Not my spiritual father, which remains Mandela, but my real father. A man of Victorian manners and deep integrity, he’d died in 1979 – weeks after I discovered he had terminal cancer. I feel deep guilt at his graveside – because when he was dying I failed to be there. I also missed his funeral.
Here’s how, and why.
As an 18-year-old law student in 1972, I’d been beaten up by baton-wielding white policemen and arrested for ‘obstructing the police in the course of their duties’ on the steps of the Anglican St George’s Cathedral.
Oh, and a few more times since then I’d had brushes with the apartheid regime that I considered immoral and illegal. Many white youngsters like myself were anti-apartheid. After finishing my law degree, I refused to serve as an officer in the apartheid regime’s armed forces.
In exile in London, possessor of a British passport thanks to my parentage, I went about my reporting on African, eastern Europe and the Middle East – little thinking I would ever see my ideal realised of a democratic non-racial South Africa in my lifetime.
But suddenly the shock of discovering my father was close to death a year later changed everything. Refusing to serve in the army is a serious crime. My sister said my father had begged her to stop me coming back: he was sure I would be jailed – for refusing to serve in the apartheid army. My sister warned me: ‘If you come back and get locked up, that would really kill him.’
What could I do? Distraught, I asked the chief of the army in a pathetically pleading letter in Afrikaans to give me official permission to come back, just once, on a mission of mercy. Many weeks later some military policemen arrived at my sister’s home and asked brusquely: Is your father dead yet?
By then he was dead – and buried. It took a decade before I was officially allowed back into South Africa – as a journalist reporting the momentous events of 1990. They were, to say the least, a dizzying surprise: the unbanning of the African National Congress, Mandela’s release, and the tortuous but ultimately successful path to a new democratic non-racial South Africa – an ideal for which I had striven since I was a callow youth in Cape Town.
Now I’m allowed back, I go to my father’s grave in Johannesburg on each visit to South Africa. I cry and say sorry.
Sorry for what? Sorry I had not been there in his dying months, days, hours. Sorry I had had to leave the country — sorry I only got back years after he died.
Sorry us whites had left a tyrannical racist government in power, while Mandela languished in prison with other comrades-in-arms.
I’d first met Mandela by a stroke of good fortune. This is how it happened.
The day after he was released from prison he’d held a witty and very wise press conference on Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s manicured lawns. I’d worn a ‘Free Mandela’ T-shirt as we listened to Mandela’s historic speech from the balcony of the once-all-white Cape Town City Hall. I wore it again at the press conference, to the disdain of some of my journalistic colleagues.
A few days later I was about to check in for a flight from Cape Town to Johannesburg, travelling economy class, when I saw Mandela himself at the Business Class check-in desk. Money no object, I decided to upgrade my ticket.
On board, I found the business class cabin was occupied by only two people – Mandela and me. Half an hour into the flight I sidled up to him, and he noticed the same ‘Free Mandela’ T-shirt I’d worn at his press conference. ‘Come sit next to me,’ he said, ‘and just call me Madiba’ – his clan name.
So what do you talk about on an air-flight with a man who’s just spent the last 27 years in jail? I pulled out an old black-and-white photo of him, as a young boxer, fists raised.
He chatted enthusiastically about that photo, and about boxing – the entire trip. Not a word of politics. Boxing, he explained, had taught him fair play, respect for merit as the only criterion for success, and how to use tactics to defeat your opponent. It was very useful training, it turned out, for the complex and at times very combative negotiations that would lead four years later to the end of white rule.
Sport was a way to bring black and white together in a divided South Africa, he said, a policy he later very successfully pursued.
Madiba asked about my political background, and I told him a bit about my days as a white liberal University of Cape Town student. He said he’d gained enormous encouragement when, in Robben Island prison, he’d heard about our anti-apartheid protests in 1972, violently dispersed by the police – the first time white students were assaulted.
Madiba said he had seen the local newspaper’s front-page headlines when a copy was smuggled in… he even remembered a photo showing my bloodied head and a smiling policeman smashing me with a baton.
I also told him of my own past involvement in breaking away from the all-white cricket leagues, and how I had worked to use sport, apartheid’s Achilles heel, as an effective tool to break open the once seemingly-impregnable apartheid regime.
After that on-board chat Madiba seemed to adopt me as his pet journalist. When he saw me among colleagues, for example when he was guest-of-hour at the momentous 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, he would, to my mild embarrassment, beckon to me and say: “Oh Paul, how are you? Come over here. How are we doing?” We were on first-name terms, though I doubt he remembered my surname!
He would sound me out over his controversial sports policies; though, as on that issue we agreed on everything, my influence was probably very minor.
I went with him on some of his political rallies – marvelling at how, for example, he could almost instantly charm even white farmers and their wives from the conservative Orange Free State – who minutes earlier were convinced they were about to meet an unreformed terrorist on their lawns.
‘We should lock him up, never mind offering him some tea,’ said one lady. Ten minutes later she told me Mandela was actually a very nice man, and so polite. Those same farmers are now doing quite well – thanks to the compromise and moderation that Mandela advocated and epitomised.
His successful use of sport as a tool of national racial reconciliation culminated, of course, in his donning the green-and-gold jersey of the once-hated Springbok rugby team and triumphantly holding the World Cup aloft alongside the Springboks’ white captain in Johannesburg.
In December 2013 he lay in his open casket at the Union Buildings, once the seat of white power, I saw his face – still so vivid, so calm, so lifelike. His coffin was draped with the new green-and-black South African flag.
I marvelled at what had been achieved since our first flight together in 1990.
Here he lay, saluted by white policemen and soldiers and generals, one generation from the white people who had locked him up for 27 years.
Walking down the hill afterwards I saw a team of men erecting a huge statue of the great man, arms outstretched – this, so fittingly, on the day the coffin of the country’s first black leader was finally led away by a police motorcade, saluted by army helicopters, all from the new democratic South Africa for which Madiba had fought. To make way for Madiba’s towering image, a much smaller statue of a white South African prime minister, was moved to the side of the garden.
I never had a chance to tell Madiba about my father’s words of caution and pessimism back in 1972. My father had told me on the way from the police station to a hospital that he was proud of me, but I must never do that again. I was now a marked young man, he said. Resistance to white rule was right – but futile.
As I stood by my father’s grave again, I felt sure my dad would understand why I had not obeyed him.