Wednesday, 24 October 2007

Legends of Mandela #3: Living legend

On June 12 1964, the day that the Pretoria Supreme Court jailed for life Nelson Mandela - described in one news report the next day merely as "a Johannesburg attorney" - and seven other accused in the Rivonia Trial, a pop group called the Beatles were greeted in Australia by a screaming mob of 25 000 fans.

It would be 26 years before even larger crowds would greet Mandela, but the beginnings of the legend were already clear outside the courthouse. Singing crowds - numbering 1 000 black and white supporters - carried banners which read, "We stand by our leaders" (Read his statement from the dock here). Years later, pop stars would honour his name in song, and his birthday would be celebrated throughout the world.

He is one of those rare human beings who has achieved mythological status in his own lifetime, yet has never sought to exploit that status for personal gain.

According to those who knew him in the years after his release, he remained a humble man, if sometimes impatient with those who didn't see the world in his terms. His strenuous efforts to put past indignities behind him underlined his character as a person who has put the needs of a people ahead of his own ego. Little wonder, then, that urban legends should have swirled about him.

Tim Cohen of Business Day neatly captured the mythology that had already solidified behind Mandela in a feature entitled:

"Mandela's saintly reign a case of hit or myth"

Long before Nelson Mandela was sent to prison, the story goes, he was accosted by a white woman who mistook him for a shop assistant and ordered him to load shopping into her car. Mandela politely explained he did not work in the shop and went on his way.

After he left, someone in the shop took the woman aside and asked her if she knew who she had been speaking to. She replied that she did not. That, she was told in reverent tones, is the leader of South Africa's black people.

Another version of the story is that he helped the woman change a flat tyre, and that he refused money afterwards, but the woman was told the same thing after receiving his assistance.


"The strange thing is that no one seems to be sure whether the stories are true," wrote Cohen on May 11, the day after Mandela's inauguration as president. "Such is the mythology that surrounds Mandela, people tend to tell stories about him which are somehow embellished until they become legend-like. Like so many other larger-than-life figures, his persona is so overpowering that tales of his good deeds and talents tend to overtake him."

There are other legends, less heroic, less dramatic.

One of these is bizarre not in the content of the legend, but that it should be believed at all. It is a claim of a quote included in the May 10th inauguration speech. According to Wikipedia, a famous text by Marianne Williamson is often claimed to have been spoken by Mandela at his inauguration as President of South Africa.

"This is an urban myth; there is no record of Mandela ever having spoken these words in public," states the Wikipedia entry. Williamson's quote, from her poem, Our Deepest Fear, has been used in several inspirational movies:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn't serve the world. There's nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We are born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us, it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.


Stirring words, but Mandela never spoke them. There isn't even a debate: the text of his inauguration speech is readily available online, and can be read here.

And then there is this tale told during the 1994 election campaign by the Weekly Mail & Guardian's Krisjan Lemmer:

... when Nelson Mandela had completed his election roadshow into the Eastern Cape, he was due to fly to his next destination from Queenstown. When his cavalcade arrived at the airstrip, it stopped near a small group of white people on the apron and Mandela got out and thanked them profusely for coming to see him off, saying that he had not expected a farewell committee. He then jumped into his waiting aircraft and took off, leaving the "farewell committee" standing agape. When asked what the problem was, they said they had just arrived from Kokstad to attend their children's sports day.

Read Nelson Mandela's blog here
.

Adapted and updated from "Ink in the Porridge: Urban Legends of the South African elections" (Penguin, 1994)


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