Queen's University

Meeting Mandela

News of the death on December 5 of Nelson Mandela brought back a flood of memories for Queen's grad Sara Beck, Artsci'93, who spent time in South Africa working for the ANC in the 1990s and experienced a brief "meeting" with the man South Africans affectionately knew as "Tata" -- father.

I have a wonderful picture of Nelson Mandela. I took it from a metre or so away from him. He’s smiling broadly, waving, his eyes squinting in the sun. I’m not sure, but I think he’s laughing at me. But you can’t tell that from the still image.

Mandala portraitNelson Mandela: a picture is worth a thousand words (Sara Beck photo)

There’s so much you can’t tell from the picture. You see him, his greying hair, his deeply wrinkled face. You see his trade-mark gaudy shirt. This one looks like it’s a mass of gold and fawn and white splotches with a black collar, until you look closely and see the tangle of cheetah faces emerging from the chaos. And the two black felt-tip pens neatly clipped to his breast pocket, ready for a quick autograph, but looking for all the world like they should be sticking out of Bill Gates’ pocket. You can look into his dark brown eyes and see they are going blue with age. But the picture doesn’t show the slow shuffle with which he moves. The stiffness in his shoulders. The hand that had to grasp his knee and lift his leg into the grey limousine. You see the huge necklaces of colourful beads, but not the pride on the face of the woman who put them round his neck. In the uncropped version of the picture, you see the security guard smiling, but not the gun at his waist or the gentle way he touched my shoulder as he led me into the press circle. A picture is worth a thousand words, but the story surrounding it needs far, far more.

I was doing volunteer work in the ANC archives, which are held at the University of Fort Hare in South Africa. My chance to meet Mandela started with a phone call. It was the Nelson Mandela Museum in Umtata calling. They thought we might be able to contribute something to their exhibit for the opening of the museum. Mandela had gone to Fort Hare, and they thought we might have some records.

We did.

Being the only one at the library with real museum experience, I immediately wandered off into the dustier corners of the stacks in search of a some long-lost motherlode of primary research materials. I’d already read The Long Walk to Freedom. Mandela talks about Fort Hare quite a lot in it. He mentions the good things, mostly: the illicit ballroom dancing sessions, the professors, meeting Tambo, the pride he felt as he wore his first suit and took the train to “Jabavu’s school.” Fort Hare was an achievement, and admission a source of pride for black students. He also mentions that he was effectively expelled, a fact that the now cash-strapped, prestige diminished Fort Hare is reluctant to admit these days. Still, we would have records of his two-years at the school, and I started to dig for them.

His student files are missing. So are Govan Mbeki’s, Chris Hani’s, Robert Sobukwe’s… No-one knows where the documents went. They might have been stolen by someone wishing momentos of great leaders of the struggle. They might have been purged when the apartheid government took over the university in 1960, stolen to hide the existence of the leaders. Maybe they were even stolen to be sold later: stolen by some naïve petty criminal who didn’t know you could never sell such things while the institution still existed. Not legally, anyway. Perhaps that was the point.

A photo of Mandela in a suit

Still, we had a few items. In the ANC Archives we had a photo of Mandela in the suit the regent bought for him to wear to his first day Fort Hare. We had old pictures of the university buildings, which I scanned and printed. We had some course calendars from 1939 to 1941 that listed all students, their religion, and the teams to which they belonged. Mandela and Oliver Tambo appeared on the same page. And then, I found my prize.

In a very dusty corner where the carpet was going mouldy, I found a pile of leather bound books. Some were ledgers of student fees. Some had nothing to do with the university at all. But one was the minutes of the South African Native College Debating Society, 1938 to 1941. In the middle was a debate from 1939, rebutted by Mr. N. Mandela. It was his only mention in the book, perhaps his first ever debate. He lost. Somehow, that touched me. Even an icon, even Mandela must lose sometimes. Even Mandela needed experience to learn.

My colleague and I collected up our treasures, knocked up some text and some exhibit labels, and drove up to Umtata the day before the museum was to open.

“Oh, it’s a shame you weren’t here an hour ago,” the curator said as we arrived. “You just missed him. He came to see how the exhibit was shaping up.”


I handed over the prized ledger, and sulked over missing the legend.

My colleague and I did manage to secure the tentatively promised tickets to the opening the next day, however. There were to be three opening celebrations—one in Mveso, the village where he was born; one in Qunu, the village where he grew up; and one in Umtata, at the museum itself. The first two events were out in the middle of nowhere, literally out in the fields. The last one was a formal affair. I’d brought clothes for each, just in case.

The museum curator used only a few of the things that we had gathered, the book of debating minutes being his favourite. As he went in search of an artefact loan form, I took the time to look around the exhibit still under construction. Pictures of Mandela as a young man adorned the walls on great sheets of cloth. His wedding with Winnie. Following Yusuf Dadoo through a crowd. An illegal speech, fist raised, face twisted in the act of shouting. The Rivonia trial mug shot. Robben Island in short trousers and a denim jacket, conversing intensely with bespectacled Walter Sisulu. There were film clips of a sibling telling stories of Mandela to children in a village. Clips of his speeches in his heavily accented voice. There were clips of Archbishop Desmond Tutu proclaiming the greatness of Mandela. Pictures of violence in the townships. The oppression under apartheid. Mandela had given his life to the struggle; he had endured. I had photos of him as a young man, held a book from 1938 with his name written in it.

Mveso drummerA Mveso drummer (Sara Beck photo)

And I had just missed him.

I remembered meeting Govan Mbeki, former president Thabo Mbeki’s father, being so nervous to meet someone who I’d read about in books and seen photos of and knew the legend of, and finding him so… normal, in a way. Polite. He could have been anyone’s grandfather. His eyes were bright, he welcomed me into his home, shook my hand, hugged my companions, talked about his fondness for Canada. I was completely put at ease by his graciousness. It wasn’t until he mentioned meeting international politicians at the conference centre in Banff that I was reminded that he was, in actuality, a powerful man. An icon and a leader in his own right.

What would it be like to meet Mandela? The great hero, Mandela. Would he be so charming, so gracious? Would he disarm me?

I’d missed him. Missed meeting him in a casual, closed setting, by an hour. Damn, damn, damn.

Dressing to meet Mandela

The next day was the big event. I was staying with my colleague at a guest house in Umtata. I had carefully planned my wardrobe, just in case we got to go to these openings. For the two open-air celebrations, I’d chosen linen slacks, a light blouse, my battered, only sandals and my battered, only Tilley hat. The events would go on for hours in the hot sun, and I would ruin any other shoes but my ancient black gladiator sandals and collapse from heat stroke without the hat. For the formal event, I had high-heeled shoes and a floor-length Indian cotton dress of indigo, embroidery, and braiding.

The next morning, in the guesthouse, I got dressed in my linen slacks and waited for my colleague as he phoned his wife one last time. There was a dog there. Sort of a dog, at any rate. It was a miniature dachshund, or perhaps it’s called a toy dachshund: not really a dog at all. The poor thing was so tiny, so inbred, it quivered constantly like a drunk with DTs. I picked up the little rat-like beast, feeling sorry for it, and stroked it for a while, trying to calm its miserable tremors. Then my colleague arrived, swinging the door wide and slamming it against the wall, and the wretched beast showed its true nervous character. The warm acrid puddle spread across my lap, sinking down to the flesh of my legs, dripping foully onto the floor.

I stormed back to my room to change. I’d worn the trousers, now rinsed and bundled into a plastic bag, the day before. The only other piece of clothing I had left was the dress. I sighed as I looked at myself in the mirror. Floor length Indian cotton dress of indigo, embroidery and cotton, battered black gladiator sandals, and battered white cotton broad rimmed Tilley hat. For the full effect, I put on my sunglasses and slung my camera bag around my neck. I looked, in a word, ludicrous. This was my big chance to meet Mandela, and I looked like a fool. I shook my head, thanked the gods of self-consciousness that there would be no mirrors to remind me of my appearance, and stomped off to pay my damned hotel bill. The woman behind the desk was sympathetic and kind. She even gave me some sun block to compensate for the low cut of my dress. “You’ll need it, dear,” she said, stifling her smirk.

Getting to the event was an adventure in and of itself. We got lost, and stopped at an enormous building surrounded by enormous fences to ask the two enormous policemen if we were heading in the right direction. They said yes, and not to worry, we weren’t late yet. We asked how they knew. They indicated to the enormous black military helicopter parked in the yard behind the fence. It looked like something out of a James Bond film. There were a dozen or so little boys there, ignoring the helicopter in favour of the cows that wandered lazily up and down the tunnel that ran under the road and across to the village on the other side.

“The helicopter’s still there,” the policeman said. “Mandela hasn’t left home yet.”

We’d pulled in to Mandela’s house. I wondered what would happen if I knocked on the door. Madiba’s front door. But I have never been that brave. These little boys with their meandering cows probably were, but not me.

On we drove.

It seemed to take hours to get there. Mveso is a tiny village, truly in the middle of no-where. We drove along the main highway until we saw the bent yellow cardboard sign loosely lashed to the bottom of a signpost with a tangle of string. “Mandela Museum”, and an arrow. We turned off the highway onto a dirt road. The road had recently been graded, probably for the first time since its creation, but still was filled with rocks and potholes. It wound through rolling hills of veld, crossing over river-fords that were mercifully low, passing through villages where children, chickens, donkeys and pigs stared with surprise as they scrambled to get out of the way.

At first we were alone, but soon were followed by a stream of cars: columns of BMWs and Mercedes and Audis, kicking great plumes of dust on villages that normally might see one car a day if they were lucky. This was, to me, the new South Africa: black men and women in BMWs and Mercedes and Audis and new suits and expensive dresses, travelling through the poorest villages where children and donkeys and chickens stared at them in awe, to honour a man who had come from them. Liberated them. The displays of finery alone were enough to feed all the villages for a decade, yet the sign for this celebration was bent cardboard, lashed loosely to the bottom of a post with a tangle of string.

As we neared the site, we could see the striped tent that had been erected and the field that had become a massive parking lot. About 500 metres away from the site we saw the military vehicles waiting by the helicopter landing pad: “hippos” and “caspirs”, and the silver-grey Toyota 4X4 with the licence plate NRH002. Nelson Rolihlala Mandela.

We saw people arriving from all over. Some in expensive cars, some in the backs of pickup trucks, some on foot. There was a central ring to the site. Inside was a tent for the dignitaries, another directly across for the VIPs to sit and watch the proceedings, and a smaller area for the press. Only people with special passes were allowed into the ring, and having passes only for the formal event, my colleague and I took up position at the rope barrier. I looked into the VIP tent. The crowd, I would guess, was three quarters black. Most were wearing western attire. There was the occasional black woman in semi-traditional finery, the occasional white woman in a Xhosa orange dress with a collar of beads. I remembered what I was wearing and blushed.

"The music was always stirring to me . . . ."

I dug out my camera – a peculiar shaped digital affair: one of the early digital SLRs – and affixed my newly acquired telephoto lens. It looked pretty impressive, very high-tech. Crouching below the tape barrier, getting dust on the hem of my skirt, I snapped off pictures of the performers who were entertaining the crowd as they waited for the great man. First, a group of children—teenagers really—in traditional dress. The girls wore short white skirts with black braiding, barefoot, smeared with white clay on their bare legs and breasts and faces. Some wore the elaborate beaded collar necklaces: borrowed heirlooms, traditionally worn only by married women to demurely cover their shoulders. The chalk designs were traditional too, though the meaning of symbols was all but lost. One had a Nike swoosh on her forehead. The boys wore the long white skirts of Xhosa men, now seen only in truly traditional costume. They carried assegai (spears) and knobkerries (long, thin wooden clubs with a knob at the end). One wore a blanket over his shoulder of red and green and black wool tartan.

The teenagers sang, danced. The music is always stirring to me, but the teenagers seemed self conscious, somehow. Restrained. They knew all the words, knew the music. There was no choreography as such, just what seemed to be an instinctive understanding of generally how the dance should go. It didn’t seem they were restrained because they didn’t know what to do. I wondered where they were from, what they would wear on a normal day. Jeans? Whatever they had? Was the culture really as alive as this display was trying to show?

Next came a group of women, also in traditional costume. Headscarves, beaded collar necklaces, long skirts, and their tribute to the work of missionaries—the now-traditional white apron with black braiding that is worn just under the armpits, covering the married breasts. These women had no restraint. They sang gustily. They danced with power radiating from their limbs. They revelled in their music, their dance, the crowd. They commanded us to pay attention. “We are women. We know we have power. This is us, this is our culture, this is who we are,” they seemed to say. I was in love.

The women, joyful in their traditional dress, sang loudly and without inhibition. (Sara Beck photo)

They were cut short, though, as the huge black helicopter flew overhead and landed nearby. A few minutes later the silver-grey Toyota 4X4 arrived, marched into the centre ring by a procession of majorettes in rumpled pink nylon dresses, white socks and Nikes, and white plastic hats. Instead of batons they carried miniature knobkerries wrapped in tinfoil.

The man himself had arrived.

Mandela was hustled into the tent, and disappeared, almost, from view.

I couldn’t understand most of what happened in the next hour. There were lots of speeches in Xhosa. There were two praise-singers—praise shouters, really—who yelled the virtues of Mandela to the crowd, whipping them up into a frenzy of noisy adoration. Some of the speakers were conscientious of their white visitors and tried to speak in English. Many spoke only Xhosa. One started speaking in English, but soon reverted to 10 minutes straight of Xhosa. He stopped and apologised to the whites. “I’m sorry, I know you can’t understand. But this is our language.” He said it with such pride, I beamed for him.

Finally, after about an hour, Mandela got up to speak.

I couldn’t see much from my position. I could just barely see his tall form leaning heavily on the podium with both hands. He began to tell stories of growing up, a barefoot child running the hills, the veld he loved so dearly. He talked about listening to his elders debate, while he, a small child learned oration and discussion and negotiation from them. It was magical, listening to the innocent beginnings of a great man. Then he spoke of his mothers, explaining that his father adhered to the traditional practise of polygamy.

“I overheard one of my mothers talking with another woman,” he said. “‘Does your husband beat you?’ she asked. ‘No!’ replied the other woman. ‘You poor thing! If he doesn’t beat you, then he doesn’t love you.’ So there you go, ladies. If we beat you, it is because we love you.”

Laughter roared from the men in the crowd. I just stared, my mouth open.

Spurred on by the laughter of the crowd, Mandela continued. “But my father, he was a clever man. He knew that his wives didn’t like to be beaten, so he would only ever beat them on the bottom. That way if they ever went to the authorities, they would have to lift their skirts to show the bruises for proof!” A roar of male laughter. “And that, they would never do for the shame of it!” There was cheering and applause. He seemed to revel in the jubilant mood.

I’m not sure if I imagined the change in his face or the tensing of his shoulders. Perhaps I invented in my mind the look of embarrassment. But I do remember very clearly the tightening of his voice, the speed with which he spoke. “Now, gentlemen, I am not giving you suggestions” he said. “I am just telling you how it was in my day.”

The next day I read the headlines from various newspapers around the world. “Story telling Madiba delights crowd” read Canada’s Globe and Mail.

Any other politician would be raked over the coals for such comments, but not Mandela. Not Madiba.

I had just witnessed the protection of a hero. The maintenance of a myth. The driving of BWMs through impoverished villages, because dammit, people needed something to believe in, some glimmer of hope.

He finished his speech. The crowd cheered. The women ululated. He was forgiven. We needed to forgive Mandela. We needed to love him. All of us.

As I walked back to my car, I stopped to take one last shot. A crowd of men, who had arrived at the celebration in the back of broken down pick up trucks, was gathered round a groundsheet of black garbage bags. The carcasses of unknown animals were spread in bloody heaps upon them, and the men grabbed gobbets of meat and hacked them into pieces with machetes, using splintering sticks of firewood as chopping boards. This, for Mveso, was the celebration. This was the people’s feast. His people’s feast. Thin mongrel dogs gathered round, searching hungrily for an opportunity. I pushed them out of the way, my skirt stained with oil from their filthy bodies, and walked, feeling ill, off to my car. I was not part of this. The feast was as real, as sumptuous, and as genuine of their love for Mandela. This feast honoured him in a way I could never understand. These were his people; this was his village. I left feeling very foreign, very much apart. Yet I was not alone. Much of the finery and all the BMWs left with me.

The next celebration was in Qunu.

I wanted to get to Qunu early, to try to get a good view. The members of the press, still at Mveso, were invited down to an outdoor art exhibit celebrating Mandela’s life. My colleague and I weren’t press, however, so rushed off to the next site.

There were lots of soldiers with "enormous rifles"

Qunu was much closer to the main road, but much more dusty. The crowd was already thick by the time we arrived. The set-up was the same: a central ring, cordoned off with tape, tent for the dignitaries, a tent across from it for the VIPs, and a small tent off to the side for the press. Women were performing in the middle of the ring, and surrounding it were crowds of people. My colleague and I wandered into the throng, and somehow—I really don’t know how—I wound up at the front of the crowd again, right against the tape. Was I pushy? Did people make way for the white woman, giving me privilege? No: that couldn’t be it. They surrounded me, pressing against me. I may have stood out in the crowd, but I was part of it, even if up at the front. It felt good.

At least, I was up at the front until the soldier intervened.

A perfect line of sight to Mandela

Security was heavier at Qunu than at Mveso. There were many black men in camouflage uniforms, all carrying enormous rifles. I never known what make or type guns are. To me they are all just huge, menacing, and lethal. The soldier behind the rifle was polite, though. He seemed to be almost unaware of the burden he carried slung over his shoulder, the barrel pointing at the ground. Speaking in Xhosa, he asked the crowd to move back in order to make way for more dancers to come in and out of the circle. I couldn’t understand his words, but body language and crowd psychology are impossible to ignore. I got the idea that I was supposed to move back, but I couldn’t. Everyone else could, but for some reason, I was stuck. Completely held in place. And, being the only white face in a sea of black ones, the soldier couldn’t help but notice my lack of movement. Or perhaps it was my ludicrous attire he noticed. Why couldn’t I move back? He looked at me, shook his head, and lifted the tape barrier. “Here. Come under here,” he said. And there I was, standing on the edge of the inner ring, blushing under my Tilley hat and sunglasses. My colleague, not to be left behind, ducked under too.

I dug out my camera, realising I now had a perfect line of sight to where Mandela would be standing to give his speech. I took a few shots of the dancers and then flipped to the view screen to see how they turned out. Cameras were a luxury to many of the people in the crowd, and a digital was completely magical. A young man behind me craned his head to take a look. I showed him the camera, explained how it worked, and soon he ducked under the tape too to get a closer look. I snapped off a few more pictures, including a brilliant one of Mandela’s praise singer, decked out in jackal fur, ostrich feathers, and a beaded belt, but soon another official came by. This one was not a soldier, but an event organiser. He told me I couldn’t stay there, that they had to clear the path for Madiba’s car to come through. “Mama, don’t you want to be in the VIP tent?” he asked. He used the term “Mama” as a sign of respect. I held up my camera and said no, I really wanted to be able to take photographs. He thought for a moment—just a fraction of a second—and said “Come with me.” He led me behind the dignitaries’ tent where Madiba would be speaking, and left me standing just outside the tape perimeter of the press tent.

I smiled, unable to believe my luck. Here I was, less than 10 metres away from where Mandela would be speaking, standing next to international journalists who were sprawled on the grass, waiting. I looked at their clothes. One woman, probably in her early 40s, was wearing a floor length cotton dress, two cameras round her neck, butterfly clips in her cropped hair, and army boots with black cotton socks. Her dress was torn. I felt better.

My colleague, not to be left behind, had followed me. So had my new-found friend.

DancersMveso dancers (Sara Beck photo)

We waited. We waited more. I took more pictures of the dancers, again captivated by the joy in their faces and movement and singing. The rhythm of the drums was thumping and regular, the singing undulating, ululating, loud, sung from the back of the throat with all the power of the diaphragm. I could feel in the air, but would only see later in the photographs the expressions of sheer joy on the faces of those in the crowd. It was pure happiness, just to be there in the presence, or anticipation of the presence, of Mandela. The event organiser who had escorted me here seemed to read my mind as he came back to stand beside me. “He is an amazing man” he said, his eyes shining. “The first time I shook his hand, I never wanted to wash it again. I couldn’t speak.” We smiled at each other, understanding.

I wondered why all the soldiers were there.

And finally, finally, Mandela arrived. The silver grey car pulled in. It moved through the area where I had been standing before, behind the dignitaries’ tent and pulled up right in front of me. I could see Mandela’s head through the tinted glass. I could barely make out his expression.

White security men in black suits moved into position, the door was opened, and an old man climbed out of the car. He steadied himself on the on the handle of the open door, and moved as quickly as he could into the tent. I hadn’t realised just how tall Mandela is. I took a picture of his back as he stooped under the awning of the tent, before he disappeared into its gloomy shade.

Again, I didn’t understand much of the proceedings. I watched the two praise singers rushing forward to whip up the crowd, slapping one another on the back as they came off each performance to rest, panting, on the grass by the tent. There were more speeches, more words of praise and congratulations. Mandela made a joke about Ahmed Kathrada, who was among the dignitaries, and how he was the master of secret communications during the struggle. He never asked Kathy how he did his work, just in case he was ever needed again. More laughter. A woman placed a beaded collar around his neck – the type reserved for married women to wear – and another draped a white cloth with black braiding around his shoulders. The women seemed giddy, delighted, slapping him on the back, mincing and ululating as they left.

It seemed to take hours, but we were mesmerized. All of us. Finally, it was over.

Mandela stopped for press photos

Mandela walked the few metres from the tent to his car, and recognising his duty to the media, he stopped, smiled, and waved. He held his pose for a moment, scanning the press tent to make sure everyone got a clear shot. And then his eyes fell on me. He looked straight at me. I later thought maybe it was my silly clothes that made him smile so broadly, almost laughing at me, in my floppy hat and floor length dress and dusty sandals, but I didn’t look too different from the rest of the photographers. Could he see my smile beneath my camera? Did I show something in my posture? Could he see something of the awe I felt? Mandela, the myth, stood in front of me, looking at me. Through my camera lens, I held eye contact with him for a second, maybe even two. With a machine between us we smiled at each other as I snapped shot after shot, capturing him in a photograph, preserving him on a page.

Then he turned away, and I put down my camera.

Damn, I thought.

Why hadn’t I put it down sooner?

Why hadn’t I looked at him face to face, and smiled at him, a real, human contact smile. I wondered what had he seen in me during those two seconds. I couldn’t possibly have been different from any of the others in the adoring crowd. I had looked at him, and been awestruck by Mandela the myth. But what had he seen in me? A white woman in stupid clothes? An adoring fan? Was he simply intrigued by my peculiar-shaped camera? What had I missed in those two seconds?

He turned to the car, and a security man opened the door. Unassisted, he put one foot in, sat down, and bent his head under the doorframe. Then he reached his hand down, grasped his knee, and lifted his leg into the car. Through the mirrored windows, I could make out his face. His shoulders were slumped. His face was deeply lined, his eyes half closed. He was exhausted.

And I felt that there, not through my camera lens, I saw Mandela. I met Mandela. I saw part of the man behind the myth. I took pictures of the hero, I witnessed the man.

And I realized that they were one and the same.

I remain in awe. Though I wish, god I wish that I had put my camera down.



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