Meeting Mandela In His 90th Year

By Zubeida Jaffer,

March 20, 2008 – The Weekender

He sat upright, his face glowing in his large high-backed chair like an emperor waiting for his subjects to be brought into his presence. Dressed in a pale-blue traditional silk Madiba shirt and a dark pants, Nelson Mandela stretched out his hand to former Treason Trialist, Ayesha Bibi Dawood asking her to sit next to him. For just a moment it appeared that curtseying or kissing the floor in front of him would have been more appropriate to the occasion were it a century gone by. Remove the context of a modern day South Africa, the scene could easily have been one scripted for a royal courtroom – the emperor sitting in his high-backed chair not moving, two-camera men discretely stationed in distant corners in front of him and the empress hovering quietly in the background seeking not to attract attention. Graca Machel beautifully dressed in a dark-blue patterned African silk suit kept her distance as former trialists were led in to greet Mandela in pairs, each allowed to bring with them a companion. Winnie Mandela arrived later to share the reunion at the request of Graca. As soon as he reached forward to give Ms Dawood his hand, the air of formality ended abruptly. He was all smiles and so was she – the two immediately relaxing into an easy rapport. She tells him that the story of her life would be published later this year. He is excited and says he would like to see the book. After a short conversation, the meeting is over and she makes way for the next trialist.

As part of his 90th birthday celebrations this year, Nelson Mandela had expressed a wish to meet with those accused with him in three sets of trials.

In the first trial, twenty activists were charged under the Suppression of Communism Act in 1952 for defying unjust laws. That same year all 20 were convicted and sentenced to nine months in jail with hard labour, suspended for three years.

Four years later, in 1956, Mandela and 155 men and women and a newspaper were charged with high treason for their efforts to end apartheid. By January 1958, 65 had charges against them withdrawn, 61 were acquitted in April, 1959 and the last group of 30 was found not guilty on 29 March 1961.

Finally, in June 1964, he and seven colleagues were jailed for life after a marathon trial famously known as the Rivonia Trail.

Ayesha Dawood

Ayesha Dawood, was one of the youngest women who faced charges of treason with Mandela in 1956. The youngest was Bertha Gxowa, presently a member of parliament, who was 22 years old at the time of the Treason Trail and had the tough job at the recent Polokwane Conference to overseer the election process. Ayesha came from Worcester, on the winelands outside Cape Town and had been the most formidable leader for that region organizing defiance activities while at the same time supporting community and trade union organization. She could not contain her excitement at meeting with him. “He looked very healthy and happy to me,” she said. “I last saw him in 1997 in Worcester and then he could walk. Now he seems to walk with difficulty,” she said. At 80, she too was beginning to have difficulty with walking and thought this was rather funny that they were all old people meeting together after being active together 50 years ago. “I think this is the last time I will see Mandela,” she said

Over the last year, there had been so many reports that he was not as strong as he used to be. She had expected to see a frail, tired Mandela but instead she found a man looking in the peak of health. His staff later explained that this may have been because she was one of the first ones to meet with him on Friday morning. They had avoided him meeting everybody together in a group because they said this often created problems for him with his hearing. He experienced meetings as noise and sometimes had difficulty in following what people were saying.

As the morning proceeded, indications were that he was beginning to tire. Fortunately, there were no plans for him to join nor to participate in the afternoon discussions where all the survivors were engaged in a dialogue entitled Sweden and the South African Liberation – Legal Aid in Perspective. Those at the reunion had all benefitted from Swedish legal support that stretched back to 1960. Legal aid from Sweden to the South African liberation movement amounted to about 285 million Swedish kronor( about the same in rands). Much of the aid was chanelled through the International Defense and Aid Fund in London, but also through the churches and the United Nations and came from ordinary citizens and their trade unions in Sweden.

The afternoon’s dialogue underscored the importance of direct people to people relations during the phase of resistance to apartheid. The three Swedish participants, journalist, Per Wastberg,(two dots on a) diplomat Birgetta Karlstrom Dorph (two dots on o in Karlstrom) and lawyer Christian Ahlund (A circle on A – please check spelling) gave fascinating detail of the support work done over thirty years in covertly channeling money for the liberation struggle.

While there were many light-hearted moments when trialists shared their experiences, the dominant thrust of the conversation formally and informally afterwards focused on the difficulties presently facing the new South Africa. Perhaps the encouragement of people to people contact was once again an element needed to develop and consolidate the new democracy. For the South Africans however, the concern was with pushing back the tide of a corrupt and self-gratifying attitude. “We are seated here with the giants of the struggle,” said Rivonia trialist Dennis Goldberg. “We have created the opportunity for building a democratic South Africa but are not there yet.”

“We are fumbling today,” said Ben Turok. “ But this gathering has helped reinforce for me where we come from and where we need to go.” Seated in two neat rows were some of those who had guided South Africa towards a democratic future – Billy Nair, Nzimeni Elliot Mfaxa, Joe Mathews, Henry Makgothi, Norman and Leon Levy, Andrew Mlangeni, Kesval Kay Moonsamy, Peter Nthithe. Cleopas Ntsibande, Reginald September, Suliman Esakjee, Moosa ‘Mosie” Moolla and John Nkadimeng.

It was 87 year-old Motsamai Mpho, former mine worker, who had travelled from Botswana who called on the present day political leadership to take note of where they come from. “We have inherited a certain approach from the founders of the ANC,” he said. “We inherited patience, determination and non-violence. It was this softness that made us succeed in the end. As the heirs of patience and determination, we need to carry on along these lines,” he said. For veteran trade unionist Billy Nair, the biggest challenge was to get people working. “We cannot stop globalization but what we could consider is job-sharing so that everybody has work,” he said. For Ayesha Dawood, something needs to be done about people going to bed hungry. In Worcester, many men are sitting around listlessly and their children are hungry, she said. “If I were younger, I would organize to make sure that everyone has something to eat at night. We can do it,” she said.

Despite the heroic struggles, South Africa today was faced with the same challenges of other countries. “We share the same weaknesses and frailness of character,” said Dennis Goldberg. “Making the country better quicker for all our people is the challenge,” he said.

The present difficulties aside, 80-year-old Peter Nthite, also a Botswana resident, took home with him a message from Mandela that he said would sustain him until the end of his life. “When I met with him, he was very jolly and teased me about finding a wife for me,” he said. Mr Nthithe’s first wife died during the Treason trial. In the late 70’s, he lost both his second wife and youngest son. “What I do remember most however is when he looked me straight in the eye and said it was a fight worth having. He said that he was glad that we all did it. There are no regrets,” he said.

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