The rebel with a cause

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Nelson Mandela was anti-establishment from a young age, writes Ray Hartley.

In the rush to canonise Nelson Mandela as a towering figure of the establishment, we should not forget that the authority of his later years was built on a foundation of youthful rebelliousness.

To understand this, you have to revisit his roots in the Eastern Cape Xhosa royalty. Mandela was born into the abaThembu royal house. His great-grandfather Ngubengcuka was ruler of the abaThembu. One of his sons, “Mandela”, was Nelson Mandela’s grandfather, hence the surname.

Mandela was never in line to inherit the throne, but his father, Gadla Henry Mphakanyiswa, was a adviser to the monarch. He was a polygamist, with four wives and 13 children. Mandela’s mother was Gadla’s third wife.

From this establishment family emerged a young man steeped in tradition. In his words from Long Walk to Freedom: “My life, and that of most of the Xhosa at the time, was shaped by custom, ritual and taboo. This was the alpha and omega of our existence, and went unquestioned. Men followed the path laid out for them by their fathers.”

But from his father Mandela inherited what he called “a proud rebelliousness, a stubborn sense of fairness”. His father was sacked from his job as councillor by a white magistrate on the pretext of corruption, but the family version was that he had paid the price for standing up to the magistrate. The young Mandela took note.

Mandela was raised in the royal house of abaThembu chief Jongintaba Dalindyebo, who treated him as a son. He followed an education route designed to build an establishment career — perhaps as a translator in the administration — attending the Healdtown Methodist college in Fort Beaufort and, later, Fort Hare University. There he shared accommodation in the Wesleyhouse dormitory with two people who would, in their own ways, shape South Africa. One was Oliver Tambo, the other Mandela’s nephew Kaiser Matanzima.

But something was eating Mandela. The “proud rebelliousness” he inherited from his father was developing into a critical political consciousness.

His eyes had been opened by a dramatic speech delivered after his circumcision. Mandela, the recipient of cows and sheep in honour of attaining manhood, was entertaining the possibility of a life of relative wealth and tranquillity. Chief Meligqili cruelly shattered his illusions. “After listening to him,” Mandela wrote, “my gaily coloured dreams suddenly darkened.”

It is worth quoting Mandela’s recollection of what Meligqili said at some length: “There sit our sons, young, healthy and handsome, the flower of the Xhosa tribe, the pride of our nation. We have just circumcised them in a ritual that promises manhood, but I am here to tell you that it is an empty, illusory promise, a promise that can never be fulfilled. For we Xhosas, and all black South Africans.

At Fort Hare, Mandela organised his first rebellion. He had established a house committee for first-year students, which challenged the representatives of older students. But his big clash with the establishment had no lofty political overtones. It was over the quality of the food served to students. He was expelled.

On his return to Mqhekezweni in 1940, he discovered that Jongintaba had planned an arranged marriage for him. His response was to throw over the table of traditionalism. He fled for the bright lights of Johannesburg.

What is fascinating is how Mandela and Matanzima’s paths diverged. The two were close enough for Matanzima to be best man at Mandela’s wedding. But Matanzima was the ultimate insider, seeking power and influence at whatever price.

The white government would declare him “paramount chief” of a newly invented tribe, the “emigrant Thembus”. He would become a champion of the homeland system and the hated “state president” of Transkei. Mandela’s path was one of rejection of the system.

Mandela’s rebelliousness was complicated. The abaThembu royal house stood outside of Matanzima’s faux establishment. Eventually, the regent, Sabata Dalindyebo, would flee into exile with the ANC in Zambia in the 1970s. Mandela could have followed a political path within the Dalindyebo dynasty, which was challenging the establishment in its own way. But his rejection of an arranged marriage showed that his rebellion was not just political. He did not want to be defined by others. He wanted to express himself in the manner of his own choosing. He wanted to chart his own course.

He would find a political home in the ANC. But even there, he was an outsider. It is frequently forgotten, perhaps because it does not chime nicely with the “miracle” of the transition from apartheid, but Mandela was implacably opposed to the notion of non-racial political cooperation.

He would soon organise a rebellion against the ANC old guard for its cooperation with whites, Indians and communists. He founded the ANC Youth League and, when the ANC establishment balked at his Africanism, had them thrown out and replaced by the more militant James Moroka.

If it had not been for his friendship with the likes of Joe Slovo and Ruth First, forged while studying law at Wits (he flunked after failing to apply himself to his studies), Mandela may never have come round to non-racialism.

Mandela’s ability to act decisively and stubbornly against the prevailing current — as he did when engaging in talks with the apartheid administration before the ANC was entirely ready for this, or his determined championing of reconciliation — have their roots in his youthful rebellion against the establishment. But, unlike James Dean’s delinquent Jim Stark, Mandela was a rebel with a cause.


Picture Caption: Nelson Mandela, then leader of the ANC Youth League, with ANC president James Moroka, left, and president of the South African Indian Congress Yusuf Dadoo, outside a Johannesburg court during a trial connected with the 1952 Defiance Campaign.

By: Ray Hartley

Ray Hartley graduated from Rhodes University

Source: The Times (South Africa)