Former president Nelson Mandela. Picture by Leon Muller.
Former president Nelson Mandela. Picture by Leon Muller.

B’s Bonnet: How well do we really know Madiba?

By Time of article published Aug 28, 2021

Share this article:

By Bongani Bingwa

Johannesburg - How well do we know Nelson Mandela, the founding father of our democracy?

Who was he? A saint? A sinner? Or just a man?

Years into his incarceration, when the ANC decided on a strategy to put a face on the anti-apartheid struggle, there could only be one choice: Thus, by the time of his release, Madiba was the most famous political prisoner in the world.

His friend, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, has reflected on the trepidation around the man that emerged – would he have feet of clay? Had he been weakened by the regime? Separated from his comrades who remained on Robben Island, Victor Verster, by comparison, was something of a gilded cage. Had he been seduced by the relative comfort of his final years of imprisonment?

As we know, The Arch need hardly have feared. If anything, Mandela’s resolve was steelier than ever before.

But who was the person behind the legend? How much of the myth had merged with the man?

I was recently affronted by news that the first home he owned in Johannesburg after his release has been turned into a hotel charging up to R15 000 a night to sleep in Madiba’s old bedroom. It seemed to me that it was simply crass materialism seeking to commodify his name.

How could it not cheapen his legacy?

Seeing is believing. To his credit, Sello Hatang, the man behind the idea and also the CEO of the Nelson Mandela Foundation (NMF), invited me to come to the house and put my hands where the nails had been.

This was not the same house that saw garlands of flowers covering neighbours’ pavements as mourners converged on the normally quiet suburb of Houghton in the days after Mandela’s death. That residence is a few blocks away – this one Madiba vacated in 1998 shortly after his marriage to Graca Machel, who found it cramped and dark, but no doubt, also wanted a new start, for a new matrimonial home.

It very quickly fell into a state of disrepair, and soon, vagrants moved in and vandalised it. A once magnificent residence that had hosted international dignitaries became an allegory of the state of the urban blight that afflicts many a South African city since the fall of apartheid.

After promises to turn it into a museum, the government simply did not deliver, and the choice was to sell it, if only for the value of the land, based on where it is situated. And that was the seed of inspiration that led to the idea of a boutique hotel to help keep the legend alive.

Hatang also invited me to the NMF offices to have a look at the archives that tell the story of this remarkable life. I had previously visited the Centre of Memory as it is called and was inspired by the window it offered into who this man was from the replica of his Robben Island cell to the presidential office left untouched after his retirement.

I was shown some of Madiba’s private letters and even notes during key political moments in the 90s, including Codesa.

It has become popular to muddy his reputation and the decisions undertaken at Kempton Park, but was he a sell-out?

His notes tell a different story. Even before 1994, Madiba was well aware how harshly history would judge the ANC if it failed on the land question.

But another far more interesting nugget was how the younger revolutionary himself helped to shape the myth-making. For years, a story was told about how his expert marksmanship won him praise from his Algerian hosts when he visited, raising funds for Umkhonto We Sizwe in the early 1960s. He was given a gun and asked to shoot at a target, hitting bulls-eye on the first attempt. Believing he had never handled a weapon before, the Algerian National Liberation Army (ALN) fighters were suitably impressed.

Years later, when Ahmed Kathrada repeated the tale in Madiba’s presence, the elder statesman roared with laughter. Of course, he had handled weapons before – he was the head of Umkhonto we Sizwe for heaven's sake!

Hatang wonders if this means Madiba, was on some level, like many of us, simply vain?

He is not here to answer that question, but one way to touch his humanity is to walk where he walked and roam the hallways in his innermost sanctum.

Perhaps that will be the enduring impact of Sanctuary Mandela as the hotel will be known – that here lived a sinner and a saint, a man of flesh and blood, one of us and among the very best of us.

* Bongani Bingwa is the host of 702 Breakfast and a Carte Blanche Presenter

Share this article: