Andrew Austin: The great man with the common touch

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Former Herald chief reporter Andrew Austin recalls Nelson Mandela's impact on his people

He knew what he needed to do and he went out and did it. Photo / AP
He knew what he needed to do and he went out and did it. Photo / AP

The little white boy ran through the crowded corridor of the hotel, and shouted: "Daddy, Daddy!! Mandela shook my hand."

It was February 1990 and Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was at the Holiday Inn hotel in East London, South Africa, to speak to the press shortly after his release from prison, where he had been for 27 years.

There was a school sports event on in the city and the hotel was packed with young white children and their parents.

This was still technically during apartheid, although the President of South Africa, F.W. de Klerk, had just taken the incredible step of unbanning the African National Congress and other liberation movements.

The significance of the little boy's words were profound because most white people did not know what Mandela looked like - his image had been banned for years - and many whites were indoctrinated to believe that he was a terrorist.

I had watched, moments earlier, as Madiba - his clan name which over the years had been used as a mark of respect and affection - gently and solemnly bent down to greet the little boy, who was no more than about 5 years old. "Hello, how are you?" he said as the crowds around them stopped to gaze in awe.

It was a surreal moment in a country that had forever been divided by race, and in a way it symbolised the beginning of the new rainbow nation.

Journalists from around the country and world were already seated when Mandela finally finished shaking hands and made his way into the room. Not one to be easily overawed by people, I found I was - this was history in the making. You sensed you were in the presence of a great man. It was not just his history and what he stood for, but it was the way he carried himself. There was a regal air, befitting Thembu royalty, but there was also a humility that only the truly great have.

If I was moved by the significance of the moment, the effect on my black colleagues was paralysing. Veteran journalists, who had joined the fourth estate as a means to fight apartheid, could not talk properly. All they could do was stand up one by one and greet the great man, before sitting down with their questions unanswered. It was a moving experience.

It would be one of many times I had the pleasure of being in Nelson Mandela's presence. I don't think he would remember me, but he certainly made an impression on me.

I grew up in apartheid and I was 23 at the time of his release on February 11, 1990. I was opposed to apartheid and soon realised that journalism offered me an opportunity to expose the small, everyday injustices of the system.

The amazing thing about Mandela is the manner in which he went from being a myth created by the apartheid government to keep their constituents fearing the "Swart Gevaar" (Black danger), to a true statesman, revered and respected by most South Africans, even those who had opposed his release.

Although I spent the first 21 years of my life in South Africa and studied the history of the country in school, I knew very little about him. The apartheid government had banned everything. The first time I saw a photograph of Nelson Mandela was when I travelled to Britain in 1989, aged 22. The biased history I had been taught at school had deprived me of learning the rich story of the South African liberation movement.

That was all about to change. Many people believe F.W. de Klerk was a brave man in ending apartheid but I am slightly less charitable - I believe he was forced into it by internal and international pressure. The role Mandela played in ensuring that South Africa made a peaceful transition into democracy cannot be overstated.

The energy, insight and, most of all, forgiveness he showed in keeping South Africa on the right track was remarkable. His lack of bitterness towards his jailers has been widely told, but it was his forward-looking approach that kept the country moving ahead. The stumbling blocks were immense. When right-wing immigrant Janusz Walus shot Chris Hani, the ANC's rising star and man of the people, in his driveway, everyone expected violence to erupt. A statesman was needed and Mandela stepped up. Racial tension was at its highest and the black masses did not want to wait any longer. Many felt it was time the white man was removed.

Mandela, who was not even President yet - de Klerk was nominally in power - appeared on state television and gave a speech I will never forget. He was compassionate, but he was also firm. He basically told his supporters that they had come too far to give the apartheid government the moral high ground by resorting to violence. He also pointed out that it was a white, Afrikaans woman who had seen the shooting and written down the registration number of Walus' car as he sped off while Hani lay dying in the driveway.

It was a remarkable performance and one that set the tone for the ANC from then on. The balance of power had shifted and from then on de Klerk and his government had no chance. Nelson Mandela was in charge.

Those early days of democracy - from the heady heights of election day itself to the glory and unification of the Rugby World Cup victory - were incredible to live through. It was a period of learning, as people of different cultures who had largely been kept apart were suddenly allowed to live as one.

There was some getting used to, but also, remarkably, people realised just how much the different shades of South Africans had in common. And through all this the glue that held the country together was Nelson Mandela.

He knew what he needed to do and he went out and did it. Even when he did not get it quite right, he still kept the people's trust. Well, he was Nelson Mandela after all.

When he retired from public life, people expected South Africa to plunge into corruption and anarchy. The catchphrase as he entered his twilight years was always "after Mandela".

Unfortunately, South Africa under President Jacob Zuma seems to have lost its way a little bit and the rumbles are starting within the country. The ANC is still strong, but the party must have saddened Mandela in his last days. However, I am also sure he was hopeful that the organisation that he helped create in the most adverse conditions had enough good people to pull it out of its present crisis.

At this sad time, however, our attention is focused on Mandela and the remarkable contribution he made to South Africa and world peace. It is not often one could call someone a living legend, but while he was alive, that is what he was.

Hamba Kahle (Go well) Madiba.


Andrew Austin is editor of the Hawke's Bay Today and a former Herald chief reporter. He worked for the Daily Dispatch, Natal Mercury and Business Day newspapers in South Africa.

Read the full coverage on Nelson Mandela.

- NZ Herald

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