by Bill Batson
According to the most recent reports, Nelson Mandela’s health is improving, but his condition is still serious. I spent the entire week leading up to Father’s Day thinking about South Africa’s first democratically elected President. Mandela and my father are about the same age. Just this January, my father was hospitalized for a week with a lung infection similar to the one that Mandela is fighting.
Having lived in South Africa for two years in the 90s, I was privileged to meet Mandela and some of the men who served time with him during the 27 years of captivity that preceded his presidency. Here are two illuminating anecdotes about Mandela that I meditated on this Father’s Day weekend.
In his 1994 autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela chronicles how a black prisoner of a racist white apartheid government became the president of a multiracial nation. But the story of how the book was produced is worthy of its own chapter.
During my time in South Africa, I got to visit Robben Island, where Mandela was held as a political prisoner from 1963 until 1982 (He spent 82’-88’ at Pollsmoor and 88’–90′ at Victor Verster). That day, I met two of his former cellmates and leaders in the African National Congress, Walter Sisulu and Ahmed Kathrada. Kathrada described to me the collective process by which portions of the book were written, concealed and smuggled off Robben Island.
“As the president wrote, he passed on the pages to me for my comments. I then read them to Tata Sisulu; I wrote both our comments and handed them back to the President. He then wrote the final version. This was then handed over to Mac Maharaj (currently the official spokesperson for South African President Jacob Zuma) and Laloo Chiba (who served as a member of Parliament.) These two fellow prisoners then wrote the manuscript in tiny handwriting. I think the 500-600 pages were reduced to 50. These pages were concealed in the covers of an “album” which was constructed by Chiba. Maharaj who was released after twelve years, in 1976, carried the album out of Robben Island and sent it abroad.”
When the original text of the autobiography was discovered by prison authorities in a garden on Robben Island, the punishment was swift and cruel. Mandela, Sisulu and Kathrada lost their access to paper and ballpoints for a period of approximately four years.
On Mandela’s 80th birthday, I conducted a workshop with students from NYC who reduced the pages of Long Walk to Freedom back into the smallest script possible. Even without the hardships of incarceration, the students struggled to legibly reduce the text to the 10 to 1 ratio that the prisoners accomplished. We mailed our “Tiny Writing Project” to Mandela as a birthday present.
When first published, Long Walk to Freedom revealed previously unknown details about Mandela the lawyer, boxer, military leader and diplomat, but to the surprise of some, he was also an actor.
“Our amateur drama society made its yearly offering at Christmas. Our productions were what might now be called minimalist: no stage, no scenery, and no costumes. All we had was the text of the play,” Mandela wrote in his autobiography of how he and his colleagues passed their time on Robben Island. “I performed in only a few dramas, but I had one memorable role: that of Creon, the king of Thebes, in Sophocles’ Antigone.”
Apparently, Mandela found the work of Greek playwrights “enormously elevating.” “What I took out of them was that character was measured by facing up to difficult situations and that a hero was a man who would not break down even under the most trying circumstances.”
In the play, King Creon must decide whether or not to give a proper burial to one of his sons, Polynices, who had been killed during a rebellion against his father’s throne. Antigone, Creon’s daughter, rejects her father’s decision and buries her brother. Creon’s response was merciless.
“At the outset, Creon is sincere and patriotic, and there is wisdom in the early speeches when he suggests that experience is the foundation of leadership and the obligations to the people take precedence over loyalty to an individual,” Mandela wrote.
But ultimately, Mandela sided with Antigone. “Creon’s inflexibility and blindness ill become a leader, for a leader must temper justice with mercy. It was Antigone who symbolized our struggle; she was, in her own way, a freedom fighter, for she defied the law on the grounds that it was unjust.”
In 1998, on a return trip to South Africa, I shook hands with Mandela on a rope line, but was unable to ask him to sign the copy of Antigone that I had brought with me. The manner in which I eventually got his autograph demonstrates the profound sweep of South Africa’s transformation.
A member of the President’s security team saw the book in my hand and asked me if I wanted Mandela’s signature. The towering bodyguard could have been a body double for Dolph Lundgren. He had the bearing of a seasoned member of the South African Defense Force, which meant that a few short years before he was assigned to protect President Mandela, he was part of a government determined to hold him captive, and extinguish his dream of South African multiracial democracy. He may have even served as a guard on Robben Island.
Three months after the anonymous security official made his unsolicited and magnanimous offer, I received Mandela’s autograph on my copy of Antigone in the mail.
Life is always fragile, but never as much as during an illness in our advanced years. A friend who lives in South Africa holds her breath each time she says or hears Mandela’s name. Another friend, who met Mandela in New York during his 1990 visit, which included an incredible Yankee Stadium rally and a ticker tape parade, is bracing for the loss of his leadership in the world. “He gives us our moral center,” she declared.
So I spent father’s Day 2013, contemplating the mortality of two ninety-some-odd-year-old-men. Viva! William Prime Batson. Viva! Nelson Mandela. Viva: to these tough and decent men! Viva!
- Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela will be 95 on July 18.
- William Prime Batson will be 92 on October 22.
Special thanks to Jerry Dunfey and Nadine Hack for making all three of my trips to South Africa possible.
Bill Batson is an activist, artist and writer who lives and sketches in Nyack, NY. Nyack Sketch Log: Father’s Day Mandela Meditation” ©: 2013 Bill Batson.