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Infinite Delay: The Last Days of Nelson Mandela


This piece originally appeared on

In 1977 a group of journalists was permitted to visit Robben Island as part of a government attempt to convince the outside world that conditions there were not as bad as widely believed. There is a photograph of Nelson Mandela from that outing, one rarely included among iconic images of the man. He leans on a spade, his face closed with anger or disdain. Rediscovered in the archives long after the fall of apartheid, the photograph has a caption that reads: “466/64 ’n Gevangene werksaam in die tuin”—“a prisoner industrious in the garden.”

There are several ironies surrounding this image. Mandela wears sunglasses here; we now know that years of working in the lime quarries of the Island damaged his eyesight permanently, affecting his tear ducts and even (so it is said) making it impossible for him to cry. The Afrikaans caption tries, absurdly, to make the world’s best-known political prisoner into an anonymous labourer—or, to use a phrase that has not entirely disappeared from some corners of South Africa, into a “garden boy.”

Prisoner 466/64 did have a vegetable patch in the prison courtyard on Robben Island where he tended chilli and tomato plants. When transferred to another prison on the mainland in 1982, Mandela presided over a large and productive rooftop garden, made from sawn-off oil drums filled with soil. “The Bible tells us that gardens preceded gardeners,” we read in his 1994 autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, “but that was not the case at Pollsmoor.” But the 1977 photograph was taken against his will, and the strip of gravel shown in it was no garden—hence, perhaps, the look of disdain at this tawdry attempt to manipulate and meddle in his own careful, self-created mythology.

Throughout his life, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was recognised as a man of extraordinary self-possession, in strict control of his own image and physical presence. One sees this even in the earliest photographs of him: whether posing in his first suit (gazing stylishly away from the camera) or looking pensive at the legal practice that he had started.

This has made it painful for South Africans to watch him advance into a prolonged ill-health. Members of the African National Congress executive have descended on his home in Houghton, Johannesburg, for crass photo opportunities, the smartphone flashes causing him to close his eyes in discomfort. The Mandela family has been squabbling in public. Finally, even the functioning of a 95-year-old body has been taken over by dialysis and life-support machines. On 1 September he was discharged from hospital in a “stable but critical” condition, and since then has been receiving 24-hour care at home. An eerie media silence has descended, with much speculation and many conspiracy theories filling the vacuum.

“They’re treating him like a robot,” a taxi driver told me as we drove back from the airport one recent afternoon. I was returning from Nairobi, having been on a conference trip during which I worried (selfishly, stupidly) that Madiba, as Mandela is more familiarly known, would die while I was out of South Africa and that I would miss out on a crucial moment in my country’s history. I strained to catch news bulletins between reports on a teachers’ strike and loud American soap operas. At one point it seemed to have happened; but I looked again and the news channel ticker actually read “Deaths in Mandera”—a town in northern Kenya where grenades had been launched at a refugee camp, part of ongoing “interclan” conflict on the border with Somalia.

The Kenyans I met, though, seemed more interested in talking about President Jacob Zuma. They kept asking me the same question: how could such a man come after such eminences as Mandela and Thabo Mbeki? I eventually began to suspect this was a way of avoiding talking about their own president, Uhuru Kenyatta, son of Jomo, who was being investigated by the International Criminal Court about human rights abuses during Kenya’s 2007-2008 election violence—with much subsidiary debate about whether the ICC was an instrument of neocolonialism used to target only African leaders. All this was causing Barack Obama (who was flying in to South Africa with his armada of security personnel) to skip the country of his father on a visit to Africa. 

Gusts of world history, then, and questions of African lineages and legacies were very much in the air as the plane south skirted Mount Kilimanjaro, rising above the clouds, and crossed the Limpopo. As we waited in O R Tambo International Airport, my colleague showed me a message on his BlackBerry, sent to all staff at the University of Cape Town, where Obama would soon be speaking. A polite and extensive explanation of the forthcoming security arrangements, it had a steely subtext: don’t even think about coming anywhere near your office for the next three days. When the phrase “Indefinite delay” appeared next to our connecting flight, we convinced ourselves that it was because of the American Chinooks clogging up Cape Town International, military supply planes offloading bombproof Hummers. Taking off again, the plane flew directly over Johannesburg city centre: pan-African Hillbrow, the TV tower and Nelson Mandela Bridge. The old joke about the tourist asking directions is not far off the truth in South Africa: “Go past Nelson Mandela Square, turn left at Nelson Mandela Stadium, straight along Nelson Mandela Boulevard . . .” But as the Mail and Guardian wrote on that weekend just past the winter solstice, as Madiba hovered on the threshold, this bridge is perhaps one of the most apt monuments to carry his name: upright and stately but also workaday, used by the many commuters and pedestrians who cross it each morning, going from the suburbs to the city centre. “And a mugging hot spot, of course,” said my colleague. 

Has anyone else been commemorated so fully while still alive? What the literary scholar Rob Nixon wrote about the years of Mandela’s imprisonment, from 1964 to 1990, seems partly true again—absented from the political present, but remaining a pre-eminent inhabitant of South Africa’s past and future, Mandela lives “on the cusp of time, embodying a people’s hope, yet monumentalised on a scale ordinarily reserved for the dead.”

In a poem from his collection Mandela’s Earth, Wole Soyinka brooded on the waiting game of the Robben Island years:

Your patience grows inhuman, Mandela.

Do you grow food? [. . .]

Are you now the crossword puzzle expert?

Your logic frightens me, Mandela, your logic

Humbles me.

Anthony Sampson’s authorised biography shows how, along with the gardening, Mandela was reading widely in prison: political biography (he loved Churchill), the Russians (War and Peace in three days), Dickens and Steinbeck, The Oxford Book of English Verse, which he kept by his bedside. But also Afrikaans literature. Eric Molobi recalled that while the comrades pored over Das Kapital Mandela was reading the lives of Boer war leaders and rebels—Jan Smuts, Koos de la Rey, Christiaan de Wet—so as to understand the crucible of Afrikaner nationalism and its shift from anti-imperial rebellion and humiliation in the late 19th century to defiant minority rule after 1948. In his language and his politics after Robben Island, Mandela carried with him this sense of history’s longue durée: a staggered, bitterly delayed process of decolonisation in which the majority of South Africans became, as Edward Said wrote of the Palestinians, the victims of the victims.

During the strange interregnum of 2013, amid all the ready-to-go commemorations and the international media stake-outs, many South Africans no doubt have also been making their own private tributes to Madiba. Mine was to read and reread his own writing, dipping into the letters, speeches, the autobiography, looking for details that give a richer, more unexpected sense of the man: something other than the platitudes about “moral courage” that a tired-looking Obama found himself rehearsing (and how could he not?) in Soweto.

In one sense it is a rather dutiful task, as Long Walk to Freedom does not grant many of the conventional pleasures of autobiography. From “A Country Childhood” onwards, there is the sense that each episode has been carefully selected and shaped for its possibility as political parable or moral fable. Lacking the intimacies and the novelist’s ear for dialogue of Obama’s Dreams from My Father, Mandela’s narrative has the sense of having been comprehensively reverse-engineered. At every moment its teller is silently wise to his future greatness, but this momentous “I” in the making is dispersed into a collective narrative as soon as it takes shape. It becomes less the trace of a historical, confiding subject than an allegorical strategy to write a new nation into being. When the manuscript was with its team of editors and ghostwriters, they requested that the plural pronouns that were so common in the text—we, us, our—be changed to the first person. Which, intriguingly, is exactly what the warders on Robben Island required of political prisoners: that only “I” be used in their communiqués, never “we.”

Just about the only frivolous moment that I can locate in Long Walk to Freedom is when Mandela recalls how the hills above his childhood village of Qunu were dotted with large, smooth rocks that he and his friends transformed into their own roller-coaster: “We sat on flat stones and slid down the face of the large rocks. We did this until our backsides were so sore we could hardly sit down.” A moment of unruly play; but it is soon folded back into arch diction and a lesson about perseverance: “I learned to ride by sitting atop weaned calves—after being thrown to the ground several times, one got the hang of it.” 

After two hours of the flat brown Karoo moving below us, the land mass buckled and our plane began its descent to Cape Town International. We crossed the same ranges that Mandela remembered looking down on from the unheated Dakota taking him and his comrades to Robben Island in 1964, “examining the scenery not as a tourist but as a strategist, looking for areas where a guerrilla army might hide itself.”

Green reappeared in their fertile valleys, then we wheeled over the ocean and came down on a long, sobering traverse of the Cape Flats: highways, wine farms, gated communities, the intricate geometries of apartheid social engineering. Then the rows of post-1994 “Mandela houses”, other Department of Human Settlements projects lagging years behind the waiting lists, shanties barely held down on the dunes.

The Cape, as the Nobel laureate J M Coetzee wrote, was a colony where metaphors of gardening could never quite take root; not the pastoral Eden of a New World, but rather the farthest expanse of the Old. A place of entrapment in great space: gardens as prisons, prisons as gardens. Reading about Mandela scanning the Matroosberg in mind of guerrilla warfare, I couldn’t help thinking of Coetzee’s greatest creation—the silent, hare-lipped gardener Michael K, who flees the city and attempts to raise pumpkin seeds on an abandoned farm, intent on escaping other people’s ideas of History.

In Long Walk to Freedom, even gardening becomes wholly absorbed into the national allegory, into the total politicisation of Mandela’s being. Working on the vegetable patch of the white headmaster at his mission school, Clarkebury, the young Mandela learns non-racialism. In disguise at Liliesleaf Farm in Rivonia, he poses as a groundsman, David Motsamayi, wearing the blue overalls of the labouring classes. Retrospectively mediating his shift from commander of armed struggle to man of peace, the act of growing things becomes a means of inculcating values of political patience, consensus and gradualism. In a letter to his wife Winnie from prison, he writes of his sadness in having to pull up a dying tomato plant. For him, a failed project; for her, the sadness of a mother who has raised children in the Struggle, only to see them cut down by police bullets. 

Back in Cape Town, expectations were mounting for Obama. How would his speech match up to Robert Kennedy’s “Ripple of Hope”, delivered at the same venue in June 1966? The Kennedys surely remain a benchmark of 20th-century “high” political speechifying. “Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope,” said the senator, then a prospective US presidential candidate, going on to mix his metaphors confidently in a way that speaks to the 21st-century rolling wave of global protest, of digital activism, Avaaz, Occupy, WikiLeaks, Taksim Square: “and crossing each other from a million different centres of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

For the apartheid government in Pretoria, the Washington Post noted, Kennedy’s visit was “as welcome as a mild plague.”

In Nelson Mandela: a Very Short Introduction (2008), Elleke Boehmer remarks that her subject is/was perhaps the most rhetorically cautious of all 20th-century liberation icons. She considers the woodenness and “curious immobility of his verbal performances,” their “strained, affectless tones”—a humdrum quality that persisted across many years and many speechwriters. 

The 1990 address that Mandela gave on his release in Cape Town struck some as disappointing, a speech that didn’t really rise to the occasion. A white-haired Walter Sisulu, Mandela’s old friend who became a fellow leading figure in the ANC and a co-defendant in the Rivonia trial, asks the ecstatic crowds gathered on the Grand Parade—people hanging from every alcove and balcony of the City Hall—to give their leader a “dignified hearing” and apologises for the bad acoustics. Cyril Ramaphosa, the trade union leader, holds the microphone as a grey-suited Mandela embarks on a long, formulaic list of salutations—a speech that begins in the dusk and ends in darkness. Even in the measured prose of the autobiography, one senses the manic energy coursing through the city that day. On his first attempt to reach the Grand Parade, Mandela is trapped in his car for over an hour by thousands of supporters: “I felt as though the crowd might very well kill us with their love.” 

Catching up on YouTube with all the history that I was too young and ignorant to appreciate living through at the time, I kept on worrying that some extremist would assassinate the speaker. This was illogical, but I couldn’t shake the feeling. He seems so exposed, so vulnerable compared to the security in place for the new World President.

I also came to appreciate the stolid, schoolmasterly tones. To listen to the speeches now is to be reminded of his voice: stern, clipped, patriarchal, unsentimental, steely—though none of these adjectives is quite right. Its gruff, abraded vowels resonate from the throat in a way that is hard to find words for, but was such a gift to impressionists. In them one hears all kinds of things: the country boy from Qunu; the prisoner who helped his Afrikaner warders with their letters; the self-confessed Anglophile who quoted Shakespeare and held in mind a line from Measure for Measure as he made his celebrated statement from the dock on 20 April 1964, daring the apartheid judiciary to hang him: “Be absolute for death.”

Today, after the wars and drone strikes authorised by such sincere and self-consciously “good” communicators as Tony Blair and Obama, Mandela’s aloofness comes across as heartening, somehow. A friend who made it into the Cape Town venue where Obama was speaking told me he was a little disappointed by him, anyway. Everything looked too rehearsed and calculated; perhaps he’d used up all his tricks in electoral combat, spent all his rhetorical capital. With Mandela’s speeches, one always had the sense that there was something in reserve. Just as there would be no easy walk to freedom, there would be no easy recourse to rhetoric.

Finally, the result of the Mandela restraint is that when a quotable phrase does emerge, it has a force, a groundedness, which is often absent from other orators. In his inaugural celebration address of 10 May 1994, he deems apartheid “an extraordinary human disaster that lasted too long.” He goes on to close with perhaps his most quoted lines, in which one can detect a rare moment of rhetorical showmanship. It resides in the slightly overlong pause between the first and second “never.” After all the common and garden metaphors in the early part of the speech, and then the beautiful Gandhian echoes of salt and bread, the triple blow falls like a hammer:

Let there be justice for all.

Let there be peace for all.

Let there be work, bread, water and salt for all.

Let each know that for each the body,

the mind and the soul have been freed to fulfil themselves.

Never, never and never again shall

it be that this beautiful land will again

experience the oppression of one by

another and suffer the indignity of being

the skunk of the world.

Let freedom reign.

The distinctiveness and elusiveness of that voice—the sense that it is both sui generis and also somehow hollowed out by historical expediency—holds a paradox of Nelson Mandela the man. It is the creation and conservation of an overwhelmingly powerful sense of self, but only to effect its dispersal in the service of a collective. Somehow, this makes the 1977 photograph one of the most intimate portraits of him.

Caught off-guard in someone else’s charade, resisting it, indignant, defiant—the image captures something of Mandela’s ubiquity and distance, the hypervisibility but simultaneous opacity of the man. And just as his passing is not fitting any of the prerehearsed scripts, so his words, preserved in the world memory of the internet, point towards some other, different calculus of the political and personal that has already passed away—a language that is anachronistic, delayed, unsettlingly late.

For me his greatest rhetorical moment came, unsurprisingly, in the quoting of another. On 24 May 1994, stepping up to address South Africa’s newly formed democratic parliament, in the very eye of a world historical storm, he chose to read a poem by Ingrid Jonker, an Afrikaans writer who walked into the sea and drowned herself in 1965. “The child (who was shot dead by soldiers at Nyanga)” was written after the March 1960 massacre in Sharpeville. However, it is a poem that goes on living a secret life, just as the murdered child goes on haunting the modern nation state: a spectre that remains “present at all assemblies and law-givings”—a line that Mandela omitted from his rendition:

The child is not dead

not at Langa nor at Nyanga

not at Orlando nor at Sharpeville

nor at the police station at Philippi

where he lies with a bullet through

his brain ...

Jonker, Mandela says, was both Afrikaner and African. Yet if his other gestures of reconciliation seemed too much for some—wearing the Springbok jersey at the 1995 Rugby World Cup final at Ellis Park Stadium in Johannesburg, or taking tea two months later with Hendrik Verwoerd’s widow—this one carried within it the bitterest historical memory. And, in the way of great poems, which often surround themselves with new meanings, contraindications, “noise”, so the boy grown into a giant is also the man now speaking the words, the man who outgrew his country and who wanders like a ghost or a giant, throughout the world, for ever:

The child is the dark shadow of the soldiers

on guard with rifles Saracens and batons

the child is present at all assemblies and law-givings

the child peers through the windows of

houses and into the hearts of mothers

this child who just wanted to play in

the sun at Nyanga is everywhere

The child grown to a man treks through all Africa

the child grown into a giant journeys

through the whole world

Without a pass. 

Hedley Twidle is a lecturer at the University of Cape Town and was the winner in 2012 of the inaugural Bodley Head and Financial Times Essay Prize.

This piece originally appeared on