A very special Christmas with Nelson Mandela

My husband, Adrian Hadland, is a prolific and incredibly fast writer. He has written so many books that I lost count after 15. I’d like to think I’m a good influence on this score, not least of all because I force him out of bed every day at the crack of dawn (and often before) to get to work while he has a book underway. Call me a slave-driver!

His industry hasn’t made him rich, but it has brought in some nice pocket money from time to time. Adrian used the proceeds of The Life and Times of Thabo Mbeki”, an unauthorised and controversial biography of South Africa’s second president, to take me on a memorable trip to the exotic Indonesian island of Bali.

A very important aspect Adrian has carefully mulled over each time he has completed a book has been his dedication.  “The Life and Times of Thabo Mbeki” was dedicated to me and the co-author’s wife Pearl Rantao.

Adrian’s latest book, a weighty academic work that could possibly be his magnum opus and which is currently being examined by a US publisher, is dedicated to my 7-year-old, Timothy.

Only a handful of very clever people are expected to appreciate Timothy’s work when it gets into print. Timothy’s name is on this one because, as the youngest, he is the only person in the family who has not received a book dedication from Adrian – and that’s what there is available at this time.

Although Adrian produces very serious pieces he also has this rare ability to write for children. One of his books for the Under 12 market  – and one dedicated exclusively to me – is called “Nelson Mandela: The prisoner who gave the world hope”. Published by Short Books, it is on school and library lists in various countries, including the UK.

When we first arrived in Scotland, my eldest son told some children at school that his Dad had written books, including on Mandela. One boy and his family were so certain Nicholas was fibbing that the mother took the trouble to tell me that my son had been lying about his father meeting Mandela and that these kinds of tales were not going down well.

Later, Nicholas came rushing home with the news that some classmates had found “Nelson Mandela: The prisoner who gave the world hope” in the school library. On the one hand, Nicholas was relieved because there was independent evidence that he had been telling the truth.

On the other, there was much talking about – gasp of embarrassment – a spelling mistake! It turns out his classmates and their parents thought “Afrikaans” should have been “Africans”.  (Just in case you don’t know: Afrikaans is a language which has Dutch roots.)

So, for the record, Adrian Hadland did meet Nelson Mandela many times. Perhaps the most special Christmas celebration of all for Adrian was the one he spent with Nelson Mandela at the first black South African president’s home in Qunu. Adrian reflects back on it in an obituary he wrote for a UK newspaper, which I thought I would republish here on my blog this month as South Africans everywhere mourn Mandela’s loss.   – Jackie Cameron

A tribute to Nelson Mandela.

By Adrian Hadland*

One of several books on Mandela, by Adrian Hadland. This one is dedicated to "Jackie, my wife and muse"!

One of several books on Mandela, by Adrian Hadland. This one is dedicated to “Jackie, my wife and muse”.

On August 4th, 1981, Glasgow became the first city in the world to bestow the freedom of the city to Nelson Mandela. In its time, this was a bold statement.

In many parts of the globe, including the UK, public sentiment was not very favourable towards the man who hadn’t been seen in public life for almost 20 years. Lucky to escape the hangman’s noose, Mandela was imprisoned for life in a Pretoria courtroom on charges of terrorism in 1964.

After his conviction, he was immediately shipped back to the terrifyingly harsh Robben Island prison where he chopped rocks with a hammer in the harsh sun for most of the next two decades.

Here, in the UK, Margaret Thatcher had only been in power for a year or two by 1981 and quickly lost interest in the plight of Mandela and the liberation movement he led. Supported by US President Ronald Reagan and by the interests of global big business, she quashed efforts to impose economic sanctions on South Africa’s whites-only regime. Instead, she invited South African President PW Botha to visit the UK in 1984, encouraged trade and castigated Mandela’s beloved African National Congress (ANC) as “a typical terrorist organisation”.

So it was no mean feat for Glasgow to step forward in the early 1980s to publicly acknowledge the qualities of a man who, not too many years later, would be hailed as one of the world’s greatest leaders.

Glasgow’s recognition was extraordinarily prescient. Even among the senior leadership of the ANC at that time, it wasn’t widely known that Mandela, deep in the confines of his stone prison, had begun to work his magic.

As South Africa tipped into violent conflict and moved inexorably toward a race-based civil war, he secretly met with Botha’s emissaries, including the Minister of Justice Kobie Coetsee, and began to talk about the country’s future.

What sort of terms would be needed to bring about peace in South Africa? Who would negotiate such terms? What kind of model of democracy would be needed to shift the nation away from the brink of war and toward tolerance and justice?

Offered freedom on condition he eschewed violence, Mandela refused. Before the ANC would drop its weapons, he demanded certain guarantees including universal franchise, democratic government, the unbanning of political parties, the release of political prisoners and the end to racial segregation.

Holding out while these talks continued for many years came at considerable personal cost. He went on a prolonged hunger strike to improve conditions in the prison. His wife, Winnie Mandela, ran off the rails and they were divorced not long after his release. He was unable to attend the funeral of his eldest son, Thembi, killed in a car crash. And the deprivation he suffered on that small island in the Atlantic for more than 25 years can only really be appreciated if you make the two hour boat journey from Cape Town harbour to ‘the island’ and see for yourself.

Remarkably, Mandela managed to convince both the apartheid authorities and his own party leadership that there was a route through the barriers of hate and history toward freedom. By the early 1980s, Mandela had so won over his prison guards he was free to roam the island. By 1988 he had moved into a vacant prison warder’s house on the mainland. And on February 2 1990, after more than 10,000 days in jail, he walked free.

Mandela: A LIfe (also by Adrian Hadland) was translated into several languages and proved popular in France.

Mandela: A LIfe (also by Adrian Hadland) was translated into several languages and proved popular in France.

When I visited him a few years later, in the remote town of Qunu on the east coast of South Africa, he had painstakingly rebuilt an exact replica of that prison warder’s house and made it his home.

Outside, it was a rather ugly, face-brick bungalow set amid the green, rolling hills of the area known as the Transkei. He loved the house. It represented his first taste of freedom for 25 years. On the inside, the house thronged with the noises of his family, of his grandchildren, as they prepared excitedly for Christmas lunch.

It was Mandela’s first Christmas as the newly-elected president of South Africa and I felt very fortunate to have been invited. At the time I was the senior writer of a new newspaper, the Sunday Independent. As a political correspondent who covered his ascent from prisoner to president, I had enjoyed a front row seat of Mandela’s difficult but fascinating journey to power.

On that Christmas morning of 1994, he and I (and a handful of his security guards) wandered the pathways of his youth. He showed me the rock he had played on as a child, the cluster of huts where he had slept. We met simple country people, many on their way to feast on the slaughtered cow now turning over a fire in his garden. They raised their arms and called ‘Madiba’, his clan name, for Mandela was a Xhosa prince as well as a democrat. When he went to court expecting the death sentence in 1964, he went in his tribal robes and prince’s crown.

There are so many moments to recall in my time with Mandela, good and bad. I was a few feet away when he swore the presidential oath of office at the Union Buildings in Pretoria and the airforce fighter jets roared over our heads to salute their triumphant new commander. I was also in court when he filed for divorce. He was as grim and somber as one could be.

I recall how he joked that when he moved into his vacant office in the Presidency there wasn’t a single chair, pencil or phone left behind by his predecessor and fellow Nobel peace prize laureate, Mr FW De Klerk.

Nelson Mandela and Adrian Hadland share a private joke, on Christmas day at the first black South African president's home in Qunu, Eastern Cape. This picture was taken by Anton Hammerl, an award-winning South African photographer who was killed while covering the Arab Spring in Libya.

Nelson Mandela and Adrian Hadland share a private joke, on Christmas day at the first black South African president’s home in Qunu, Eastern Cape. This picture was taken by Anton Hammerl, an award-winning South African photographer who was killed while covering the Arab Spring in Libya.

There were challenges to the press corps when covering such a man. He was adored and celebrated. He could do no wrong. This was not a journalism we were used to. Where was the scandal? The mistakes? The complacency of power? He would call on the phone to chat and laugh about the stuffy ambassador he’d just met or give some background on the press conference that would be called in the morning. He was totally disarming, as almost all who came to his world, friend and foe, soon realised.

He would have been the first to admit he wasn’t perfect. I learned this the hard way. One day he took off his reading glasses during a speech and announced that everyone over the age of 13 would get to vote in the next election. Sensation! We rushed to file our stories. The next morning, front page leads were laden with banner headlines and gaudy editorials.

Alas, this was just a spur-of-the-moment idea, a “Mandela-ism” as they became known to us in the corps. It had not even been discussed by the ANC who soon smilingly discarded the crazy notion into the dustbin of history. We learned our lesson. When he took off his glasses and moved off the prepared script, we put down our pens and notebooks.

He was also prone to the odd temper and on one occasion – the aftermath of the infamous Boipatong massacre – literally shouted at and abused his counterpart, De Klerk, in public.

The challenges he faced in rebuilding South Africa after 300 years of colonialism and apartheid were also truly overwhelming. He presided over more than 500 Acts of Parliament in his first and only presidential term, many fundamentally rebuilding the country’s governmental and social structure.

It will take many more years before the normalcy he dreamed off is achieved or the equality and development he yearned for will be realised.

Perhaps what Mandela is best known for, his greatest gift, was his capacity to forgive. He suffered greatly, beyond comprehension at times, but was able to win the admiration, trust and cooperation of his fiercest adversaries. He was a man of great principle, never compromising on his need to sound out opinion and decide things collectively.

Mandela learned true democracy at the fireside in an African village as he listened to the elders, including his father, debate and argue the issues of the day: All were listened to, all respected. If some opposed the way forward, the discussion was put off to another day. Only decisions that gained the support of all were adopted.

His roots and his beliefs are a reminder that democratic values form part and parcel of the ancient fabric of human life, going back to the earliest of times. Over the centuries, many have sacrificed their lives for such values and many more have blossomed in their light.

Scotland is part of this journey. Here too we ponder the true meaning and future of democracy. Here too we see a fork in the road ahead and wonder which way is the right one.

Mandela will soon be gone, but his legacy will endure. He was truly a great man, and it is to Glasgow’s credit, that it was the first city to say so.

* Dr Adrian Hadland is the director of the journalism programme at the University of Stirling. He worked as a political journalist in South Africa for 15 years covering the country’s transition from apartheid to democracy. He has published several books and book chapters about Mandela.

A shorter version of this obituary  appeared in The Herald newspaper in Scotland.


6 thoughts on “A very special Christmas with Nelson Mandela

  1. That’s a wonderful insight into the old man, thanks for sharing it, I can’t get enough of them at the moment. Christmas in Qunu must have been an incredible experience. I hope you put that mum right and the boys became heroes in their school for their association with Tata!

    The mourning period is now over but it still feels surreal and it’s difficult to let go. Television has been broadcasting his documentaries all week, which served as painful reminders of the amount of deprivation and hardship he endured. It’s easy to forget how incredible his story is, the fact that not only was he battling the institution that housed him and the Apartheid government, but also the young lions within his own organisation who believed he wasn’t radical enough. So not only was his life physically hard, he was subject to so many insults from so many quarters. That he emerged emotionally intact with that famous sense of humour is a story in itself.

    It is the strangest feeling to be sharing with so many other people around the country the same confusing sense of loss as well as joy and pride in everything he achieved. I doubt we will ever experience anything like this again in our lifetime and I feel privileged to have been led by such a man.

    • Gillian, thank you for your message. I’m glad you liked Adrian’s piece.
      I did attempt to put that Mum right.

      Most important of all, thank you Gillian for sharing what it has been like in South Africa over this period. The TV news has not conveyed this deep sense of loss that you are describing here and that so many people are experiencing.

  2. Lovely column, Jackie. Thanks for sharing stories of two very specia men. A quality Adrian shares with Madiba is his humility. I’ve never met anyone more intelligent, or more unimpressed by his own achievements. He takes pride in his work, certainly, but is not proud or boastful at all.
    Hope you have a wonderful Christmas
    Sent from my BlackBerry® wireless device

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