By Zubeida Jaffer

Let anyone who is without sin, throw the first stone (The Bible, 8: 7)

The Mandela family has been at the receiving end of publicity as the head of their family lies desperately ill in hospital.

It could be said they have brought all this controversy onto themselves. Their undignified behaviour has been painful to observe. Many of us know that all families have dramas to a lesser or greater extent. All families do not endure having their dramas splashed on the front pages of our newspapers.

In this world of media hype, we could argue that this goes with the territory. They are the family members of our icon and must expect close scrutiny. But at the same time, are we being fair?

Madiba has always made a huge effort to have a good relationship with the media. He was very conscious and acted quickly when subjected to negative publicity. When he made unpopular remarks or decisions, he watched the media carefully. I remember interviewing him at the end of his first year in office in April 1995. When I arrived at Genadendal, his staff told me that he was running a bit late because he first had to watch the 6p.m news. After a few minutes he joined me in the Elephant Room (a small sitting room in the house that was his favourite space) and flipped on the television set. He had decided that we could watch the news together. Just two hours earlier he had made the announcement that he was removing Winnie Mandela from her position as deputy minister of… He was keen to see what the fallout would be. At the time, she enjoyed the support of Bantu Holomisa and Tony Yengeni and what he was waiting for was to see their reaction.

Both men were muted in their comments and did not take a stand as some had predicted. He smiled and was clearly satisfied. It was only much later that I learnt that he had set all this up keeping them both busy with some interesting projects that he initiated making it difficult for them to speak out. It was then that I saw the wily side of Madiba.

There was a second time that showed me how much negative publicity concerned him. It was in 2001 shortly after the bombing of the Twin Towers in New York. He was in Washington and made a statement in support of George Bush’s declaration that he would hunt down Osama Bin Laden.

There were many South Africans at the time who thought that he should not have allowed himself to be drawn into the war talk of the USA. I wrote a piece called “Mandela out of touch with South African sentiment.”

A few days later when he was back in South Africa, I received a call from Durban sociologist, Fatima Meer. She said she was calling to warn me that Madiba was about to call me and was very angry. She had expressed the same sentiments that I had written about and he had given her a blasting. “It was not nice at all,” she said. In response she had told him that I had also written about his statement. He then said that he knew that and intended calling me. “ I just wanted to warn you because I found it very difficult,” she said.

So I waited for the call. When it did come, it was not him but his office asking me to meet him for breakfast the next morning. Unfortunately I could not because it was Ramadaan and we were fasting. The office called back to suggest another date which coincided with me being out of Cape Town so I once again had to decline. A few days later he issued a statement changing his position and I thought that was the end of that.

Two months later, he met my mother who introduced herself as “Zubeida Jaffer’s mother” and he immediately became serious and said to her: “Oh, she does not want to meet with me. Tell her to call my office tomorrow and come and see me.”

Eventually I met with him on 14 February 2001. We met at his home in Bishopscourt. He was seated next to a big window through which I could see the Kirstenbosch mountains. With the light streaming in and Madiba seated in an armchair with his feet up on a foot stool, I was not much interested in listening to the intricacies of why he had made the original statement he had made in Washington. It all seemed so long ago and I wanted to be in this moment enjoying watching him against the stunning backdrop of his garden and the imposing mountain range. It was Valentine’s Day and all I could think of was watching this beautiful film playing out in front of me.

The point I want to make however is that he thought it necessary to clarify his position so long after an article that he perceived as portraying him negatively. I have no doubt that if he could he would call on all of us to spare his family at this difficult time.

Madiba’s slow passing gives us time to reflect and consider his values and his actions that have brought us peace. He has been at pains to say over the years that he is but one individual that was part of a collective and we accept that. But history shows that societies attach themselves to leaders and usually there is one person that makes more of an impression on the collective psyche than others.

His passing provides for us a unique opportunity to cement our bonds as South Africans and to be grateful for our blessings. It is also a time that we can invest in ritual that brings healing.

The anthropologist Joseph Campbell, In Myths Rituals and …., says that societies need myths and rituals…..

Princess Dianne with warts and all and a very fractious family was held in high esteem by the British people. There are those amongst who want to do their best to not only use the Mandela family drama to tarnish his image but also to peddle the idea that once he goes, South Africa will crumble.

There is nothing further from the truth. Anglican Archbishop last night called on Capetonians to form a human chain honouring Madiba’s legacy on his birthday next week. The Human Chain will curl its way down Klipfontein Road from Rondebosch, through Athlone to Gugulethu between 1p.m and 2p.m on July 18th. It will provide an opportunity for Capetonians from all works of life but especially the youth to show their commitment to the legacy of Nelson Mandela.

Besides the central chain, the Archbishop on behalf of the Western Cape Religious Leaders forum (which is interfaith) with partner organisations and individuals have called on schools, factories and other places of work to create human chains all over the Western Cape wherever they find themselves at that time.

He hopes that this display of love will be taken up in other towns across the country showing a united South Africa proud of their heritage and determined to realise Madiba’s dream. “A democratic South Africa was built on the sweat of millions of people over many years,” he said. “Let us come out in our numbers irrespective of race, colour or creed and show that we believe that South Africa belongs to all who live it, black and white. This is Madiba’s vision on which we will keep our focus,” he said.

Zubeida Jaffer is presently Writer-in-Residence at the University of the Free State.

See her website for further information.




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