronger claims than national politics. Matanzima was a quisling leader, but he still respected his uncle, Nelson.  Winnie, part of the 500-strong Madikizela family in Pondoland, had to defy the wishes of her father to marry Nelson. Her father was part of the Matanzima administration, which was anathema to the African National Congress, and he had warned her strongly against the marriage.

Since I was shooting a documentary about both Nelson and Winnie, and since Winnie was the only one not currently in jail, an interview  with  her was vital. But she was across the border in South Africa, a border closed to me. One morning, we drove away from the capital Umtata to Bizana to visit Winnie’s birthplace.  The country town of Bizana was a centre for TEBA, the organization that recruited workers for the mines, and there was a long queue of men in woolen hats, blankets wrapped around them against the winter cold, waiting in the mud to sign on for their 2-year stint as migrant workers to the Republic. It was this area of the Transkei, Pondoland, that had risen in revolt against white authority in 1960. The revolt and its violent suppression got none of the attention from the outside world of the Sharpeville massacre, which happened in the same year.

By an astonishing coincidence, at that very moment Winnie happened to be visiting Bizana. The authorities had given her a few days’ dispensation to attend the funeral of a relative. We tracked her down just as she was about to return to Brandfort, the town in the Orange Free State to which she had been exiled, to get her out of Soweto, her political base. Just before she was whisked away in her minibus, she had time to utter “Come to Brandfort.” 

It was tantamount to a royal command.  

I discussed with the other two members of my team about crossing the border, and they both agreed that we should give it a try. We arranged to leave early one morning, crossing from the Transkei into the Orange Free State at a border crossing that was supposed to be relatively unwatched. But the day before we were due to leave, Umtata blew up. Specifically, the oil storage depot for the city was sabotaged.  We watched lugubriously as the plumes of smoke rose above the city, and police vans dashed everywhere, sirens wailing.  There was no obvious reason, and consequently no obvious culprits, for this sabotage. As far as we were concerned, this was irrelevant: we assumed that the border posts would have extra guards on duty to catch suspicious travelers. We did some hard thinking. If we were to visit Winnie, it would have to be within the next few days, because we were due to leave.  It was now or never.

We gave it one day for things to calm down a little, and then we left. We drove the 450 miles to Brandfort, a 10-hour journey, without seeing a single police car. Our only problem was when we stopped in a little dorp and tried to get served breakfast in an Afrikaans café. The owner refused to serve Kenneth, our Xhosa soundman, so we drove on. 

We arrived in the white town of Brandfort, and then had to ask the way to the black township. It must have been perfectly obvious what we were there for. We found Winnie at her small cinderblock house busy helping a young student with her schoolwork, but she broke off to receive us. She was, as always, charming.  We started the interview, arranging with one of Winnie’s friends to have each 10-minute can of film spirited away as soon as we had shot it, in case of accidents. Halfway into the interview, Winnie raised her hand – a car had stopped outside the house. “The Special Branch,” cautioned Winnie.

I switched off the floodlights, although it was already too late.  But our luck held, and incredibly, they drove away again. We never knew if they had bothered to call in the number on our rented car, which was parked outside, but in any case, there was no further problem. That is, not with the Special Branch – we had sabotage from within.  At one point, Winnie was talking about Xhosa men. Not specifically accusing Nelson, Winnie declared, from a woman’s point of view, “Oh, Xhosa men are the worst men in the world!” At which point Kenneth Mdana, whose masculine pride had been offended, switched off the tape-recorder in protest.  With difficulty, he was persuaded to switch it back on. (I did not know it then, but a much more serious sabotage was in store for me later.) Completing the interview, we drove to where our exposed film was hidden, then out of the township, and away from Brandfort. We were so cocksure by now that we stopped in Bloemfontein, a large white city, and stood ourselves a dinner at a first-class restaurant, where Kenneth had no trouble being served together with us.  We drove back home to Umtata through the night.

Passing through Johannesburg airport a few days later on our way out, we met a group of black Americans, civil rights activists, which included Bayard Rustin, who wanted  to do the same as we had done, cross into South Africa via the Transkei. We told them about our crossing route, which had been so successful. A while later, we heard that they had been detained at that crossing, and subjected to intense interrogation. I have to say that more than any canniness, skill, or acumen, luck played a major part in getting my South African documentaries done. Only a few months later, when Winnie was absent for a few days from her home in Brandfort, the house was torched. Through a South African stringer, I got film of Winnie picking her way through the smouldering ashes. I think we were the last to film her in that place before the fire; just as important, I had copied family photos of hers that were perhaps destroyed in the fire.

I had intended my documentary to be about Winnie and Nelson. But with Winnie being so palpably present, and Nelson reduced to a minor role by his absence in prison, her story took over; I renamed the documentary Winnie Mandela: Under Apartheid. The Winnie film was made under the auspices of the United Nations, the American National Black Programing Consortium (NBPC), and Swedish Television, for whom I had worked in the past. For broadcast in the United States, NBPC, which operated through the Public Broadcasting Service, was vital. Soon after signing a contract with them, Mable Haddock, who was the commissioning editor there, asked me if I would be willing to work with an African-American co-director, and of course I had no objection. This turned out to be one Stanley Nelson; since his sister, Jill Nelson, was a writer, she was engaged as part of the team.

It was agreed that we should have a two-pronged approach to filming in South Africa; after my return, Stanley and Jill Nelson were to go to South Africa to do some more filming. After her house in Brandfort was fire-bombed in 1985, Winnie had returned to her house in Soweto, and it was there that the Nelsons were to make contact with her, and film. Not long after their arrival in South Africa, I had what I took to be a somewhat panicky call from Stanley Nelson asking for help in some way - I took this to be a not unreasonable bout of paranoia, but in any case, there was nothing I could do to help, and said as much. My friend Kenneth Mdana was working with them, and soon after this conversation with Nelson, I received a call from Kenneth, who cryptically told me that these people were "not my friends".  I did not know what to make of this.

The Nelsons did manage to make contact with Winnie, and interview her. However, upon their return from South Africa, they refused to pass the film onto me for editing. I had no explanation for this. They put some kind of pressure on NBPC's Mable Haddock to the extent that she asked me essentially to give up the project and hand it over to the Nelsons. I had to make a critical decision: for the sake of getting the film completed, I was strongly tempted to hand it over the NBPC, which meant of course that I would have no further role, but would see the film, which I took to be an important tool in the struggle, completed.  But on further reflection, I saw that there was no guarantee that they would in fact complete the project - in fact, their behaviour indicated that there might well be further impediments. So I refused to hand over the materials I held.

I have to say that this was one of the most painful experiences of my life. I had had no contact with the Nelsons either in person or by any other means since their leaving for South Africa, only second-hand reports from Mabel. One day, I was on my way to an office in New York when the Nelsons happened to get on the same elevator as me. They both exited, deliberately, on the same floor as me, and shortly after they physically attacked me, only stopping when someone happened along to take an elevator. I don't recall that any words were uttered that might justify or even explain such an attack but there was clearly an overwhelming sense of hatred of me on their part.  As well as battered, I was baffled. 

I passed this information on to Mable Haddock, who I don't think believed me entirely.  However, a little later I got a phone call from Mable: the Nelsons had visited her in her home, and apparently threatened her enough physically to convince her of what I had related to her.  "You were right," said Mable.

In the absence of any kind of verbal or written exchange between the Nelsons and myself, I can only guess at the reasons for their hatred of me. I conjecture that they thought that no white man should be making a film about the Mandelas, thus, I believe them to have been guilty of racial hatred - or, that they used this to cloak their ambition to take over the project. I was certainly right not to have given in to the pressure to get me off the film, because in the name of this hatred, they had been willing to jeopardize the film itself.  This was an inexcusable act of betrayal of the greater cause of the anti-apartheid movement.

Mable Haddock then challenged the Nelsons to hand over their material to NBPC, taking the matter to arbitration, which we won, the Mandelas gave up the material, but to my chagrin, were given some financial compensation - in my view, they had broken their contract with NBPC, had delayed, if not completely sabotaged the project, and should not have been entitled to anything.  In the event, when editing my Winnie film, I used very little of their material. The film, Winnie Mandela: Under Apartheid went on to garner a number of international awards. 

Feeling bad about neglecting Nelson, I decided to make a separate documentary on him, which I would call Remember Mandela! Hard to believe as it may be now, at that time Nelson had been written off by his enemies in the West as a player in this struggle for South Africa’s soul. When the film was completed, I had a call from Tandi Gebache, daughter of Chief Luthuli (Chief Luthuli was one of the great ANC leaders).  She was with the American Friends Service Committee in Atlanta, and wanted to show my biography of Nelson on the opening night of the 1988 Democratic Convention -  which happened to coincide with Mandela’s seventieth birthday, July 18.  

I had no backing for this film, and it got no television screening in the United States, where I was living at the time. But it did quite well in non-television outlets. In those days, when we were still working with film, there were groups – political organizations, churches, libraries, universities, unions, independent theatres - that would rent a 16mm print and follow a screening with a discussion. This was an excellent form of consciousness-raising, and I don’t think that video is as effective a medium as film was in that regard. Video viewing is more of a personal and less of a group activity, and so less politically useful.

(But of course, the internet has opened up a whole expanding universe of possibilities for political activism.) 

At that time, 1988, I did not believe that Mandela would ever be released from prison.  I was sceptical that a democratic South Africa would come about in my lifetime.  Yet – for a complex of reasons, ranging from the increasingly frequent uprisings to the drought of investment capital – two years later,  Mandela was free, and elections were on the horizon.  In that year, 1990, I was allowed back into South Africa (though with an injunction not to film, which I ignored), and attended a great rally in Soweto sports stadium, at which Mandela was to speak.  He was seated next to Winnie on a platform framed by a red Communist Party of South Africa banner, flanked by flags bearing the African National Congress and Congress of South African Trade Unions insignia – the triumvirate of burgeoning people power in South Africa at that time.  But perhaps as an augury of the South Africa to come, the stadium also advertised “John Craig, for exclusive men’s wear”…  There was an ecstatic crowd, with none of the hostility that had over the last decade made the townships hazardous for whites to visit.  

I would next see Mandela address a smaller gathering at the Earth Summit in Johannesburg in 2002. By then, he was no longer president, but supremo emeritus. He was visibly frail, and had to be helped to the podium.  But his voice – and from that, one can adjudge, his spirit – was still strong.  He was the prophet honoured in his own country, and throughout the word.

Unveiling of the statue: The Ceremony

Mandela – much to my surprise, because of his frail condition – has made the trip to London, and spent the previous evening speaking to a gathering of black notables from the business, entertainment and sports world. Typically, Mandela appealed to the sense of responsibility of those he was speaking to, exhorting their concern about the alienation of black youth. Just as typically, the throwaway press next day thought the presence of model Naomi Campbell – taking time off from assaulting her employee with a cell-phone -  at that meeting was at least as important as that of Madiba himself.

August 29, 2007, the day of the unveiling dawns bright, full of promise. I had been concerned about a dress code, and emailed the Mayor of London to inquire, but had received  no response. I had passed on my concern to my South African friend Themba Tana, who had the brilliant idea that I should borrow some of his traditional African dress, which must be acceptable – even if the colour of the wearer might raise some eyebrows.  But Themba is more generously proportioned than I am, so I dress in a jacket and slacks that sort of match. 

I am staying with my brother in the suburbs south of London, and I take a commuter train up to Victoria Station. It is years, probably more than two decades, since I have visited London, so everything it new, and even fresh to the eye. The trains are clean and fast, not the grubby work-horses of my youth. The people on the train are younger, of various hues, certainly more of them are women than commuters of my day, and they seem, somehow, more focussed. This is the London (not the Britain, which is another story) that Thatcher and her disciple Blair have wrought. The new, clean, efficient, trains, suit it.

From Victoria, I walk at a leisurely pace to Parliament Square, and feel a certain smugness when I tell a policeman who wants to place me with the hoi-polloi on the wrong side of the barrier that I do indeed belong among the select on the other side, and brandish the invitation to prove it.

There must be maximum security – besides Mandela, Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Mayor Livingstone will be there, to mention only the leading luminaries – but the security is not visible, as it would be if this were America. The audience, on both sides of the barrier, is festive. The inner sanctum is filled with London celebrities, busily hugging each other. There are plenty of grey suits, but other dress is not out of place. The Rev. Jesse Jackson is there, and receiving a lot of attention, but I don’t recognize any others as famous Americans. I recognize a few actors, but know only two faces personally, both with direct links to Mandela.  One is that of Joel Joffe, whom I had interviewed 20 years ago for my film on Nelson. Joffe had been one of the lawyers defending Mandela at the Rivonia Trial, where Mandela was sentenced to life in prison. This is how Joffe described Mandela’s great speech to the court, which he had naturally discussed with his Defence Counsel. Joffe:  

“If he gave that speech, he was convicting  himself, he had to be convicted. And as he  went on - he went on for about one and a halfhours, as I recall the tension in the court grew more and more, and there was a silence, and in it, you could hear a pin drop right through it,  which is unusual, in fact, unique, in a speech of that sort, and Nelson read gently and softly, but firmly, right through to the end, he had glasses on at this stage, and then he came to the last sentence – um – and then he took off his glasses, and the famous ending to his speech was, ‘I have dedicated my life to achieving harmony in this country, and to fight for the rights of all persons, it is a belief which I hope to see achieved – “ and then he looked the judge straight in the eyes, and said, “but if needs be, it is a belief for which I am prepared to die.” 

And then he sat down, and then there was a tremendous silence in the court, for about 30 seconds, not a word, and then it was as if – all the spectators’ gallery was crammed – as if, sort of – as if they were sort of breathing again and then you heard a couple of women in the gallery burst into sobs. And the judge, who was not a very pleasant man, almost gently turned to Counsel for the Accused, and said, ‘Next witness please’. It was a very remarkable scene.”

A man of impeccable integrity, Joffe, an expatriate South African, had left South Africa after the Mandela trial and settled in England so successfully that he had been elevated to the British peerage, and was not so long ago Chair of Oxfam. The other face was that of Adelaide Joseph, again, familiar from my Mandela documentary. South Africans of Asian extraction, the Josephs had been close friends of the Mandelas, and, exiled in London, had continued the fight against apartheid. Paul Joseph had been one of the accused, with Mandela, in the Treason Trial, and told me this story from the trial:

“There were occasions when (Nelson)  had to go into the prosecutors’ office, to talk to them, but the moment he’d enter the prosecutors’ office, everybody jumped up and gave him a chair to Mr. Mandela, ‘please take this chair and sit down.  And Nelson never ever sat down on the chair, he would always sit on the desk, and one day, one of our colleagues said to him, ‘Nelson, these guys are being so nice to you, why don’t you accept their  hospitality and sit down on a chair?’ and he said, ‘No way. This is one time when I’ll sit down on the desk and talk down tothem, because I’m in a commanding position.’”

The Josephs and Joel Joffe were people of the South African diaspora, who had expressed their love for their country by being part of the struggle against apartheid. Much of this struggle had centred around an organization called the International Defence & Aid Fund.  Based in London, it had started as a vehicle for fundraising for the legal defence of those like the 156 accused in the Treason Trial of 1956, which dragged on for 5 years, and which would have broken the accused financially without  support from outside the country. IDAF evolved into a massive archive of information about the workings of apartheid, and indeed the history of South Africa, with substantial documentation, photo and film collections.  It was with the help of this organization and its backers that Mandela had been able to visit London in 1962.  (At the end of the Treason Trial, Mandela, fearing re-arrest, went underground, and was smuggled illegally out of the country.)  As head of Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), the newly formed fighting arm of the African National Congress, Mandela was seeking support in Africa and beyond for armed struggle against the apartheid regime. Not long after his return to South Africa he was betrayed and arrested, possibly with the assistance of the CIA.

Without IDAF’s financial support and its vigorous PR campaign, Mandela and his fellow accused at the end of the Rivonia Trial in the 1964 – which involved the charge of plotting to overthrow the government by force - might well have received  a death sentence. While IDAF’s PR campaign could be carried out openly from London, and was aimed at the international community, funds had to be transferred covertly to South Africa, since the South African government had labelled IDAF a “Communist” organization.  In fact, the staff of IDAF was heavily African National Congress and South African Communist. Their dedication was not to the overthrow of the South African government, but of apartheid, and to the establishment of democracy. However, the ANC leaders had determined that this could not be accomplished peacefully. So London – to the discomfiture of every Conservative  government, especially that of Margaret Thatcher – was a vital centre of subversion against apartheid, and it is perfectly fitting that a Mandela statue should find a home there.

As I enter the enclosed section, the Mandela statue is still enveloped in what seems to be an incongruous yellow-and-orange shroud, whose significance is only revealed when I walk around it and discern other colours;  it clearly symbolizes the rainbow nation vision of post-apartheid South Africa. Looking over the thousands-strong crowd on the other side of the barrier, it too is rainbow-hued, and they can’t all be South Africans. On this visit, I came to feel rather optimistic about race relations in the UK, on the streets there seemed to be an easy mingling, even if there were disturbing undercurrents, especially in the often unchecked power of the police. Onto a large screen, images of Mandela and quotes from his words are projected:  

“I was made by the law a criminal, not because of what I had done, but because  of what I stood for, because of what I thought, because of my conscience…”

It is worth remembering, in the context of increasing clashes between black and Islamic youth and the police, that Mandela is the only Western leader who has suffered from social and racial injustice.

The ceremony gathers pace, and on stone steps beside the statue, a mainly black choir clad in immaculate white is belting out gospel music. The truly elevated  – Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Mayor of London Ken Livingstone, Richard Attenborough, Wendy Woods – are on the platform. The statue had been the brainchild of Donald Woods, the South African journalist who had befriended Steve Biko, and who had to leave South Africa after he became too inquisitive about Biko’s death in custody. Woods’s campaign for a statue in London honouring Mandela as the personification of the fight against racism had been cut short by his own death in 2001. The campaign was continued by his wife Wendy, who appealed to Richard Attenborough for support.

Attenborough, it should be remembered, had been remarkable for making a film about Steve Biko that had a white man – Donald Woods – as the central character. So that there was the perverse, but by no means unique, feat, in his film Cry Freedom, of a Black Power advocate being mediated through the words and actions of a white liberal. I also objected to the role of a black South African being played by a black American (Denzel Washington, for whom I have great respect as an actor), when South Africa has dozens of accomplished actors. 

But this is the star system, and for all my reservations, I cannot ignore the role that a film like this played in “conscientizing” – to use a South African expression – world opinion. It is an indictment of the film industry’s sense of priorities (and its feeble sense of social injustice) that so few anti-apartheid fiction films were made. From Come Back, Africa (itself a non-Hollywood production) in 1958 to A Dry White Season thirty years later, you could probably count the anti-apartheid films on the fingers of one hand.  And this had everything to do with the racism of Hollywood itself.

Lord Attenborough lent his considerable prestige to the statue project. Ken Livingstone, London’s mayor, had already agreed to situate it in that city. Woods had wanted the site to be in Trafalgar Square, where stands South Africa House – the site for so many decades of the South African Embassy, outside which there had been numerous anti-apartheid demonstrations. Representatives  of the anti-apartheid regime had been forced to look down upon speeches by black South Africans who in South Africa would have been hanged as terrorists. Now, of course, South Africa is a member of the Commonwealth family once again, with a black High Commissioner there in Trafalgar Square.  

A Conservative-led Westminster Council opposed the placing of the statue there, complaining that it would “clutter the site”. Perhaps it is reading too much into this objection to see it as the last petulant rebuff of the party of Margaret Thatcher, who had denounced Mandela so. (This was the same Margaret Thatcher – I rejoice to report - whose son Mark, from his base in South Africa, only a few years ago planned a coup in an African country to grab control of its oil. Margaret Thatcher had reacted to this particular proven terrorist plot by bailing out her son to the tune of some hundreds of thousands of dollars.)

Perhaps aesthetics was an excuse for nostalgia, for Trafalgar Square is dominated by the statue of Lord Nelson, symbol of Britain’s past greatness. A nine-foot statue of Mandela would have been dwarfed by the 170 foot plinth upon which the 17 foot statue of Admiral Nelson stares longingly towards the English Channel.  The anti-imperialist, republican Mandela would have stood uneasily among the two generals of empire and the two kings whose statues also bedeck the square. Yet, consider this: when Mandela was first sent away to school, his Xhosa name, Rolihlahla, was rejected by the missionaries, who selected the Anglo name by which he is known internationally  - “Nelson”. The choice might have been arbitrary, but the missionaries might already have sensed their pupil’s indomitable spirit, the spirit of Britain’s great hero. The Mandela statue might have felt incongruous there; it certainly would not have been intimidated.

The statue was begun before its final resting place was determined. Mandela sat for 9 hours for the British sculptor Ian Waters. Donald Woods, the statue’s prime mover, had died in 2001, Waters died in 2004 - neither of them would see the statue raised after the six years of wrangling about its positioning. This was finally determined by London’s leftist mayor, Ken Livingstone, and it is certainly the best solution. Parliament Square is already graced with statues of the great: Abraham Lincoln – whose accomplishment is perhaps closest to that of Mandela – great British prime ministers, Benjamin Disraeli and Winston Churchill, and another South African, Jan Smuts. The latter’s statue stands maybe 70 yards from the site of Mandela’s. Smuts was a Boer leader who fought the British during the Anglo-Boer War, and then became a convert to Empire and Commonwealth, and as a field-marshal, was a member of the Imperial General Staff during the Second World War. Although he was never a supporter of institutional apartheid, he was certainly a white supremacist. There is an ironic link between these two South Africans: Smuts was one of the founders of the United Nations, an organization that would become dedicated to the overthrow of apartheid, finally accomplished under Mandela. So Smuts looks a little askance, there on his pedestal, away from Mandela – who has his back to him.

On Mandela’s 1962 visit, Mary Benson had escorted him to the Houses of Parliament. Among the few photos of him that she took that day, one shows him looking quizzically up at Parliament. It is taken from a spot very close to where the Mandela statue stands. I suspect that this is pure coincidence. But I could not but think that the ghost of Mary Benson had been at work in this positioning.

Up there on the dais, Lord Attenborough and Wendy Woods outline the saga of the statue.  The orations conclude with an encomium by Prime Minister Gordon Brown:

“Today let me, on behalf of all the people of our country, welcome to Britain today the man who will be remembered forever as the leader who ended apartheid. The man who in his prison cell, no intimidation, no violence, no show trial, no threat of execution could ever silence. He is a man whose belief in the future was so powerful that not even 27 years behind bars and barbed wire could destroy his dream and his demand that by fighting apartheid from his prison cell, millions today could be and are free. And from this day forward, this statue will stand here in sight of this ancient forum of democracy, to commemorate and celebrate for the ages, triumph in the greatest of causes. Nelson Mandela  is the most inspiring and greatest figure of our generation, one of the best loved men of all time. He is the leader who became the liberator…”

He ends with the invitation  for “Ken, Wendy, Richard, to unveil this statue today…”

The statue that is revealed , despite its actual height of 9 feet, shows a man who manages to appear to be shorter than Mandela in life. It depicts a Mandela with both arms raised in exhortation, but also, perhaps, to embrace – and that was surely Mandela’s genius, to persuade in order to bring you into the fold of reasonableness. Fikile Bam, who was imprisoned with Mandela, described how he would always listen to everybody’s opinion before seeking a consensus. Despite 44 years of political persecution and imprisonment, he has not been known to bear a grudge. When measured against the range of viciousness to petty spitefulness displayed by leaders from Kazakhstan to the USA, this makes him probably unique among the leaders of nations. Unfortunately, it also makes him part of a lost cadre: Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Chief Luthuli…There were never many of them, and their teachings seem to have no echo in the ruthless world of today.

With difficulty, Mandela rises to be supported to the rostrum. It is pitiful to see someone of Mandela’s former physical strength so frail; but the strength still remains in the voice and in the sharpness of intellect and depth of moral sense, that nous of the ancient Greeks, that has propelled Mandela from the beginning of his political career.  Here are some of his words:


“It is an honour for us to be with you on the occasion of the unveiling of this statue today. From the moment Donald Woods initiated the project, to when Ian Walters came to my home in Qunu, to begin the statue, we never dreamt we would all be here together. For although this statue is of one man, it should in actual fact symbolise all those who have resisted oppression, especially in my country. The history of the struggle in South Africa is rich with the stories of heroes and heroines, some of them leaders some of them followers - all of them deserve to be remembered.

When Oliver Tambo and I visited Westminster Abbey in Parliament Square in 1962, we half joked that we hoped that one day a statue of a black person would be erected here, alongside that of General Smuts. Oliver would have been proud today if he were here.

We thank the British people once again for their relentless efforts in supporting us during the dark years. We remember the 'Free Mandela Campaign' and the time we gathered in 1990 at Wembley Stadium, following our release from prison.

We are proud to announce that in celebration of my 90th birthday next year my International AIDS campaign, called 46664, will once again call on you as a British Nation to gather on the 27th of June 2008. 46664 will host a concert in Hyde Park.

I want very much to be back in London to attend this concert and I hope to see you there.

It remains for me to acknowledge my gratitude to all who have made this day possible. We trust that the statue will be a reminder of heroes and heroines of the past as well as an inspiration for the continuing struggle against injustice. I thank you."

Mandela’s personal integrity was always beyond question, and perhaps in this regard he was fortunate that his martyrdom on Robben Island had spared him the compromises, petty and great, that the free ANC leaders had to make in order to survive and operate in exile. He had chosen to take the moral high ground, never succumbing to the offers of leniency, and even of freedom, if he abstained from political activity.   There was his great speech of 1985 delivered in Soweto by his daughter Zindzi,– Mandela being in prison - in defiance of the ban on his words: 

“My father says, ‘I am a member of the African National Congress, I have always been a member of the African National Congress, and I will remain a member of the African National Congress until the day I die.

‘I am in prison as a representative of the people and of your organization, which was banned.  What freedom am I being offered whilst the organization of the people remains banned? I cherish my own freedom dearly, but I care even more for your freedom.

‘I am not less life-loving than you are, but I cannot sell my birthright, nor am I prepared to see the birthright  of the people to be free.’ 

My father says, ‘I can not, and will not, give any undertaking at a time when I and you the people are not free. Your freedom and mine cannot be separated.  

‘I will return.’  “Amandla!”


I have never met Nelson Mandela. Our paths have crossed, but never with quite the synchronicity that would lead to a face-to-face meeting. I have no regrets about this, and do not even aspire to it.  I have mapped his life, and felt his presence, heard others’ evaluations of him, and his own of himself, most notably in his great Rivonia Trial speech, and that delivered by Zindzi in Soweto, I have even read intimate letters from him to Winnie (with Winnie’s permission). I have some sense of the roots of his strength, perhaps as much as one can ever have of people of such stature, of whom there are truly very few. The reigning image I hold of Madiba is one of the three photos of him in the prison yard on Robben Island, where he is talking with his mentor, now fellow-prisoner, Walter Sisulu. Mandela has his finger raised in emphasis, for all the world like a school-master I used to have, who would be exasperated at our behaviour, but never to the extent that he lost his temper. He always believed that we were capable of better. Mandela’s appeal was always to challenge us to behave like civilized  people.  He holds to the belief that there is a level of decent behaviour that we are all capable of, and should aspire to.

What distinguishes the statesman from the politician is the relationship with power. Most of the countries of the world are run by people whose interest is in personal power, whatever gloss they put on it. Those who put the good of the country before this driving force, like Aung San Sui Kyi in Myanmar, or Nelson Mandela before, are either eliminated or have to wait until the rulers are bankrupt before they can lead their country, if that ever happens. In South Africa, it took four decades. At the statue ceremony Mayor Livingston welcomed Mandela to London: "Long after we are forgotten, you will be remembered for having taught the world one amazing truth," said Ken Livingstone, "that you can achieve justice without  vengeance.”  In these days, truly amazing.  The accomplishment of a statesman, not of a politician.

Let us remind ourselves that Nelson Mandela is the only leading statesman of the nowadays somewhat whimsically named “Free World” to have suffered from racism, and to have been jailed for a long period of time for his beliefs, which were a fundamental commitment to the democratic principle. However, like the founders of the American state, he believed that armed struggle was a way to achieve this. He was jailed by a group of people who sincerely believed that Mandela and the African National Congress were terrorists who threatened their security, and these Afrikaners were willing to sacrifice the freedom of not only the majority of the people of South Africa, but even many of their own freedoms as whites in the name of security. 

The sufferings inflicted upon the Robben Island political prisoners and upon the majority of the non-white population of South Africa were considerable, and included oppression, torture and murder. This was done, I repeat, in the name of security. It is incumbent upon me, as one who honours Mandela, and who does not believe in any kind of national exceptionalism or destiny, to ask if America has not behaved like the whites of South Africa, in the name of security, and even, grotesquely, in the name of democracy. It is no diminution of the martyrdom of the Robben Island prisoners to say that bad as conditions were, they did not compare with conditions in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. 

Nelson Mandela (after his presidency) was one of the handful of world leaders to dare to condemn President Bush’s planned invasion of Iraq in the most outspoken terms: “It is a tragedy what is happening, what Bush is doing in Iraq. What I am condemning is that one power, with a president who has no foresight, who cannot think properly, is now wanting to plunge the world into a holocaust…  Why does the United States behave so arrogantly?  They just want the oil.” 

There must have been some lingering resentment in President Bush’s confused mind that led him to say, in response to some journalist’s question on the White House lawn in September of 2007, “I heard somebody say, ‘Where’s Mandela?’ Well, Mandela’s dead, because Saddam Hussein killed all the Mandelas.” The South African Embassy had to issue a statement to the effect that indeed, Nelson Mandela was still alive.  Still able to prick our conscience, demand a response to injustice.

You will be relieved to hear that as of July 1 of 2008, Nelson Mandela and his organization the African National Congress, were removed from the American terrorist list. Up until that time, Mandela could only enter the US by special dispensation of the American Secretary of State.  I suppose it was a 90th birthday present, some weeks premature.