CAPE TOWN — Like most South Africans, I have never met Nelson Mandela nor heard him speak--despite, in a sense, living in the same city for 25 years.
The closest I got was being arrested for publishing an interview with his African National Congress colleague Oliver Tambo.
Yet, for most of my adult life, this black nationalist sitting in jails within miles of my home has been a powerful and brooding presence--a crucial piece forced from the South African political jigsaw by a government evading reality.
He has been a steadily-growing force for South Africa to reckon with during his more than quarter of a century in jail. His 70th birthday on Monday is a day for celebration and political reflection locally and abroad.
I recall an incident when I was a young reporter on the Cape Times in the early 1960s. Mandela paid my then-editor an unscheduled visit. The tall, earnest black leader was on a tour of newspaper offices, informing journalists about his ideas. But it was not an ordinary call, because Mandela was at the same time eluding the police. In fact, he managed it for many months before being betrayed, arrested and later jailed for life for sabotage he contemplated but did not commit.
The editor was deeply moved by this visitor and confided to colleagues that he was one of the most impressive human beings he had ever met. History bore out this judgment.
The South African government has admittedly been in an dilemma over whether to release Mandela. He is a potential force of decisive influence in South African destiny. In a sense, it is not Mandela but the government that has been imprisoned. It has not known what to do with him.
If he is released, his immense reputation, locally and abroad, will put new pressure on the government. If he remains in jail, it is grossly unfair, considering that murderers can get out after less than half the time he has served. Moreover, if he dies in jail, it will undoubtedly spark new black unrest. His reputation grows the longer he stays in his cell; the government thus remains his reluctant promoter and jailer.
Sitting behind the walls of Pollsmoor prison, Mandela is a living indictment of apartheid and the government that (with modifications) still pursues it.
Glimpses of Mandela span my career as a Cape Town journalist. I recall the polite request made to me a few years ago on behalf of Mandela for regular copies of the Cape Times, which for some reason had dried up at his Pollsmoor cell. It was rectified quickly, with plenty of back copies.
Another is how Mandela got to know of the Tambo interview. The interview happened to appear on the day Mandela underwent an operation in a Cape Town hospital early in November 1985. I was told that one of the first things he heard, when he came around, was nurses talking about the clandestine interview the Cape Times had conducted with Tambo. He apparently did a sideways jump for the paper, as far as he was able under the constraints of emerging from an operation and read it with interest. (We joked at the time in the newspaper office that maybe he thought the surgeon's knife had slipped and he had passed to some ideal state, so unusual was it for Tambo to be quoted in a local newspaper--in fact, it was illegal.)
Mandela has not many years left on earth. He is a moderate nationalist in the mold of Zambia's Kaunda or Tanzania's Nyerere. His political views were formed in the 1930s and 1940s. He has, because of his incarceration, not been able to make the mistakes that free men make. Jail has ennobled him. If the government had released him years ago, there was a chance that he might have been obscured in the labyrinth of history, a lesser figure than in captivity. Or, of course, he might have fueled black resistance more powerfully than the quiet, donnish Tambo. The Botha government dared not take the chance.
The Afrikaner government, vociferous in its criticism of the British role in history, is making a British colonial mistake. By the sustained jailing of a black leader, it is creating a figure of immense influence. It is helping to bury itself.
In a way, because of their political vintage and their declared moderate stance, Mandela and Tambo are the South African whites' last hope. Both are elderly. When they pass on, the strident, understandably bitter black youngsters whose guerrilla careers were honed by police bullets in Soweto in 1976 and the more recent unrest will be the force for whites to settle the future with--if at all. For whites who want a permanent place in Africa, the best deal is now. And Mandela's release is a prerequisite for such a settlement.
Even if there were not an overwhelming humanitarian case for releasing Mandela, the political case remains. It is the right moment for P.W. Botha's government to take the risk. Then all South Africans can get down to serious negotiating about their common future.