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Everything You Need to Know About the Life of Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela has left the planet. It is, at the time of writing, slightly more raw than the long-rehearsed curtains-down on 95 years ought to be. To South Africans like me, he has long been the man who held up the sky. Who will hold it up now?
December 5, 2013, 2:18pm

Illustration by Victoria Sin.

Nelson Mandela has left the planet. It is, at the time of writing, slightly more raw than the long-rehearsed curtains-down on 95 years ought to be. To South Africans like me, he has long been the man who held up the sky. Who will hold it up now?

Over the next few days and weeks there will be a torrent of equally long-rehearsed, finely-pitched, predictably excellent journalism to commemorate him. This is not that. It is not "the Mandela I knew." It is not "the Jesus of Soweto." It is not meant to add to the coming scree of well-meaning hagiography.


Instead, it's a bit of an antidote. A life story chopped into a few interesting lesser-known facts, the odder revealing moments, personal things, designed to give a flavor of the real man above the Morgan Free-man he'd become. To penetrate if possible through the reek of incense that is about to envelop our secular saint, toward something more measured, but perhaps all the more human for that.

He Learned Early That if You Have Advanced Stage TB, It Is a Bad Idea to Smoke a Pipe
When he was nine, Nelson Mandela came home from school one day to find his father Hendry wracked by a never-ending coughing fit. "He remained in the hut for several days," he later wrote. "Without moving or speaking, and then one night he took a turn for the worse." After the coughing fit, he asked to smoke his pipe. “He continued smoking," recalled Mandela, "and then, his pipe still lit, he died.”

He May Have Inherited His Stubbornness from His Father
With an upbringing that was very rural and fairly impoverished, it’s unlikely that Nelson Mandela would've been remembered for being really good at managing cowherds. So though his father died when he was young, it was—in a perverse kind of way—fairly fortuitous. The Mandela family had lost their modest fortune after Nelson's father, a chief, got into a row with British colonial officials over the proper jurisdiction of an ox. But soon after Hendry's death, young Nelson was packed off to live with the Thembu king. This was done as a posthumous favor to his father, as Mandela Senior had backed the king's succession many years earlier. There, he was sent to an elite mission school and raised as one of the royal household.


He Has Gone to Be with His Foreskin
The centimeter-wide band of flesh was buried when he was 16, cut off by one of his tribal elders with a blunt knife. As is Xhosa tradition, he was not allowed to cry out in pain, and afterward had to wrap his wounded penis in brambles. Then, at midnight, he had to bury the thing in the stony soil outside his hut. In hindsight, this was great preparation for the sort of meaningless pain life would later inflict upon him.

He Went to the Oxford of Uhuru
Fort Hare, in the Eastern Cape, was the only higher-education institute in South Africa that black people could attend. The result? In the 40s and 50s it hosted a Prague Spring of nationalist intelligentsia: good, bad, and ugly. Alumni included: Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere, Botswana’s Seretse Khama, and Zambia’s Kenneth Kaunda. Desmond Tutu briefly served as its chaplain. But Mandela dropped out.

After being elected to Fort Hare's Student Representative Council, he quickly became embroiled in a dispute with the head of the university. Mandela refused an ultimatum issued to him and was expelled from Fort Hare for insubordination. What great cause could have first pricked the conscience of this lifelong warrior for justice? The low quality of food in the student canteens.

Collage by Marta Parszeniew.

Even His Second Marriage Was Less Stormy Than His First
Mandela didn't dispute that he once grabbed his first wife Evelyn by the throat. His story was that they had argued, she'd pulled a red hot poker from the fire, and he'd twisted it from her hand. Overall, his relationship with Evelyn was often frayed. Once, he got out on bail, returned home to find she’d left, taking the kids with her. She even took the curtains. “Somehow, that detail upset me more than anything,” he later recorded. More broadly, he was, in his day, not untypical of the culture he came from: he regarded himself as head of the household, and thus he expected to be obeyed. Many of his ANC colleagues remembered his womanizing as one of his defining characteristics from that time.


With his height, his smart suits, and his boxer's physique, impressionable girls who loved to hear him talk about liberation were never in short supply. Sadly for the hagiography industry, he was a Xhosa male from 1940, not an Islington liberal from 1999. Years after they'd divorced, Evelyn retired from her nursing job and went to live in the Transkei. She was stoically silent about her ex-husband, but did tell one early biographer, Fatima Meer, that he was "the only man she'd ever loved, and a wonderful father."

He Had Two Daughters, Both Called Makaziwe
The second was named after the first, who died of meningitis at just nine months while Mandela was still studying law at Wits University.

His Eldest Son Was Killed in a Car Crash At Age 24
This occurred while Mandela was in jail. "The news was broken to me about 2:30 PM," Mandela later wrote. "Suddenly my heart seemed to have stopped beating and the warm blood that had freely flown in my veins for the last 51 years froze into ice. For some time I could neither think nor talk, and my strength appeared to be draining out. Eventually, I found my way back to my cell…"

Walter Sisulu, the anti-apartheid activist, came in soon after. Mandela showed him the telegram, then the two held hands silently for the rest of the evening. He was refused permission to attend his son's funeral. His letter requesting permission is, as you’d expect, absolutely heartrending. Sorrow has dogged him: a granddaughter drowned in 2008. A great-granddaughter was killed in a car crash on the eve of the 2010 Soccer World Cup, held in South Africa.


His Other Son, Makgatho, Died of AIDs-Related Illnesses in 2005
Despite a national pandemic fanned by rampant misinformation, even ANC bigwigs still spent much of the 90s and 2000s dying of "pneumonia" or "undisclosed illnesses." Mandela, however, immediately dispensed with the convenient euphemisms, breaking the taboo on calling his son’s illness what it was.

Collage by Marta Parszeniew.

Despite a Stony Bravery, Inwardly He Wasn't Exactly Jumping at the Opportunity to be Hanged
In the much-repeated key speech at his treason trial, Mandela famously dared the state to kill him. But behind the facade, he later recalled, “The threat evoked no desire in me to play the role of martyr. I was ready to do so if I had to. But the anxiety to live always lingered.”

During that tumultuous year, he and his fellow trialists seemed most concerned about death etiquette. Deathiquette. "On our way home, we stopped at the jail to talk to the accused,” Joel Joffe, one of their lawyers, recorded at the time. “They were calm, living now in the shadow of death. The strain and tension was becoming almost unbearable, yet the only matter they wanted to discuss was how they should behave in court if the death sentence was passed.”

If You're Going to Be Banged Up for 27 Years, It's As Good a Time As Any to Dig Into War and Peace
Tolstoy’s tome became Mandela’s all-time favorite book. Though even he didn’t have time for Proust, he was also a massive Shakespeare freak (“He always had something to say to us prisoners about the human condition”) and would liberally quote WS in letters to Winnie. Biographer Richard Stengel thought these were “Some of the greatest love letters ever written, as far as I'm concerned. They go with Robert Browning and what have you.” Early on, on their literal desert island, a smuggled complete works of Shakespeare and the Bible were all the political prisoners had.


When Winnie Was Jailed Too, Nelson Sent Her Advice On How to Cope
His advice was: meditate for 15 minutes before bedtime.

All the Self-Congratulatory Candlelit Vigils in Trafalgar Square Didn’t Do Much, but Britain Did Have at Least One Crucial Role to Play in Shaping a Democratic South Africa
In 1981, former South African spy Gordon Winter wrote a memoir, Inside BOSS, in which he described how he'd been tipped off about a government plot to "rescue" Mandela from jail in 1969. The apartheid-loving nationalists in charge of South Africa at the time had decided to send in undercover agents to help Mandela escape, then make sure he was "accidentally" shot while being re-captured. In the end, though, the murder plot was uncovered and scuppered by British intelligence operatives.

There Are at Least Three Classic Stories That Suggest He Secretly Loved Jail
ONE: In 1985, then state-president of South Africa P.W. Botha offered Mandela release on two conditions. One: he would be deposited back in the homeland of the Transkei, rather than on what was technically South African soil. Two: he would need to renounce violence. Mandela refused both, and spent another five years in prison as a direct result.

TWO: In 1990, he was summarily told by another state president, F.W. de Klerk, that he was to be released two days later, unconditionally. Immediately, Mandela started trying to impose conditions on his own freedom, saying that he would need time to prepare—thus he'd like to stay in jail for another two weeks, if possible. "I realized at that point," de Klerk later said, "that this would not be an easy man to negotiate with."


THREE: When he retired from the presidency in 1999, it was to a house he had built in his home town of Qunu. That house is a replica of the small home he'd been given in the final, more luxurious days of his prison sentence at Victor Verster, in Paarl. It had, apparently, been one of the happiest times of his life. Unmolested, given access to all the un-banned books he could want, Mandela spent most of his time reading and writing in the sort of splendid semi-retirement that he largely didn't get time to indulge in through his 70s or 80s.

Collage by Marta Parszeniew.

In Case You Weren't Aware, Long Walk to Freedom Was Ghost-Written
Based on notes Mandela had made in prison, plus a welter of interviews. The guy who wrote it, Richard Strengel, is editor of TIME magazine now. But whereas when, say, James Fox was sticking a tape recorder under Keith Richards' nose for Life he could count on a rich stream of anecdotes and feelings to work from, Mandela often proved much trickier for his ghost to wring unguarded emotion out of.

During the writing process, Mandela’s ANC colleague, Ahmed Kathrada, acted as an intermediary between the party—who was trying to impose their own censorship on its contents, fully aware of what an important propaganda coup it could be—and the publishers. There's a transcript of a conversation between Mandela and Kathrada, in which Kathrada tells him how the publishers, at various key moments, have made notes in the manuscript asking for more personal, more emotional reactions. "How did it feel at that moment?" Kathrada asks again and again… and the question is deflected again and again. There was a hardness around the softness—a bottling-up, a lack of self-pity, or perhaps just a very old-fashioned desire to keep private things private.


While His Role Elsewhere Is Often Overblown, He Did Single-Handedly Save the Country at Least Once
Now slightly forgotten, Mandela's finest moment possibly came in April 1993. While negotiations were still ongoing, a Polish immigrant shot and killed the South African Communist Party leader Chris Hani in his own driveway, on the orders of a far-right Afrikaner MP. Within hours, the country began a sickeningly rapid spiral into violence. By the next day, over 70 deaths were associated with Hani’s murder.

Mandela went on television that night. Not to tell people to rip off car aerials and generally fuck shit up. Not even to tell them to go at whitey with baseball bats until all that remained was pavements gushing with strawberry jam. But to calm things down.

"Tonight, I am reaching out to every single South African, black and white, from the very depth of my being," he read into the teleprompter. “A white man, full of prejudice and hate, came to our country and committed a deed so foul that our whole nation now teeters on the brink of disaster. A white woman, of Afrikaner origin [a witness to the murder] risked her life so that we may know, and bring to justice, this assassin…”

After an impassioned speech about the essentially non-racial quality of non-racialism, things calmed down. No one was driven into the sea.

He Was Pretty Full-Communist in His Time
In terms of heroes, Mandela always preferred Nehru's Fabianism to Gandhi's more airy economics. In the early 60s, he was briefly on the organizing committee of the South African Communist Party. Ironically enough, this was among the reasons Apartheid lasted as long as it did. The Western powers had issued proxy loans and tacit support to the Apartheid regime because, whatever its evils, it remained the bulwark against what they saw as a strategically unthinkable Communist takeover in South Africa. When the USSR crumbled, they didn't need the RSA any more. So they tightened conditions on financing Pretoria, which meant that the Nationalists' treasury, already bare from costly foreign wars and domestic security, was now nigh-on bankrupt and they were dragged to the negotiating table.

Of course, by 1994 Fukuyama was already blabbing about "the end of history," the Washington Consensus was the thing, and neo-liberal economics—padded out by the Clinton/Blair Third Way—was the new funky shit. Mandela, by then more content as a chairman of the board than a micro-manager, went along with his advisors, who steered a vanilla path: a few nods to redistribution, some fairly restrictive labor laws but low-ish taxes, no nationalization, and a big hunt for foreign capital investment. The results have been mixed. The economy has grown by a steady, unspectacular three percent a year. But today, South Africa's unemployment rate is still at 25 percent. Which is pretty much what it was at the start of Mandela's presidency.

Even Ten Years After He Left the Presidency, Nelson Mandela Required a Special Waiver Visa to Visit America Because Their Files Still Marked Him As a Terrorist
But I guess everyone already knows that US Immigration are a bunch of cunts.

Nelson Mandela Physically Couldn't Cry Because of Tear Duct Damage, Caused by Limestone After So Many Years Working in the Quarries of Robben Island

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Nelson Mandela images in the Marta Parszeniew collages via, via, via.