FROM OUR ARCHIVES | Why a Cressida was chosen to ferry Madiba to freedom

Cars carry an array of meanings in the South African imagination: violence, wealth, escape and more, writes Wamuwi Mbao

04 December 2014 - 20:27 By Wamuwi Mbao
The Toyota Cressida that transported Nelson Mandela from prison.
The Toyota Cressida that transported Nelson Mandela from prison.
Image: Shafiq Morton

Cars mean more to us than their purpose. But their very ubiquity and functionality means that the sort of looking we do tends to be at a surface level. We notice them only in terms of the ordinary distinctions of meaning we assign to all social objects.

But cars are closely entangled with our ideas of ourselves, and this was no more evident than in a minor news blip in 2013, at the height of preparations for the funeral of Nelson Mandela. A news article about the whereabouts of the car that transported Mandela to freedom, on the day of his release from Victor Verster prison, was floating about in the ether. The car in question was a silver Toyota Cressida — thousands of which were sold here in South Africa.

The article piqued my interest because whenever I saw documentary footage of that momentous day, I always wondered why the vehicle was chosen, who had sourced it, and what had become of it after its 15 minutes of fame.

The car itself existed only in photos and recordings of those exhilarating moments in 1990: a stern geometrical shape, as all Cressidas are, being jostled and thumped by jubilant crowds as it carried the great man forwards. And then it vanished.

Attempts to trace the vehicle had been restarted, after a fruitless earlier search.

THE CRESSIDA THAT BECAME AN EMBLEM OF LIBERATION

This piece of news, a minor point of interest in the whirlwind gusting around Madiba's passing, bothered me for a number of reasons. As a new arrival to Stellenbosch University in 2010, I visited the Franschhoek Motor Museum, where I saw the black BMW 750iL that BMW had 'given' to Nelson Mandela.

A few years later, Mercedes (in one of those acts of viralism corporations use to represent themselves as human and organic) presented a video detailing the story of the red Mercedes-Benz 500SE built with painstaking care for Madiba in 1990 by workers at the manufacturer's East London plant.

It struck me as odd that these two vehicles should have survived, while the Cressida that arguably played a greater role in transporting Madiba to freedom should have slipped into a life of obscurity. This seemed proof that the car is already a sign before it acquires other meanings. A Mercedes and a BMW offer a visual grammar of success and prestige, whereas the modern meanings of a Toyota Cressida are rather more downmarket.

Cressidas are old (not old in the venerable way that symbolises good taste) and usually decrepit.

After I read the articles, I casually looked around town for all the Cressidas I could spot. There aren't too many left: its name has long been dropped from Toyota's new-car listings. In fact, if you want to see Cressidas in any numbers, you'd best go to townships such as Gugulethu, where they creep along, living ninth lives as gaunt meter taxis, their chrome fading and interiors worn smooth by passengers far removed from the ones envisioned by Toyota South Africa when the Cressida was a starring feature in their '80s offerings.

And yet there is something symbolically important about Mandela's Cressida. It was deemed an important enough cultural memory to be reproduced (although they got the colour wrong) in the movie The Long Walk to Freedom.

WAS PICKING MANDELA UP FROM PRISON IN A CRESSIDA THE RIGHT DECISION?

The mystery of the Cressida seems to represent, at a surface level, so much of what has changed in South African society. Some of the facts were easily uncoverable, while others are sketchy. Depending on which narrative you follow, the Cressida was either a private car or a new vehicle pulled from a Cape Town showroom.

It was used to take Mandela from Victor Verster prison to the Grand Parade, and after his moment in the limelight the vehicle was fettled to remove the dents it had suffered from the thronging crowd. Thereafter, it was placed back on the showroom floor, and sold to a buyer who paid cash for it, unaware of the car having any significance.

In both narratives, we're told that the African National Congress or UDF had decided at the last minute to switch the gathered fleet of Mercs for Toyotas - a move deemed to be more sympathetic to the working man.

This last fact is what is evoked in discussions around the car - the idea of Mandela being transported in a Toyota, the designated people's car of South Africa, remains an alluring idea, symbolising the disjuncture between the movement as it was then, and the ANC of today.

But how right is that? After all, in its day the Cressida was pitched at affluent families - it cost a lot more than the common-man Corollas my parents had. And yet it meant something on a gestural and symbolic level that Mandela be conveyed not in the Mercedes beloved of the oppressive regime (and banana republic dictators) but in a car that people were connected to - a car that said that the person it carried was a man like them. It seemed even fitting, then, that this ordinary car should then go on to lead an ordinary, anonymous existence.

CARS ARE POINTS OF CULTURAL CAPITAL

Cars have some very functional associations: a means of transport, imbricated in the labour system, as they bear people to and from their jobs. But they are also sites of self-invention and points of cultural capital. This is not a new observation - cars have always formed an intrinsic part of our cultural landscape - it's just that, as with many things in this country, they only draw our attention when their form is spectacular.

The ANC's electoral motif is relevant here: "We have a good story to tell". South Africa has a myriad of good stories, and cars fit into a lot of them. The roles they occupy in our collective imagination often diverge from those their creators imagined. For instance, the words "Mercedes" and "early nineties" don't only conjure images of happy workers putting together a car they could never afford. They also conjure up the more horrifying image of the dulcet-blue-grey Mercedes riddled with bullets on a Bophuthatswana road after its AWB occupants made the fatal decision to be left behind by the sweep of history.

Cars are an essential component of our individual and national narratives of independence - one of the more obvious meanings of a car is that of escape. This is drilled into us from a young age - we associate cars with escape from the monotony of the everyday, with holidays that free us from life's responsibilities.

The car is also the totem of middle-class accumulation. When you use public transport, you are in the hands of others: at the whim and mercy of people with their different agendas and their strange smells. The car brings privacy, and in that respect, our relationship with cars is an important element in our relationship with ourselves and other people. It is, after all, a converting object: you pay for it, and its upkeep and fuel, and it transforms that payment into a transitory escape from all of life's unreasonable demarcations. Thus runs the great American novel of the 20th century, which is wedded to the idea of the automobile and its ability to unlock freedom. You climb into your car and become a somatic whole, you-and-your-car. You may pierce the bubble of your containment to allow someone to travel with you, but you are freest when alone. In this sense, the middle class's wholesale acceptance of the car is also an acceptance of an individualist social imaginary.

Our fantasies of ourselves play a role in this, of course. The car calls into play our vanity, our concern with social appearances. People read your car as a sign of who you are; knowing how to drive demonstrates your control over your own destiny. In a country where so many lack the means to own one, a car is a symbol of success. So it's useful to agitate our understanding of how cars function in our world.

Driving is a glorious, bold activity; strapping yourself into a cage of metal and glass and hurtling through time and space, a vision of a world in which mobility has been replaced with motility, with rapid movement accomplished by limited gestures. The power lies in the fact that the driver's body performs a small range of actions that create so many exciting effects.

Our sprawling country is set up to maximise this power. The road networks which sprang up in the '20s and '30s enabled access to new forms of escape. That access is often twinned with the thrill of danger: cars are capable of effecting violent, sudden changes in our conditions of life.

The great middle-class South African horror is of having our illusion of seamless passage through space arrested by outside forces. The only difference is that in our current age, the fear is of those who operate outside the law, whereas historically it was a fear of the law itself, perverse though that law was.

IS THE CAR REALLY A SYMBOL OF FREEDOM IN SA?

This is something Mandela himself touches on in The Long Walk to Freedom, when he writes of being stopped by the police in 1962: "Cecil and I were engrossed in discussions of sabotage plans as we passed through Howick, 20 miles north-west of Pietermaritzburg. At Cedara, a small town just past Howick, I noticed a Ford V8 filled with white men shoot past us on the right. I knew in that instant that my life on the run was over; my seventeen months of 'freedom' were about to end."

Here, Madiba's words draw our attention to a key problem: you can't actually explain South African car culture based on American models. In South Africa, the car as plot device, image and symbol, isn't clear-cut: its link to freedom has always been ambivalent. It's a problem summed up in Alex la Guma's short story Coffee for the Road, where a mother and her children find their road trip through small-town apartheid South Africa curtailed by the agents of discrimination.

In South Africa, the freedom promised by the car has for many years been ringed by the threat of state violence, or of containment. The story of Mandela's capture is a story in which cars play an important role as both the agent of flight and capture. Incidentally, the Austin Westminster in which Mandela was travelling when he was arrested is also missing.

But there are other historical moments in which cars have featured prominently. How many people know that Koos de la Rey was shot while in the back of a Rolls Royce? Who knows what happened to the vehicle Steve Biko was in when he was stopped by the police outside Grahamstown in 1977? And what of the infamous green car, captured by Peter Magubane, and its deadly occupants, taking pot shots as it drove through Soweto in June 1976?

And we mustn't forget that cars have changed the texture of South Africa's criminality. The Sophiatown gangsters in their gleaming chromed American cars have morphed into today's outlaw spinners in their retro '80s BMWs. Andre Stander made the Ford Cortina XR6 a byword for glamorous illegality in the '80s, too. Cars have played a suitably transient role in our desire to evade, to avoid, and perhaps it's this which needs to be explored more.

How then to think through the complex ways cars affect our passage through the world? Perhaps the ultimate symbol of the everyday-ness of that silver Cressida is its peculiar disappearance: what better fate for a universalising object than to serve out its days in anonymity?

It's something to think about next time you spear down the highway to your own personal prosperity. And while you do so, see if you can spot a silver Toyota Cressida. It may have played a bigger role in our society than you think.

This article was originally published in the Sunday Times Lifestyle magazine, and online, on December 4 2014.