Embracing the enemy

27 June 2013 - 02:54 By Jonathan Jansen
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Nelson Mandela with Betsie Verwoerd - Hendrik Verwoerd's widow - in Orania, a whites-only enclave in the Northern Cape.
Nelson Mandela with Betsie Verwoerd - Hendrik Verwoerd's widow - in Orania, a whites-only enclave in the Northern Cape.

Put yourself in the shoes of the man working to have Nelson Mandela killed.

This is "treason par excellence" shrieks the former debt collector, the son of Lithuanian immigrant Jews, in his closing prosecutorial statement in the Treason Trial of Mandela and eight others. Sabotage means a jail sentence; treason gets you hanged.

Judge Quartus de Wet agrees that the charges represent "in essence treason", but hands down the lesser sentence. Mandela escapes the hangman's noose, leaving us with an awful "what if" question: what if he had been hanged?

Percy Yutar must have been a miserable man when the country's first democratic president invited him to lunch. They talk for about an hour and the former prosecutor calls the "terrorist" he was trying to hang "a saintly man". Yutar dies at 90, trying to rebuild his reputation by arguing that he made the case for sabotage since Mandela and his comrades did not deserve to hang.

Put yourself in the shoes of the wife of apartheid's intellectual architect, who secludes herself in a dusty, dry whites-only enclave in the Northern Cape called Orania.

Until the day she dies, Betsie Verwoerd will carry the burden of a name that continues to be a swear word in black South Africa. She, too, is invited to tea with the president, but declines, citing ill health. She makes the mistake of saying, if the president is in her area, he would be welcome to visit.

To the surprise of all, he does, and spends 45 minutes over coffee with the ailing old woman who offered him "pure Afrikaner hospitality", the visitor recalls.

She dies a Verwoerd at 98, an unrepentant separatist whose community welcome made Mandela feel "as if I was in Soweto".

Put yourself in the shoes of the man who spent 22 of Mandela's 27 years in prison with him, much of them scouring the prisoner's incoming and outgoing mail. The ever-courteous Mandela says nice things about this "polished and soft-spoken" man until Warrant Officer James Gregory senses opportunity and writes a book - actually, it is written for him by a tabloid newspaper in the UK - called Goodbye Bafana. Even fellow prison warders dismiss the book as replete with lies and exaggeration - for example, he did not spend leisurely hours with Madiba talking politics or foil an assassination attempt on the famous prisoner.

Yet Gregory is invited, with two other prison guards - Christo Brand and Jack Swart - to the inauguration of president Mandela, even after having disgraced himself by publicising intimate and often untrue accounts of their life together. What should have been a badge of shame, being Mandela's jailor, he tries to turn into personal and commercial benefit.

Gregory dies of cancer at 62 having changed his mind about "the terrorist" he later called "the perfect gentleman".

Was Mandela's great legacy of reconciliation merely an example of his political savvy, a careful calculation meant to ease racial tensions in a country that was very much at war with itself even after his release from three prisons - Robben Island, Pollsmoor, Victor Verster - in succession?

Or was there something much deeper to the man and his motivations in reaching out to three troubled souls who found themselves on the wrong side of one of the 20th century's greatest tragedies - apartheid?

The answer to these important questions is found in a powerful paragraph on the prison warders from Long Walk to Freedom that gives a rare insight into the deeper emotions and convictions of Mandela about human beings: "Men like Swart, Gregory and Warrant Officer Brand reinforced my belief in the essential humanity even of those who had kept me behind bars for the previous twenty-seven and a half years."

In other words, when Mandela looked at Yutar, Verwoerd or Gregory, he did something the rest of us (still) fail to grasp. He looked past their official roles - their perpetrator status, individual weaknesses and dangerous ignorance. He looked through the façade of appearance and performance; he saw and reached out to that "essential humanity" that made them like the rest of us.

In doing so, he not only offered the individuals a chance at redemption, he offered a whole country a model for reconciliation.

Put yourself in the shoes of Mandela. We all now need to start our own long walk to freedom, learning from this colossus who gave us our humanity back.

Rather than this undignified spectacle of panic and performance by mourners and opportunists alike, we need to reflect quietly on what Madiba tried to teach us in his own special way.

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