This morning, whilst drinking my early morning cup of tea, something prompted me to look across to the little bookshelf beside my bed. As I glanced up to the top shelf, a book almost spoke to me to lift it down and open it … this book … “Mandela. My Prisoner, My Friend”. I obeyed. I held it, I stretched out my hands and looked at the cover, I drew it close to my chest and hugged it, as if to feel the warmth of southern hemisphere sunshine … and then I opened the covers and peeped inside.
I knew that I was taking a chance by opening the book, potentially exposing myself to pain, at seeing evidence of things about Nelson Mandela’s life which I know were brutal, creating uncomfortable feelings of despair and utter shame, coupled with longings for the country of my birth, and yet I knew that it really was time to face whatever the pages contained … but I was only going to peep. A little. It was not my intention to spend too much time on the book today, with a list as long as the proverbial piece of rope of things demanding my attention, but I felt that I was being guided to read some of it and to at least make myself acquainted with a little of what the text contains. The book had been given to me some time ago, a surprise gift, and it was time I gave it my attention, bravely.
As so often happens, I feel intuitively that I should do things and, instead of questioning the prompts, I usually tiptoe or stumble forth in the direction where I am led. And so I prised open the unread book, and I recalled the immense sense of amazement that I had felt when it had first been given to me, as I read the handwritten inscription inside:
Nelson Mandela was / is such an inspiration for me, as are you!
Keep shining your light and doing what you do.
Kirsti x “
[gifted to me on 28 April 2016]
Once again, as when I had received the book, which had been a complete surprise, I felt a wave of humility mixed with pleasure, at being thought of so highly and in such a wonderful way. I cannot imagine anyone on the planet not being touched to be associated with “Madiba” in any sense at all … what a tremendous honour that I should be so blessed to remind someone of him, so much so that they would give me this book with open handed love. It’s no small thing to have received this, and I remember at the time I could not comprehend why, nor quite take it in. I still cannot see how I bear any passing similarity to Nelson Mandela, but life has been incredibly challenging to me as well, starting with a turbulent and at times heart breaking childhood, and has taught me so much through those challenges. I suppose this gives a tiny reason to feel that Mr Mandela and I might have, had we ever met, been kindred spirits. Each of us, people acquainted with harsh reality and at times extremely unfair judgement, both very much in love with Nature, people and the African soil, giving some vague reason to believe that perhaps we might have had some things in common while he lived. I would have loved to meet that real, power filled man – as many would have, I know.
And so, I turned another page, to see what I was being led to read. The few pages that I opened spoke deeply to my consciousness and, whilst I could not face reading into the detail, what I read was enough for today, enough to make it worthwhile to have opened the book – almost a year since it had been given to me, in April 2016.
In the Prologue, these words by the author, Christo Brand, struck my soul:
“Nelson Mandela spent his boyhood in the green and golden hills of South Africa’s Eastern Cape. There he ran wild with his friends in the village of Qunu. He has told of the happiest years of his life – shooting birds out of the sky with a catapult, gathering fruit from the trees, catching fish with a bent hook and drinking warm milk straight from the cow.
Just like me, he sometimes looked after flocks of sheep and would go home to his family’s little house after playing till dusk, to eat supper and listen to his mother’s stories around the fireside.
As a young boy, he had no immediate knowledge of apartheid. In his small, safe world there was no obvious menace. His childhood was secure in the rural Xhosa community where he belonged.
I also knew nothing of the cruel racial boundaries in our country as I grew up. My father was a farm foreman in a fertile part of the Western Cape. All my young life I played with black and mixed-race children who lived on the farm with us in Stanford, many miles from the city.
Looking back, Mandela and I both enjoyed childhoods full of innocence and charm, although many years apart. We were both brought up in the Christian tradition, our lives ruled by strict but loving parents who taught us right from wrong. All that mattered was home and family, with rewards for good behaviour and punishment for bad.
He and I, in contrasting worlds, came to know in our different ways the full cruelty of the apartheid laws, and those worlds collided only many years later when we both found ourselves on Robben Island, the bleak maximum security prison where he was serving life and I was his warder.
I was 19 years old when I came face to face with Nelson Mandela. He was 60. Until that day I had never heard of him, or his African National Congress, or the deeply held reasons that meant that he and his comrades were prepared to die for their cause.
I found a man who was courteous and humble, yet at the same time the powerful leader of many of the political prisoners serving time on Robben Island.”
“He wrote of his ‘long walk to freedom’, and I walked some of that road with him, an incredible journey that defines my life today, as well as his.
In truth, my life began so much later than his. A white Afrikaans boy born into the very culture that created Mandela the revolutionary, I’d had no idea it was going to lead me to him.”
Unlike Christo Brand, whose childhood and life story are also described in the book, I did not grow up in a Christian household, and my home and background influence were very definitely liberal British / generally English ones, but I too experienced the times of friendship with ‘forbidden’ others, and the wildness of living free during part of my childhood in the African countryside. In this way, I suppose one could imagine that each of these aspects makes us plaited and pure South Africans of the apartheid era, kindred spirits in all sorts of ways. There are aspects of imprisonment which Mandela experienced, that I could identify as similar in various parallels with my own life on other continents where, despite appearance to the contrary, I have also experienced the sheer despair and discomfort of being contained, misjudged, overlooked, misunderstood. It is in the nature of some of us to express ourselves openly and to put our gifts to use with excellence and generosity; when we are constrained, those energies can be directed inwards and threaten to overwhelm us … Nelson Mandela showed that they and the opposition he faced would grow him, instead, and indeed they did.
As I turned to a few more pages, before getting up and on with the day, I came across a page that struck me as special to share, and so I took a quick photograph (a bit blurry, given the time of day!) …
On one page, two human beings whom I have a huge amount of respect for, both having been at the receiving end of unimaginable condescension and criticism, both heroes of their day, despite (and perhaps because of) it all, both educated, civilised, philosophical giants, with warm hearts and the grace of forgiveness in the fibre of their make-up: Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama. Each man a legend, in his own right. Each man someone I look up to as an example of a fine human being. Each man with roots in Africa. Each a leader, against all the odds. Each man a lion-hearted soul.
At the front of the book, US President Barack Obama’s message in the visitors’ book on Robben Island, dated 30 June 2013, is quoted and reads:
“On behalf of our family, we’re deeply humbled to stand where men of such courage faced down injustice and refused to yield. The world is grateful for the heroes of Robben Island, who remind us that no shackles or cells can match the strength of the human spirit.”
These words deserve a moment …
I am one of those people who will often read the final pages of a book, and then go back and absorb the detail, quickly, or pausing to comb through the fine print, savouring each page like a morsel of delicacy. Thus, confining this one quick comb through my precious gift of “Mandela. My Prisoner, My Friend” to another ten minutes or so of perusing the content for now, I turned to the last couple of pages, where I read the words of co-author to this story, Barbara Jones:
“It was soon after dawn on Sunday, 15 December 2013 when Christo Brand walked through the ancient fields of Qunu village and past the river where Mandela played as a child, on his way to a sad but fitting ceremony, the last goodbye to the great Nelson Mandela. Security guards noted his damp and muddy shoes and insisted on brushing them clean for him. He continued alone right up to the burial place and looked into Mandela’s empty grave.
‘I thought to myself how he would now be able to look over the whole of that green valley he loved so much. Madiba had come home, just as he always longed to,’ he said.
Christo was greeted warmly by a group of military generals, every one of them an ex-prisoner from Robben Island. Film producer Anant Singh, whose “Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom”, had recently received huge critical acclaim, persuaded Christo to sit nearby, along with actor Idris Elba, who took the lead part.
Mourners started up their beloved freedom songs dedicated to Mandela, and Christo felt proud. Close to tears, he listened to Mandela’s grandson Ndaba giving his moving speech. ‘I closed my eyes and I could hear the man himself, and see him in his youth’, he said. Granddaughter Nandi was also impressive and talked of Mandela’s warmth towards his family.
Daughter Zindzi saw Christo, gave him a special smile, and thanked him for being there. The singing stopped and everyone stood. It was the moment for Mandela’s coffin to be carried solemnly past the mourners.
‘The coffin was close enough for me to touch but I didn’t think that would be right,’ said Christo. ‘And it was enough to know that our lives had touched for so many years. I said a silent goodbye to the best, strongest and most honest human being I have ever known.’ “
I don’t think I have spoiled the story by sharing these last few lines in the book … most of the world was watching the procession of Nelson Mandela’s coffin on that day, we all know how the story ended … I, for one, was glued to my television screen, candles lit and with tears pouring down my cheeks. Scotland, where I write this from, is a long, long way from home.
God bless you, Madiba. You, Lion of Africa, gave eloquence and elevation and grace to the people and to the country I am now so proud to call my real home.
To the friend who gave me this book so unexpectedly, your generous gift has blessed me with a renewing, an additional and special link to a country I left thirty two years ago this December, two weeks after my twenty third birthday, a country that was in turmoil … leaving a country and a people whom I miss with heart and mind and soul.
The book was published by John Blake Publishing Ltd, in 2014.
ISBN 978 1 78219 743 0