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When I met Nelson Mandela

As world leaders travel to South Africa to pay their respects to Nelson Mandela, white anti-apartheid campaigner Dr Aron Mazel, who grew up in Cape Town and is now a lecturer at Newcastle University, reflects on his chance meeting with the former president in 1990, just a fortnight after his release from prison

Published: December 12, 2013 at 9:20 am
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Q: When did you become an anti-apartheid campaigner, and what did it entail?


A: I started in the early 1980s. I had made friends in Pietermaritzburg [the capital and second largest city in the province of KwaZulu-Natal], and through my conviction – and theirs – against apartheid, I got drawn into the political process.

Initially this was through what later became the UDF, the United Democratic Front, which basically through the 1980s functioned as the internal wing of the ANC [African National Congress] in the country.

I was an archaeologist at the museum, so I had a day job, but over the weekends and evenings I was involved in political activity. In the early 1980s with friends and colleagues we would be out on the streets campaigning against the government.

This meant going door-to-door, asking people not to take part in the national party political activity. The government was trying to draw people, certainly from the coloured communities, into their political process, and we were campaigning against that.

From the mid-1980s onwards there was a lot of violence in and around Pietermaritzburg. At the forefront in the townships were young activists, kids as young as 14 or 15, and with the ebb and flow of the violence a lot of them got flushed out of the townships.

These kids needed refuge, so my wife and I and my friends would take them into our homes, look after them – some of them would from there go off into exile, others went on to other things. There was one young woman who stayed with us on and off for six years.

Also, from about 1986 onwards, I started to use my camera in the townships, photographing what was going on, because there was very little getting out.

I spent a lot of my weekends out in the townships photographing rallies, events, funerals – a whole range of things. I used the museum dark room on a Saturday afternoon or Sunday morning to develop the film, print the photos and try to get them out. Occasionally I had pictures published in the national and international press.

Q: What motivated you to become a campaigner?

A: I grew up in a family which had suffered quite a lot through the Holocaust. My grandparents were killed on 23 August 1941 along with 7,500 people in the town that my father grew up in Lithuania.

I think from a young age I had a deep sense of injustice around oppression, and I think it must have been partly nurtured through that experience. And although I might not have been completely conscious of it at the time, subliminally I think I had a sense of the impact oppression had on people.

Q: How did you feel when the world started to wake up to what was happening in South Africa?

A: From the early 1980s people had been campaigning inside South Africa for the release of Mandela, and then it became a worldwide campaign.

Although he was still in prison, the ANC that he was the internal leader of was tolerated on the streets before the government did that legally.

When Mandela came out it was an absolute thrill. I at the time did not have a television, because my wife and I did not want to expose our young daughters to what was being shown – the propaganda – so we had to go to some friends to watch his release.

It was an incredible thrill to see that, and it was very emotional to know that what people had been striving for for many years – and particularly in the previous 10 years – had now come to fruition, and Mandela was free, and there was some kind of a normalisation – although it still took a bit of time – of political activity inside the country.

Q: You actually met Mandela – can you tell us about that?

A: In February, about two weeks after he was released [from prison], he came down to KwaZulu-Natal and he made a speech which has gone down as being quite famous, where he told people to throw their weapons into the sea.

And he was booed at that event – it was quite interesting to see people booing him and then walking away. There were thousands of folk there.

But he obviously had a vision for what should go on, and I’m not sure how much he actually knew about the violence on the ground in and around places like Durban, but particularly Pietermaritzburg, which is where I was from.

About a month after that, in the Pietermaritzburg area, there was quite a lot of violence – 20,000 people were displaced from their homes and about 200 people were killed. This had a huge impact on the area around Pietermaritzburg, and Mandela himself came to see what had been happening, to give people comfort and also to rally people – to give them strength to carry on.

He did a lot of press conferences and rallies during that time, and one of the places he visited was a township called Mpophomeni. He visited the Catholic church there, because it there had been vandalised, and he wanted to see what had happened.

My friends and I were at this church having a look at it, and I’d walked around the back of the church and Mandela was in the front, and we both entered the church at the same time, and there was just the two of us in the church.

We walked towards each other, we shook hands, we had a conversation – I think we asked how each other was – and then we both went out the ways we had come in, on the opposite sides of the church.

But it was quite a magical moment to meet this man that one had heard so much about. There was a fantastic presence and aura about him, and also humility – he asked who I was and so on.

Q: Could you believe you had met him?

A: I don’t think so. You know, it was a chance happening. What can I say, it was absolutely fantastic.

And about a year-and-a-half after that, in late 1991, I attended a wedding of a man who was the general secretary of the congress of South African trade unions, which was one of the primary organisations fighting against apartheid.

Mandela was at the wedding, and my young daughters danced in front of him together with some other lasses, and that was also fantastic to see – the sparkle in his eyes, and the absolute pleasure that he had in seeing these kids.

One hears about Mandela’s love of children, and I can tell you it was certainly not something that was just made up for news purposes. He absolutely was thrilled by seeing these young lasses dancing in front of him.

He told a funny story at the wedding – he arrived quite casually dressed in white, and everybody else was formally dressed. Mandela was well known for paying a lot of attention to his clothes.

He gave a speech at the wedding – it was really interesting and quite funny. What he said had happened was, he had been in prison for 27 years, and although it was a year-and-a-half after he had been released I think he was still finding his way in society, so he had asked one of his daughters what he should wear. And she said ‘look, these are young people, so you should go quite casually dressed’.

So he dressed casually with a white shirt, white trousers, white shoes, and when he arrived, everyone else was very formally dressed, and he obviously felt a bit put out by this. It’s just a funny anecdote, which shows the way he was quite self-deprecating in some ways as well.

Q: Were people excited that he was there?

A: Mandela wasn’t alone in being a high profile figure at the wedding – there were other people from the ANC. It was incredible to see all these people together.

I think Mandela would be the first to acknowledge that although a lot of praise gets heaped on him, there were several of them who worked together from the mid-1940s onwards who did an amazing job in terms of keeping the ANC going and then ultimately bringing freedom to South Africa.

Q: Given your personal connection to Mandela and the anti-apartheid cause, how did you react when you heard that he had died?

A: I think with everyone else I was extremely sad. We knew it was going to happen in the sense that he was 95 and he had been frail for a while, but then when it actually happened it came as a shock and with great sadness.

If you get the news reports from inside South Africa there is sadness on one hand, but there’s a joy and celebrating the life of a man who lived to the age of 95 and accomplished much of what he had set out to do in his life. I think one has to celebrate that as well.

Q: What do you think will be Mandela’s legacy?

A: I think his legacy is going to play itself out in years to come. One of his legacies will be the fact that he calmed the country down in the early 1990s.

I remember in April 1993, Chris Hani, a key figure in the ANC, was assassinated by white supremacists. There was lot of anger associated with that because Hani was an extremely popular figure, loved by the youth in the townships, and there was a lot of violence beginning to unfold in the wake of his assassination.

It was Mandela – the government could not have done this – I remember, who came onto television that night and he basically calmed the country down. And that was just remarkable. He had the ability to do that.

I think that legacy of calming the country down, the legacy of forgiveness and trying to bring people together, is one which is going to last for a long time.

I think there have been some issues – South Africa has made mistakes – but if you look at some of the images coming out of South Africa today, of non-racial crowds gathered around Mandela’s house, I think that’s just something to behold, that’s absolutely incredible – it’s not something you would have seen 25-30 years ago.

The legacy is the platform he has set, which will hopefully live on into the future.

Q: Do you think there will ever be anyone like Mandela again?

A: He emerged in a particular historical framework. I can’t see that there will be [anyone like Mandela], certainly not for the foreseeable future.

He and his colleagues had a special responsibility vis-a-vis their country, and I can’t see in the next wee while there being someone of his stature emerging – not just South Africa, but anywhere in the world.

Dr Aron Mazel, from the International Centre for Cultural and Heritage Studies at Newcastle University, grew up in Cape Town and lived in Pietermaritzburg from 1979 to 1997, where he worked at the KwaZulu-Natal Museum.


To hear Dr Mazel's interview in full, look out for this week's podcast.


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