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"It provides new perspective and insights into the man and his times. . . . [Meredith] is particularly good in recounting the parallel rise and inevitable clash of white Afrikaner and black African nationalism in this century . ..." —The Washington Post
"Meredith paints an insider's canvas of recent South African history as well as an epic tale of a freedom fighter." —San Francisco Chronicle
"[R]evealing insights, particularly into the contrast between the disciplined Mandela ...
"It provides new perspective and insights into the man and his times. . . . [Meredith] is particularly good in recounting the parallel rise and inevitable clash of white Afrikaner and black African nationalism in this century . ..." —The Washington Post
"Meredith paints an insider's canvas of recent South African history as well as an epic tale of a freedom fighter." —San Francisco Chronicle
"[R]evealing insights, particularly into the contrast between the disciplined Mandela who emerged from prison and the impetuous figure of the late 1940's and early 1950's." —The New York Times Book Review
"Meredith carefully avoids adulation while tracing the course of Mandela's remarkable career. . . . [He] skillfully depicts Mandela's complex relationships with the close circle of white Communists who supported the African National Congress [and] writes vividly but unsentimentally about the tribulations and betrayals that racked Mandela's family."—The Los Angeles Times
The Mission School Ladder
Mandela was born in the simple surroundings of a peasant village on the banks of the Mbashe river in Thembuland. But for his royal connections, his childhood would have been no different from those of many others there. His great-grandfather Ngubengcuka, however, was a Thembu king, renowned for his skill in bringing stability to diverse Thembu clans in the early nineteenth century. And although Mandela was descended from only a minor branch of the dynasty -- the Left-hand House -- his link with the Thembu royal family was to have a marked influence on both his character and his fortunes.
His father, Gadla Henry Mphakanyiswa, was the village headman at Mvezo. A tall, respected figure, he presided over local ceremonies and officiated at traditional rites for such occasions as births, marriages, funerals, harvests and initiation ceremonies. Like most of his generation, he had had no formal education; he could not read or write. But he had a keen sense of history and was valued as a counsellor to the royal family. He was also wealthy enough at one time to afford four wives and sired in all thirteen children.
Mandela's mother, Nosekeni Nkedama, was the third of Gadla's wives. She bore four children, the eldest of whom, Mandela, was her only son but the youngest of Gadla's four sons. Like Gadla, she could neither read nor write. While Gadla adhered to the traditional Qaba faith, involving the worship of ancestral spirits, Nosekeni became a devout Christian, taking the name of Fanny.
The Xhosa name given to Mandela at his birth on 18 July 1918 was Rolihlahla, which meant literally `pulling the branch of a tree', but more colloquially `troublemaker', and there were friends and relatives who later ascribed to his Xhosa name the troubles he would encounter. But the name by which he became popularly known was an English one, Nelson, given to him by an African teacher on the first day he attended school. For that, there was no ready explanation, only surmise that it was taken from the famous English admiral.
It was shortly after he was born that the Mandela household itself encountered serious trouble. Gadla's position as headman was dependent not only upon tribal lineage but upon the approval of white officials in the Cape colonial administration. After its annexation by Britain in 1885, Thembuland had come under the control of colonial magistrates who maintained a system of indirect rule through village headmen appointed to keep order among the local population as well as to represent their interests. The same system remained in place when Thembuland became part of the Union of South Africa, established in 1910, eight years before Mandela was born.
Well known for his stubbornness, Gadla fell into a minor dispute over cattle with the local magistrate and refused to answer a summons to appear before him. Gadla took the view that the matter was of tribal concern and not part of the magistrate's jurisdiction. He was dismissed for insubordination, losing not only his government stipend but most of his cattle and his land and the revenue that went with them. Facing penury, he sent Nosekeni and her young son to Qunu, a village to the north of Mvezo, about twenty miles from the town of Umtata, where her family could help support her. It was there that Mandela spent his boyhood.
The landscape around Qunu -- undulating hills, clear streams and lush pastures grazed by cattle, sheep and goats -- made an indelible impression on Mandela. Qunu was the place where he felt his real roots lay. It was a settlement of beehive-shaped huts in a narrow valley where life continued much as it had done for generations past. The population there, numbering no more than a few hundred, consisted predominantly of `red' people, who dyed their blankets and clothes with red ochre, a colour said to be beloved by ancestral spirits and the colour of their faith. There were few Christians in Qunu and those that there were stood out because of the Western-style clothes they wore.
The Mandela homestead, like most others in Qunu, was simple. Their beehive huts -- a cluster of three -- were built without windows or chimneys. The floors were made of crusted earth taken from anthills and kept smooth with layers of fresh cow dung. There was no furniture, in the Western sense. Everyone slept on mats, without pillows, resting their heads on their arms. Smoke from the fire filtered through the grass roof. There was no opening other than a low doorway. Their diet was also simple, mainly maize, sorghum, beans and pumpkins grown in fields outside the village and amasi, fermented milk stored in calabashes. Only a few wealthy families could afford luxuries like tea, coffee and sugar, bought from the local store.
Having four wives, each living in her own kraal several miles apart, Gadla visited them in turn, spending perhaps one week a month with each one. With his children, he was a strict disciplinarian. Complete obedience was expected, in accordance with Thembu tradition; questions were rarely tolerated. The life that Mandela led as a child was governed by strict codes of custom and taboo, guiding him through each state of adolescence. The number of taboos restricting the course of daily life, for men, boys, girls and especially married women, ran into hundreds. Most were associated with sex, with key passages of life and with food. All were held in superstitious awe. Any transgression could incur the wrath of ancestral spirits, which was to be avoided at all costs.
Along with tribal discipline came the support of an extended family. The Mandela household in Qunu was often full of relatives, taking as much interest in the Mandela children as in their own. In Thembu tradition, as with many other African tribes, uncles and aunts were as responsible for the welfare of children as the children's own parents and were referred to as `little fathers' and `little mothers'. The family circle in which Mandela grew up was thus an affectionate one. Even though he remembered his father mainly for his stern countenance, Mandela tried to emulate him by rubbing white ash into his hair in imitation of the tuft of white hair above Gadla's forehead. Like Gadla, he had the distinctive facial features of the Madiba clan, high cheekbones and slanting eyes.
From the age of five, Mandela was set to work as a herdboy, looking after sheep and calves and learning the central role that cattle played in Thembu society. Cattle were not only a source of meat and milk but the main medium of exchange and the measure of a tribesman's wealth. As the price of a bride was paid in cattle, without cattle there could be no marriage. Moreover, the principal means of propitiating ancestral spirits were through the sacrifice of cattle. Significant events like funerals were marked by their slaughter.
Much of Mandela's time was also spent in the open veld in the company of members of his own age group, stick-throwing and fighting, gathering wild honey and fruits, trapping birds and small animals that could be roasted, and swimming in the cold streams -- the normal pursuits of young Thembu boys.
What first set him on a different course was the influence of two villagers known as Mfengu. The Mfengu had arrived in Thembuland and neighbouring Xhosaland as refugees fleeing southwards from a series of wars and upheavals called the mfecane which accompanied the rise of the Zulu kingdom in the 1820s. Drawn from a number of different clans among the northern Nguni, the refugees, some moving in scattered bands, others in larger groups, were given the name of Mfengu to describe their position as suppliants and were often treated with contempt and animosity. Lacking land and cattle, many formed a servant class for the Thembu and their Xhosa neighbours. But they were also more readily adaptable to serving the interests of white colonists. Mfengu levies fought as combatants on the colonial side in four frontier wars in the Cape Colony, helping to inflict defeats on the Xhosa. They were rewarded with land and cattle. A large area of what had been Xhosa territory was designated as Fingoland. They were also among the first to take advantage of Christian missionary education, acquiring new skills and finding employment as teachers, clerks, policemen and court officials.
Mandela's father did not share the common prejudice against Mfengu. Among his friends were two Mfengu brothers, George and Ben Mbekela, both Christian, one a retired teacher, the other a police sergeant. It was their suggestion that Mandela should be baptized and sent to the local mission-run school. Gadla, recognizing that an education was the only advancement available for his youngest son, accepted the idea.
At the age of seven, Mandela went to the one-room school in Qunu, crossing the boundary between `red' people and `school' people. To mark the occasion, Gadla presented him with a pair of his old trousers, cut off at the knee and fastened around his waist with a piece of string. Hitherto, the only clothing that Mandela had worn had been a blanket, wrapped around one shoulder and pinned at the waist. `I must have been a comical sight,' he wrote in his autobiography, `but I have never owned a suit I was prouder to wear than my father's cut-off trousers.'
Two years later, in the Mandela household in Qunu, Gadla died, leaving Nosekeni without the means to continue her son's education. The event changed Mandela's life dramatically. Because of his family ties to the Thembu royal house and to the Madiba clan dating back to an eighteenth-century Thembu chief, the young Mandela was taken up as a ward by Chief Jongintaba Dalindyebo, the acting regent of the Thembu people. Accompanied by his mother, he left the simple idyll of Qunu, walking across the hills westwards to Mqhekezweni, the provisional capital of Thembuland, where Jongintaba maintained his Great Place, and entered a new world.
The royal residence, consisting of two large rectangular houses with corrugated-iron roofs surrounded by seven thatched rondavels all washed in white lime, was more impressive than anything the young Mandela had ever seen. As he approached, Jongintaba himself arrived in a Ford V8, to be greeted by a group of tribal elders who had been waiting in the shade of eucalyptus trees with the traditional salute, `Bayete, Jongintaba!' -- `Hail, Jongintaba!'
In accordance with tribal custom, Mandela was accepted by Jongintaba into the Great Place as if he were his own child. He shared a rondavel with his only son, Justice, wore the same kind of clothes and was subject to the same parental discipline. The regent's wife, NoEngland, treated him with equal affection and, once his own mother had returned to Qunu, soon filled her place. Life at Mqhekezweni was too full of excitement for Mandela to miss for long the world he had loved at Qunu. Even the chores seemed more enjoyable. He took particular pride in ironing the creases in the trousers of Jongintaba's suits.
What impressed him above all was the influence of the chieftaincy. Under colonial rule, hereditary chiefs had retained a wide range of powers and functions. They continued to conduct traditional court cases, to collect tributary fees and dues, and to exercise considerable authority over the distribution of land. They constituted a central part of the colonial administrative system, held in high esteem by white officials, while enjoying at the same time the traditional support of the local population.
Watching at close quarters the way in which Jongintaba exercised his power as regent, Mandela became absorbed by the workings of the chieftaincy. At tribal meetings at the Great Place, when high-ranking councillors gathered to discuss both local and national issues, he observed how Jongintaba would take care to hear all opinions, listening in silence to whatever criticism was made, even of himself, before making a summary of what had been said and endeavouring to find a consensus of views. It was a style of leadership which made a profound impression upon him. He learned too of the proceedings of the traditional courts at Mqhekezweni, where chiefs and headmen from surrounding districts met to settle disputes and judge cases.
It was from these tribal elders, sitting around the fireside at night, that Mandela first heard stories of Robben Island. It was mentioned often by them when recounting the long history of conflict between white colonists and Xhosa-speaking tribes in the turbulent eastern frontier region of the Cape Colony during the nineteenth century. The name given to it in the Xhosa language was Esiqithini, a word which quite simply meant `on the island'. Everybody knew which island was referred to and what it meant. For the Xhosa, it was a place of banishment and death.
The first Xhosa leader whom the whites sent to Robben Island was a warrior-prophet called Makana; he was also known by the name of Nxele, meaning the Left-handed. In 1819, in retaliation for a raid by colonial troops into Xhosa territory, Makana had led an army of 10,000, men against the British military outpost at Grahamstown, intending `to chase the white men from the earth and drive them into the sea'. The attack, in broad daylight, failed. Four months later, after British forces had laid waste to a vast stretch of Xhosa territory, Makana gave himself up at a military camp, hoping to stop the slaughter. `People say that I have occasioned this war,' he said. `Let me see whether delivering myself up to the conquerors will restore peace to my country.'
Makana was sentenced to life imprisonment, taken in shackles to Port Elizabeth, put on board the brig Salisbury and delivered to Robben Island, 400 miles away, off the coast at Cape Town. It had been used since the seventeenth century as a prison colony for both criminal convicts and political dissidents. Within a year of his imprisonment, Makana, along with other inmates, helped organize an escape, seized a fishing boat and headed for the mainland three miles away. As the boat came into the breakers off Blauberg beach, it capsized. According to the survivors, Makana clung for some time to a rock, shouting encouragement to others to reach the shore, until he was swept off and engulfed by the raging surf.
Makana was never forgotten by his Xhosa followers. Many refused to believe that he was dead and waited for years for his return, giving rise to a new Xhosa expression, `Kukuzakuka Nxele', the coming of Nxele, meaning forlorn hope.
The fate of Maqoma, the greatest military commander the Xhosa ever produced, was also well remembered. Expelled from his native valley in 1829, Maqoma engaged in a series of wars against the British in an attempt to regain lost Xhosa lands. During the 1850s, his guerrilla force based in the Amatola mountains held at bay a British army for months on end, inflicting one defeat after another.
Twice Maqoma was shipped off to Robben Island. During his first term of imprisonment, lasting eleven years, he was allowed the company of his youngest wife and a son. But on the second occasion, at the age of seventy-three, he was sent back there alone. No one else on the island spoke any Xhosa. He received no visitors. According to an Anglican chaplain who witnessed his last moments in 1873, he cried bitterly, before dying of old age and dejection, `at being here alone -- no wife, or child, or attendant'.
After nine frontier wars, Xhosa resistance against British colonial rule finally ended. Once an expanding and aggressive nation, the Xhosa had lost great swathes of land to white settlers. In the process, Xhosa leaders squabbled and fought with each other as much as they did with the white colonists. Some chiefs defected to the colonial side. Others were willing enough to collaborate. In the most desperate act of resistance, the Xhosa slaughtered vast herds of their own cattle, believing the prophecy of a teenage girl, Nongqawuse, that it would help `in driving the English from the land'. It resulted only in mass starvation, in which tens of thousands of Xhosa died, and enabled the authorities to take yet more Xhosa territory for white settlement.
Unlike their Xhosa neighbours to the south-west, the Thembu, a Xhosa-speaking people, managed to avoid most of the frontier conflict and lost little land to white settlement. Yet Thembuland, like all the other independent chiefdoms in the area, eventually succumbed to Cape control and became incorporated into a new region known as the Transkeian Territories. It was the largest area of South Africa not to fall into white hands. But just as much as the Xhosa, the Thembu had lost political control. The authority of their chiefs had become secondary to that of colonial officials, like the magistrates, as Mandela's father had found to his cost.
What stirred the young Mandela's imagination, as he listened to these tales of Xhosa history around the fireside, were the bravery and defiance shown by Xhosa leaders who stood against the whites' advance. The age of the chiefs was seen as a heroic time. The memory of men like Makana and Maqoma was carried down from one generation to the next to ensure that a tradition of resistance survived. They became the heroes of Mandela's youth.
Another profound influence on Mandela at Mqhekezweni, pulling in a different direction, was the Church. The mission station there, centred around a white stucco church, was revered in Mqhekezweni as much as the Great Place itself. It was part of a century of endeavour by Wesleyan Methodist missionaries to carry Christianity to the African peoples of the Eastern Cape which had started when the Reverend William Shaw, a pioneer missionary accompanying a party of British settlers to the Cape frontier region in 1820, decided that a far greater potential for mission work lay in Xhosa territory to the east, `a country abounding with heathen inhabitants'. Within a few years his chain of mission stations had reached 200 miles into African territory. One of the mission stations, Clarkebury, on the banks of the Mgwali river in the heart of Thembuland, was built on land donated by Mandela's great-grandfather, King Ngubengcuka. Anglican, Presbyterian and Moravian missionaries were also active in the Transkei region.
Before arriving in Mqhekezweni, Mandela had been to church only on one occasion, to be baptized in the Wesleyan chapel in Qunu as a prelude to attending school there. At Mqhekezweni, church was taken much more seriously. Jongintaba himself was a devout Wesleyan who regularly attended church each Sunday, together with his wife, NoEngland, and Mandela was expected to do the same. Once when Mandela missed Sunday service, preferring to take part in a fight against boys from another village, he was given a hiding by the regent.
The church was always full on Sundays, men dressed in suits, women in long skirts and high-necked blouses -- a style favoured by missionaries at the time. The local minister, Reverend Matyolo, was a popular figure whose fire-and-brimstone sermons, seasoned with a dose of African animism, found a ready audience. But what impressed Mandela, even more than the rituals and ceremony, was the impact of missionary education. The African elite of the time -- clerks, teachers, interpreters and policemen -- were all products of missionary schools.
At the primary school at Mqhekezweni, a one-room building next to the royal residence, Mandela showed no particular flair, but he was a diligent learner and received special attention from his teachers, taking homework back every day to the Great Place, where an aunt would check it. The subjects he studied were standard: English, Xhosa, history and geography. They were taught, in the tradition that missionaries had long established, with a notable British bias, for the missionaries believed in the virtues of the British Empire, British culture and British institutions just as much as they did in the virtues of Christianity.
Thus Mandela grew up a serious boy, respectful of the chieftaincy, the Church and British tradition. At the Great Place, his solemn demeanour earned him the nickname Tatamkhulu, meaning Grandpa. He spent much time in the company of Justice, Jongintaba's son and heir, a student at Clarkebury mission who was four years older, admiring him for his outgoing nature, his achievements in sport and ballroom dancing, and his success with young women, wishing he could be as accomplished.
At the age of sixteen, Mandela underwent the ritual of circumcision. It was an event not just of passing interest among the Thembu and other Xhosa-speaking peoples, but of fundamental significance. The elaborate ceremonies for initiates, lasting several weeks, marked their passage to full manhood. Without circumcision, no Thembu male could marry, set up his own home, inherit his father's wealth or participate in tribal councils. In Thembu tradition, he would remain a boy.
Preparations for the sacred rites of the abakhwetha, the groups of youths undergoing circumcision, were made well in advance, involving whole families. To prove that they were ready to accept adult responsibilities, initiates were required to undergo a number of ordeals which had been prescribed for generations. The most important was the act of circumcision itself. It was performed by an ingcibi, a surgeon skilled in the use of an assegai blade, who sliced off the foreskin with a single, quick motion. No word was spoken; no sound came from the circle of parents and relatives looking on. No matter how severe the pain, the initiates were instructed not to betray the slightest emotion, not to moan, clench a fist, or even frown or blink. To do so would be to incur shame and ridicule. Without a moment of hesitation, once the cut had been made, their only action was to shout, `Ndiyindoda!' -- 'I am a man!'
After the ceremony, the initiates were secluded in a specially constructed lodge for weeks on end under the guidance and discipline of an overseer who instructed them on the rules of manhood and ensured that they adhered to strict lodge rules and activities. Their bodies and heads were shaved and covered in white clay until the end of their seclusion. Humbled by the experience of initiation, the abakhwetha were welcomed back into everyday tribal life with gifts and songs and feasting.
The occasion of Mandela's circumcision was more important than usual, for the group of initiates -- twenty-six in all -- included Justice, a royal son, and the ceremony was held at a traditional place for circumcision for Thembu kings at Tyhalarha, on the banks of the Mbashe river. In accordance with Thembu tradition, Justice was both preceded and followed by commoners. Waiting in line, Mandela heard the first boy call out `Ndiyindoda!' followed a few seconds later by Justice. Suddenly, the ingcibi was before him. `The pain was so intense that I buried my chin in my chest,' he wrote in his autobiography.
Many seconds seemed to pass before I remembered the cry, and then I recovered and called out `Ndiyindoda!' I looked down and saw a perfect cut, clean and round like a ring. But I felt ashamed because the other boys seemed much stronger and firmer than I had been; they had called out more promptly than I had. I was distressed that I had been disabled, however briefly, by the pain, and I did my best to hide my agony. A boy may cry; a man conceals his pain.
Once the period of seclusion was over and the initiates, now daubed in red ochre, had been welcomed back to society as men, Mandela's spirits revived. His gifts included two heifers and four sheep -- the first property he had possessed. `I remember walking differently on that day, straighter, taller, firmer. I was hopeful, and thinking that I might some day have wealth, property and status.'
A succession of speeches followed, delivered by fathers and tribal elders, lengthy discourses on Xhosa customs, beliefs and etiquette, on the host of responsibilities that initiates now faced and on the standard of behaviour expected of them. The speech that stuck in Mandela's mind was one by Chief Meligqili, a brother of Jongintaba. He began with conventional remarks about the importance of tribal tradition, but then became increasingly outspoken about the plight of the Xhosa under white rule. They were, he said, slaves in their own country, with no power or control over their own destiny, performing work for the whites to make them prosperous. The talents and abilities of young Xhosa men, like the initiates present, were meanwhile squandered. Without freedom and independence, the Xhosa nation would die.
Mandela was irritated by the speech and put it down to the ramblings of an old man who did not understand the value of education and the other benefits that white rule had brought.
The career laid out for Mandela at the age of sixteen seemed assured. His guardian, Jongintaba, intended that he should continue his education, climbing steadily up the mission school ladder, until he was fit for service in the Thembu royal household. His destiny, like that of other members of the Left-hand House before him, was to become a counsellor to the Thembu chieftaincy. Mandela readily accepted such an outcome. He saw himself fulfilling a role at the heart of Thembu society, upholding the authority of the chieftaincy and maintaining traditions of which he felt immensely proud.
The alternative, as it applied to the vast majority of young Thembu men of his age, was for him to seek work far beyond the borders of Thembuland, in the mines or on the farms of white South Africa. There was a certain glamour attached to such journeys. Men returned home after months away in dashing attire -- flared trousers, sharp-pointed shoes, striped ties, wide-brimmed hats and coloured handkerchiefs -- bearing tales of the excitement of city life, of trams, motor cars and electric lights, and bringing with them new possessions like gramophones. They spoke of the mines as places of daring and courage where men were able to prove their manhood.
But more lay behind the exodus of men from Thembuland and other African `reserves' than tales of adventure. The reserves were becoming overcrowded, without sufficient grazing land or arable land to support their growing populations. Parts of the Transkeian Territories consistently failed to produce enough food to meet local needs. The burden of taxation, like the poll tax, added to the spur to men to find wage employment, as it was specifically designed to do. The result in the Transkei, once one of the most prosperous African areas in South Africa, was that by the 1920s nearly half of all able-bodied men were absent from their homes at any given moment on long spells of contract labour. In villages like Qunu, where Mandela grew up, the population consisted predominantly of old men, women and children.
However much Mandela was attracted by stories of adventure and money far afield, Jongintaba decided otherwise. Once he had completed his primary education at Mqhekezweni, Mandela was sent to Clarkebury, the mission school which Justice had previously attended. Jongintaba himself drove him there, in his Ford V8, westwards across the Mbashe river, with Mandela wearing his first pair of boots, given to him to mark the occasion.
Clarkebury was the most advanced educational institute in Thembuland. It had been founded in 1875 through the efforts of a Wesleyan minister and with the help of funds donated by Thembus themselves. It served as both a secondary school and a teacher-training college, as well as providing practical training in carpentry, shoemaking, printing and other trades. It was also the centre of a Methodist network of forty-two outstation schools in Thembuland, including the primary schools at Qunu and Mqhekezweni which Mandela had attended. Its buildings were on a far grander scale than anything he had previously encountered.
On arrival, Jongintaba, himself a former pupil, took Mandela to meet the school principal, the Reverend Cecil Harris. Hitherto, Mandela had had few direct dealings with whites. At Qunu, the only whites to be seen, apart from the local magistrate and the local storekeeper, were occasional travellers and policemen. At Mqhekezweni, white government officials and traders had often called at the Great Place to speak to Jongintaba and Mandela had observed them from a distance. But, as Jongintaba explained while they were on their way to Clarkebury, the Reverend Harris was different from all of them. A man renowned for his understanding and affection for the Thembu people, he was regarded by them as a Thembu himself. One day, said Jongintaba, he would be entrusted with the upbringing of the future paramount chief, Sabata Dalindyebo. He was to be treated with as much respect and obedience as the regent himself. In the principal's office, as he was introduced by Jongintaba, Mandela shook Harris's hand, the first time he had shaken hands with a white man.
Mandela soon discovered that the Reverend Harris ruled Clarkebury with an iron rod. His countenance was invariably severe. Punishment was handed out swiftly to anyone who transgressed the rules. Students went in fear of him and the staff, both white and black, tended to adopt a servile manner.
In private, however, Mandela came to see a different figure. Because Jongintaba had asked the principal to take a special interest in Mandela, in view of his likely destiny as a royal counsellor, the Reverend Harris had arranged for him to work in his garden after school hours, instead of participating with other pupils in manual labour elsewhere. There Mandela observed a more gentle man, often lost in thought, taciturn but broad-minded and devoted to the cause of educating young Africans. His wife too made a favourable impression, carrying out to the garden warm scones and passing the time in conversation. The Harris family were the first white family with whom Mandela became familiar.
At the age of nineteen, Mandela moved up the mission school ladder to Healdtown, a Wesleyan foundation sited at the head of a large and fertile valley six miles from the village of Fort Beaufort in Ciskei, an area where many of the frontier wars had been fought. It had been established in 1857, originally for the education of Mfengu as a reward for their loyal service to the British cause, but had since grown into the largest educational establishment for Africans in South Africa, providing a wide range of schooling for boys and girls, from primary education to the end-of-school matriculation examination. Its Christian and liberal arts education founded on English grammar and literature had profoundly influenced generations of students. Most of the staff came from Britain and the English model provided the basis for all teaching. The principal, Dr Arthur Wellington, was a man who liked to boast to pupils of his connection to the Duke of Wellington, the British general who defeated Napoleon at the battle of Waterloo. Mandela recalled, `We were taught and believed that the best ideas were English ideas, the best government was English government and the best men were Englishmen.'
Healdtown was also renowned for its spartan routines, attributable in part to a shortage of mission funds. Breakfast in the dining hall, overlooked by portraits of George VI and former Healdtown teachers, consisted of a mug of lukewarm water with sugar and a piece of dry bread; anyone who wanted butter had to buy it. Lunch on three days of the week consisted of meat, beans and samp-porridge made from coarsely ground maize; on other days, there was no meat. Supper was the same as breakfast.
Wednesday afternoons were set aside for sport. Friday afternoons were free. Saturdays were spent in competitive sports against other schools. They were also the one day of the week when pupils were given permission to walk to Fort Beaufort, a village which boasted a general grocer's store and a fish and chip shop. On Saturday nights, once a month, there was a film show and, occasionally, a concert given by a local music troupe. On Sundays, boys attended church in their full uniform: grey trousers, white shirts, red-and-yellow-striped ties and blazers with a badge on the pocket and the Latin motto Alis velut aquilarum surgent -- They soar as if with the wings of eagles.
There were more than 1,000 pupils at Healdtown. They mostly came from Xhosa-speaking districts and, after school hours and at weekends, tended to keep to groups from their own home areas. But some came from further afield in South Africa, as well as from the British protectorates of Basutoland, Bechuanaland and Swaziland. To Mandela, they were mostly strangers. His sense of identity in belonging to the Thembu tribe broadened to include the Xhosa people in general but not yet a wider African community. He felt quite bold at having as a friend a Sotho-speaking African and was amazed to discover a Sotho-speaking teacher there who was married to a Xhosa woman. He had never known of anyone marrying outside his tribe before.
Mandela adapted well to life at Healdtown. He much admired his housemaster, the Reverend Seth Mokitimi, took up long-distance running and boxing, became a prefect and in due course passed matriculation, enabling him to climb to the top of the mission school ladder, the South African Native College at Fort Hare.
Before he left, the Xhosa writer and poet Samuel Mqhayi paid a visit to Healdtown. Mqhayi was renowned for his performances as a mbongi, a praise-singer and orator in the flowery court tradition of the Xhosa people. He was often at odds with the educational establishment. He had once taught at Lovedale mission school, but left teaching because he opposed the way African history was presented. His own writing was a major source of inspiration to early African nationalists. In 1927 he had written seven stanzas for the song `Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika' -- `God Bless Africa', a song composed by the Xhosa teacher Enoch Sontonga in Johannesburg's Nancefield location in 1897 which African nationalists had decided to use as their anthem.
Gathered in the dining hall, the entire school watched as Mqhayi, dressed in a leopard-skin kaross and hat and carrying a spear in each hand, walked on to the stage from a side door, followed by Dr Wellington. For Mandela, it was an electrifying moment. He listened enthralled as Mqhayi declaimed against the curse of foreign culture, predicting how the forces of African society would eventually overcome it. And when he ended with a well-known praise-poem about the Xhosa people, his school audience rose to their feet clapping and cheering. It was an event, said Mandela, which for him was `like a comet streaking across the night sky'.
Fort Hare was an educational institute for Africans of unique importance. To reach there, as Mandela did in 1939 at the age of twenty, represented a great achievement. To obtain a degree from there, so few were the number of graduates each year, ensured personal fortune and advancement in any career then open to Africans. No other place in South Africa offered such opportunity.
Like most of the African education system, its origins lay largely in missionary endeavour. Three missionary churches -- Anglican, Methodist and Presbyterian -- had combined their efforts to establish a centre for higher education where none previously existed. The site they chose, on mission lands belonging to the United Free Church of Scotland, lay within and adjacent to the ramparts of Fort Hare, the largest of all the border forts, built in 1846 and named after a British officer. It stood on a small plateau overlooking the Tyumie river, half a mile from the village of Alice and near to Lovedale mission. Only one of the old fort's buildings, a square blockhouse, was still standing, but the lines and trenches, once manned by British soldiers, were still clearly visible.
There was no imposing building in which the college could start, only a collection of rudimentary bungalows, one of which was adapted for use as a hostel, another as a classroom and a third as a house for the principal. The sanitation was primitive, there was no gas or electricity, and water for bathing had to be drawn from the Tyumie river. At the opening ceremony, in February 1916, the platform for dignitaries was erected under an awning of railway wagon covers on what had once been a parade ground for British troops.
There was also a shortage of African students qualified to enter higher education. Only one school in South Africa at the time, Lovedale mission, provided secondary education for Africans. Of the first intake of students at Fort Hare in 1916, sixteen had to undertake a four-year course in order to pass matriculation. The initial task at Fort Hare, in fact, was to ensure that African students could reach the minimum standard required for university entrance. The first graduation ceremony was not held until 1924.
The eventual success of Fort Hare was due in large part to the efforts of the two original members of staff, both of whom were still active when Mandela arrived in 1939. One was a Scot, Alexander Kerr, educated at Edinburgh University and appointed principal at Fort Hare at the age of thirty. Free of the racial attitudes common to most whites in South Africa, he was devoted to the cause of African education, taught English with a rare passion and maintained firm discipline. The other was an African teacher of legendary talent, Dr Davidson Jabavu. The son of a well-known Mfengu teacher, he had been refused admission as a day scholar to a high school for white boys in King William's Town, so he was sent instead to Wales to complete his secondary education. He had studied at the University of London, graduating with honours in English, obtained a diploma in education from the University of Birmingham, then visited Negro schools in the United States before returning to take up a post at Fort Hare at the age of thirty. He spoke Xhosa, Zulu and Sotho; played the piano and the violin competently; trained and conducted the college choir; and taught Latin, Bantu studies and history with the same enthusiasm and verve he gave to music. He was also active in Church affairs, in journalism, in politics and in founding an agricultural society. At graduation ceremonies at Fort Hare, Jabavu was a favourite subject for the praise-poems of the mbongi, Samuel Mqhayi.
Under the guidance of these two teachers, Fort Hare expanded year by year. The first permanent buildings were finished in 1920. New hostels were built, each accommodating students according to their Church denomination. The Methodist hostel, Wesley House, was completed in 1922. No account was taken of tribal affiliations and women were admitted on equal terms. One of the first two graduates in 1924 -- the first Africans with a South African university degree -- was Z. K. Matthews, who went on to study at Yale University before returning to Fort Hare in 1936 as a lecturer in anthropology and native law. By 1938, the year before Mandela arrived, the number of graduates had risen to seventeen and the number of students to 150. No longer was Fort Hare needed for matriculation purposes, as secondary schools like Healdtown were by then able to provide a sufficient number of qualified entrants.
Mandela arrived, a tall, thin figure, proudly sporting his first suit, a double-breasted grey outfit given to him by Jongintaba to mark the occasion. He was assigned a place in Wesley House in a wooden-floored dormitory of sixteen beds with lockers and cupboards, along with other first-year students. Also resident at Wesley House, in his third year there, was a distant cousin, Kaizer Matanzima. Like Mandela, Matanzima was a descendant of King Ngubengcuka, but he came from the Great House and was destined to become chief of the Emigrant Thembu, part of the tribe that had split away in the nineteenth century. They became close friends. Matanzima took an avuncular interest in Mandela, introduced him to soccer and shared his allowance with him. They attended church services at nearby Lovedale mission together. Mandela admired Matanzima, looking up to him as he had to Justice. He introduced Matanzima to his great wife and stood as best man at their wedding in 1940. But they were later to become political adversaries.
Mandela adapted to the routine at Fort Hare without difficulty. In his first year he studied English, anthropology, politics, native administration and Roman Dutch law. In his second year he opted to take an interpreter's course, thinking that he might settle for a career as an interpreter in a magistrate's court or some other government office -- positions of considerable importance for Africans. He joined the Dramatic Society, took part in soccer and cross-country running competitions and spent hours honing his skills as a ballroom dancer to the tunes of Victor Sylvester on a crackly old phonograph. His personal habits changed. He wore pyjamas for the first time, used toothpaste instead of ash to clean his teeth and a toothbrush instead of a toothpick, and used toilet soap instead of blue detergent to wash.
He also joined the Student Christian Association. The tradition at Fort Hare was for students to set out on foot in groups on Sunday mornings to conduct services and Sunday schools in nearby villages, in accordance with a long-established practice inherited from the missionary institutions in which they had been educated. In addition to religious talks and teaching, the students would hold discussions on more mundane matters such as village sanitation and the prevention of disease.
On such occasions Mandela was often accompanied by a serious-minded student named Oliver Tambo. Tambo came from humble origins from the village of Bizana in Pondoland, north-east of Thembuland. The tribal scarification marks on his cheeks were to remain throughout his life. His parents were poor, illiterate peasants but he had been rescued from village life by Anglican missionaries. At Holy Cross mission in Pondoland, he had been so impressed by the workings of the church that he resolved to become a priest himself. `I arrived there on Easter day, and I shall never forget that moment,' he once told an Anglican priest, Father Trevor Huddleston. `We entered the great church while the Mass of Easter was being sung. I can still see the red cassocks of the servers, the grey smoke of the incense, the vestments of the priest at the altar.' Having reached the mission's highest class, he was sent to an Anglican school in Johannesburg, St Peter's, the first school in the Transvaal at which Africans could take matriculation, and from there gained a scholarship to Fort Hare. A resident of the Anglican hostel, Beda Hall, he saw little of Mandela at the time, but the enduring friendship they eventually forged was to become a central part of Mandela's life.
Remote as Fort Hare was from the outside world, it was nevertheless touched by the gathering momentum towards world war. From the warden of Wesley House, students heard of each development abroad and gathered round an old radio to listen to patriotic speeches. When General Smuts, the deputy prime minister, called in at Fort Hare while campaigning for South African support for the British war effort, Mandela cheered him to the hilt.
His own fortunes, however, were soon to suffer a serious setback. An abiding grievance among students at Fort Hare was the monotony of the food. It was an issue which constantly preoccupied the Student Representative Council. The low fees charged at Fort Hare, to ensure that students from poor backgrounds could gain access, meant that there was little room for variation in diet. Towards the end of Mandela's second year, complaints about food reached one of their periodic boiling points. A meeting of students unanimously demanded an increase in the powers of the Student Representative Council to enable it to deal with their grievances. A majority voted to boycott elections due to be held for the six members of the council unless their demands were met. Mandela, nominated to stand as a candidate for one of the six seats, voted in favour of the move. The election was duly boycotted by a majority of students, but a minority of twenty-five went ahead and elected six members, one of whom was Mandela. The six then decided to resign on the grounds that they did not enjoy majority support and sent a letter of resignation to the principal, Dr Kerr.
Dr Kerr accepted the resignations, then arranged for new elections to be held the next day in the dining hall at supper time, when the entire student body would be present. At these new elections the same twenty-five voters supported the same six candidates, but this time Mandela's five colleagues accepted the result. Mandela alone held out, deciding to resign once more. He was summoned by Dr Kerr, who, after calmly reviewing the matter, asked Mandela to reconsider his decision, pointing out that he could not allow students to act irresponsibly and warning that if Mandela insisted on resigning he would be expelled from Fort Hare.
When set against the opportunities that awaited Mandela and the expectations of his family and his guardian, Jongintaba, who had paid for his education and provided him with a home for twelve years, the issue was an utterly trivial one. Mandela well knew that a degree from Fort Hare was a passport to success. Time and again, his teachers -- Kerr, Jabavu and Matthews -- had stressed the life of privilege and prestige to which graduates could look forward. Mandela himself had dreamed of how he would be able to care properly for his mother and sisters, restoring the family fortunes that had been lost upon his father's dismissal as village headman.
What overcame him was a fit of stubbornness of the kind for which his father had been renowned. When he appeared before Dr Kerr the next morning, he was still largely in a state of indecision, but, confronted with the need to decide, he declared that in good conscience he could not serve on the Student Representative Council. After a moment's thought, Dr Kerr replied that he would allow Mandela to return to Fort Hare for a third year, provided that he joined the Student Representative Council. In the meantime, he would have the summer holiday to consider the matter.
Mandela returned to Mqhekezweni to face the wrath of Jongintaba. Jongintaba brooked no argument about Mandela's behaviour, which he regarded as senseless, and ordered him to obey Dr Kerr's instructions and to return to Fort Hare after the summer holiday to complete his third year.
In all likelihood, Mandela would have returned to Fort Hare, but for an unexpected development. In accordance with Thembu tradition, Jongintaba, in his old age, had begun negotiations to arrange a marriage for both his son, Justice, and his ward, Mandela, without informing either of them, to settle the matter before his death. A few weeks after Mandela's return to Mqhekezweni, Jongintaba summoned them both and told them not only who their brides were to be but that the marriages would take place immediately.
Mandela had had a number of love affairs. He enjoyed the company of women and felt able to relax with them in a way he was unable to do with men; with women, he could admit his weaknesses. He was not short of admirers, being a handsome man, powerfully built, with an engaging laugh, a radiant smile and dark piercing eyes. He was also by nature a romantic, whose education had distanced him from the notion that an arranged marriage was an acceptable fate. The bride whom Jongintaba had chosen for him came from a respectable family; her father was the local Thembu priest. Mandela had also known for many years that Jongintaba might exercise his traditional prerogative to arrange a marriage for him, but the reality of it was more than he could face. He briefly tried to enlist the support of the regent's wife, NoEngland, but Jongintaba remained unmoved. The idea of seeking a solution through tribal intermediaries, as custom allowed, he did not pursue.
Justice was no more enamoured of the prospect than Mandela and together they decided to run away. Justice, always more of a playboy than a serious student, had struggled to complete his secondary education at Healdtown for several years. He had recently returned from Cape Town and, with Jongintaba's consent, had made plans to take up employment as a clerk at a gold mine outside Johannesburg. Johannesburg seemed the obvious destination for both of them.
First, they waited for Jongintaba to depart for a scheduled week-long visit to the Transkei capital, Umtata. Then, needing money for the journey, they deceived a local trader into paying them for two of Jongintaba's prize oxen, implying that they were selling them on his behalf. They then hired a car to take them to the local station, only to find that Jongintaba, suspecting their escapade, had been there before them and instructed the station manager to refuse to sell them tickets should they appear. Considerably shaken by this, they drove off in the hired car to the next station. After taking the train to Queenstown, they disembarked, hoping to be able to arrange travel permits for Johannesburg, without which they risked arrest. By chance, at the house of a relative with whom they stayed, they met Chief Mpondombini, a brother of Jongintaba. Claiming that they were on an errand for the regent, they explained their need of travel documents from the local magistrate. Having no reason to doubt their story, Mpondombini agreed to help and accompanied them to the magistrate's office. After listening to the chief's explanation, the magistrate issued the necessary permits. But before handing them over, he decided to check first on the telephone with the chief magistrate in Umtata. By a remarkable coincidence, Jongintaba happened to be visiting the chief magistrate when the call came through. When told what was happening, he shouted out in anger, `Arrest those boys!' loud enough for Mandela to hear. Mandela managed to stave off arrest, but left the magistrate's office in humiliation and disgrace, without the travel permits. Some time afterwards, he and Justice succeeded in arranging a lift to Johannesburg in a car driven by an elderly white woman visiting relatives there, but for a sum which took virtually all their remaining money.
Mandela's fall from grace had been swift. One minute he was part of an African elite, attending the most advanced educational institute for Africans in South Africa, assured of prosperity and prestige in whatever field of work he chose and welcomed at home in the ruling circles of the Thembu people. A few weeks later he had fallen foul of the authorities at Fort Hare over a triviality, forsaken the patronage and goodwill of his guardian, Jongintaba, his benefactor for twelve years, and laid a trail of deceit and lies in an escapade arranged in haste and with wanton impatience. Now he was bound, virtually penniless, for a city renowned for its harsh and violent character, without the slightest idea of what lay ahead.
List of Illustrations ix
1 The Mission School Ladder 1
2 Johannesburg 23
3 Friends and Comrades 53
4 The Apartheid Machine 68
5 The 'M' Plan 95
6 The Freedom Charter 123
7 'The Fabulous Decade' 143
8 A Trial of Endurance 160
9 Spear of the Nation 192
10 Capture 213
11 Operation Mayibuye 233
12 The Rivonia Trial 245
13 Prisoner 466/64 279
14 A Double Ordeal 303
15 Soweto 319
16 Free Mandela! 337
17 Talking with the Enemy 353
18 The Football Club 371
19 Botha's Tea Party 384
20 A Step to Freedom 389
21 The Third Man 414
22 Winnie's Trial 429
23 Codesa 439
24 Winnie's Downfall 453
25 The Sunset Clause 461
26 The Loneliest Man 480
27 The Election Roller-Coaster 495
28 Reinventing South Africa 517
29 The Bitter End 533
30 The Gravy Train 543
31 Dealing with the Past 551
32 Passing the Baton 565
33 L'Envoi 574
Notes on Sources 601
Select Bibliography 613
Posted October 10, 2011
No text was provided for this review.