Letter from Africa: The Mandela test

Nelson Mandela (January 1994)

In our series of letters from African journalists, Ghana's Elizabeth Ohene remembers the characteristics of Nelson Mandela that endeared him to the press corps.

For years the only image there was of Nelson Mandela was that famous picture of him at his trial, the defiant, young, attractive man, hair parted in the middle as was the fashion of the time.

I had built an image of him based on that old photograph and I tried to construct a personality from the haunting voice that came from the old newsreels and his writings.

The day Mr Mandela was released from jail I was so caught up with the events I had no time to consider what I thought or felt.

For the majority of black South Africans, the expectations were so high, I feared he could only disappoint, and for many of his white compatriots, the apprehension about the ogre they had been brought up to imagine him to be was such that, whatever he did, short of personally massacring them, he could only be seen as a success.

He had come back to a wife who was hated by half the world and adored passionately by the other half.

How was he going to deal with all these tricky situations and negotiate an end to apartheid and win an election?

Early morning runner

On first meeting the man, it was the physical presence that struck me. He was as tall as he looked in the photographs and then some more.

Stooped with age but once he started talking, the years peeled off; his eyes were very much alive and full of mischief.

He waged a one man crusade to get black South Africans to respect time and be punctual.

He lectured on the importance of punctuality at every opportunity.

He was often the first to arrive at his offices, sometimes before his secretary; many times, he arrived at rallies before the bulk of the people, sometimes before the sound system was fixed.

Image caption Mr Mandela spent 27 years in jail for fighting apartheid

Not for him the usual African practice of the crowds waiting for hours for the VIP to arrive.

I once had a conversation in Cape Town with a young man in Mr Mandela's security detail who told me about his first day at work.

Before going to bed they had been told "the old man" would get up at 05:00 for his morning run.

This young man woke up completely mortified to find "the old man" at his door, dressed in his track suit, waiting for the young people to get up to accompany him on his run.

I was part of a similar incident one day in Pietermaritzburg during the 1994 elections campaign.

I got down to the hotel lobby at 07:30, which was the start-up time we had been given, and there was Mr Mandela, pacing up and down by the front desk, his bodyguards and entourage had not come down.


And then of course he did not make long speeches, and that was guaranteed to make him popular with any journalist.

Then there was Winnie, the wife he had left behind. I did not like the breakup.

I kept asking myself how come this man who could work such miracles, who could turn a sceptical and hostile white community into adoring fans, not manage to keep a wife who had, to my way of thinking, kept faith with him for 27 years?

I decided I did not like him very much after all.

That was until the day of a Foreign Correspondents Association lunch in Johannesburg at which Mr Mandela was the guest speaker.

Image caption Mr Mandela's ex-wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela (R) was beside the widowed Graca Machel (C) at the funeral

After the speech and the questions, as he was eating his salad lunch, he overheard me having an argument with a colleague who had chaired the session.

I was, with my tongue firmly in my cheek, accusing the man of sexism for not calling me to ask a question.

"The young lady is obviously right," he intervened, much to the chagrin of my colleague.

And then Mr Mandela turned and said to me: "Why don't you sit down with me and ask your questions without going through him?"

The glint in his eyes said clearly he knew I hadn't been entirely serious with my accusations of sexism. But he was happy to join in whatever game I was playing.

His famed charm had captivated me.

Then he married Graca Machel and I decided he was in safe hands.

In the year 2000, my Nelson Mandela events ended and he remained safely in my mind as the man who did not disappoint.

If he had died in jail, which had been a daily probability for 27 years, we would never have known really how to assess him.

Out of jail he could easily have become one of the many great men of our age who were exceptional during times of crisis, like Churchill, De Gaulle, Ben-Gurion, Eisenhower, or the great African leaders who led their countries to independence and freedom, like Nkrumah, Banda or Kaunda, but when it came to peacetime, and ruling the people, they were found wanting.

Creon, in Sophocles' Antigone, put it this way:

"Of course you cannot know a man completely, his character, his principles, sense of judgement, not till he's shown his colour, ruling the people, making laws… there's the test."

Luckily for us all, Mr Mandela lived to be put to the test, the Creon test, what I now call the Mandela test and he passed it with flying colours.

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