Thursday, 04 October 2007

Legends of Mandela #1

On the eve of his retirement from politics in 1999, Nelson Mandela and a charity with which he was associated became the target of a "gravy train" urban legend.

In mid-1999, Achmat Dangor, a literary legend of the anti-apartheid days and now become chief executive officer of the Nelson Mandela Children's Fund, heard a disturbing story.

A group of Members of Parliament had enjoyed a sumptuous meal at a Cape Town restaurant, along with his entourage, when the time came to pay. They refused, saying that the restaurant was being honoured by their presence. Eventually, after much argument, they agreed to pay by cheque. And the cheque was from the Nelson Mandela Children's Fund.

The first time he heard it, Dangor was able to shrug it off as a silly rumour. But by the time he heard the third version of the tale, attributed to a third restaurant, he realised the Fund had fallen victim to an urban legend. He contacted the local talk radio station, Cape Talk, to set the record straight.

And that's when the legend gained new wings, or at least when the size of the wings it had already gained became apparent. One caller said that, at her pottery class, the pottery teacher had told almost the same story:

A friend of hers had gone into a hairdresser called Step Ahead, in the Riverside Centre. As she walked in, Winnie Mandela came out. The hairdresser showed the friend the cheque Winnie had just paid. It was from the Nelson Mandela Children's Fund.

The person recounting the story said that she was so angry when she heard about it, she told her husband, and he brought it to the attention of the Democratic Party city councillor in Pinelands, and he had promised questions would be asked.

There is no record, however, of how the Cape Town city council coped with such damning evidence directly from a friend of a friend's mouth.

By the time I participated in a discussion of the legend on Cape Talk, the legend was on its way to being well and truly buried. It was so similar to an epidemic of Operation Hunger legends, in context, structure and plot - except intensified by the fact that it was Nelson Mandela's own pet project implicated - that it simply could not stand up to scrutiny.

An urban legend far more suited to Nelson Mandela's stature came to light in the late Arnold Benjamin's wonderfully and gently humorous column, So It Goes

, in The Star on 23 July 1999. He had unearthed it in a then-new book of legal anecdotes, Law, Life and Laughter: Encore, compiled by Professor Ellison Kahn of the Wits Law School. First, however, a warning for the sensitive: it contains a grievous bodily pun:

The Occasion was during 1991, when Mandela was guest speaker at a meeting of the Transvaal Law Society at a hotel near Rustenburg. 'In the middle of his speech, the lights failed.

Prescient, he said: "Will all those who want the lights to go on please raise their hands."

All raised their hands. Immediately the lights went on.

Without hesitation, Mr Mandela said: 'You see - many hands make light work.'

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