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When Mandela Became Real to Me

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I cannot recall the first time I heard of Nelson Mandela’s existence. It could have been in 1962, when the future President of South Africa had been sentenced to life imprisonment, condemned to labor the rest of his life on the bleak rocks of Robben Island. That could have been the date, but it wasn’t.

I was, at the time, a 20-year-old who, like so many of my generation in Chile, preached—and tried modestly to practice—the revolution. Any pretext, local, national, international, would lead students like me into the streets of Santiago to demand justice and battle the police. Even so, there was not one among that multitude of protests, as far as I can remember, that  called for Mandela’s release. We understood, with a sort of nebulous clarity, that South African apartheid was a racist aberration, the most inhumane system on the planet, but the struggle of the African National Congress (ANC) was a remote glimmer on a horizon dominated by an impoverished and fiery Latin America. Not even during the three years of Salvador Allende’s Presidency (1970-73)—whose program of national liberation could have been copied from the ANC’s Freedom Charter—was Mandela someone we particularly focused on.

It was only after the September 11 coup against Allende in 1973 that destroyed democracy in Chile and cast me into exile that Mandela started to become a significant figure. Having lost my country, Mandela’s name, his ferocious and tender loyalty to the cause of freedom, gradually turned into something akin to a second home, a refuge against despair. My identification with Mandela’s fate was facilitated by the twisted collusion of the two pariah regimes that misgoverned Chile and South Africa during those years. General Pinochet exchanged medals and ambassadors and, of course, products (including weapons and tear gas canisters) with Vorster and Botha. That someone like Mandela, a beacon of courage, stood up to a dictatorship in his country that, like ours in Chile, was  determined to eliminate the slightest hint of rebellion and dissidence, gave us hope in the midst of terrible repression and betrayals, made us feel, like so many in our era, that his struggle was not his alone but of all humanity.

Even so, Chile had to return to democracy in 1990—the very year when Mandela would emerge triumphantly from captivity—for me and, I think, the rest of our species, to begin to really understand the extraordinary stature of the man about to lead his country out of servitude. He had been for so long a symbol and echo of liberation. Now it was time to watch him practice the vicissitudes of that liberation in the everyday thicket of politics.  At a time when South Africa and Chile and so many other countries were confronting the turbulent dilemmas of a transition to democracy, when we were asking ourselves how to confront the terrors of the past without becoming hostages of the hatred that past had engendered, it was Mandela who would guide us, Mandela who became our model. By destroying apartheid through peaceful means, by negotiating with his enemies without losing his unswerving dignity, he was offering a foundational lesson to those who fight for justice around the world. We had to learn that it may be ethically more complicated to navigate through the temptations and nuances of liberty than to hold you head up high and your heart beating strong in the midst of an oppression that marks clearly and unambiguously the line between right and wrong.

It was admirable that this man, in spite of having spent almost 30 years in prison, perhaps because he spent so many hours coexisting with his most pitiless adversaries, realized that reconciliation is possible, as long as we do not betray our memories and principles, as long as we demand change and repentance from our persecutors. More than admirable. Because just when we thought that we could not admire him more, that’s when he decided not to cling to supremacy, decided not to be President for life, giving us an example of rectitude and confidence in democracy that is sorely missing on our misguided planet. One of the most popular men on this globe, and an idol in his own land, preferred not to accumulate all power in his own person, preferred to prepare his fellow citizens for the inevitable moment when he would disappear from their lives.

That moment has, regrettably, now arrived.

Now the world, and above all South Africa, will have to stumble into the uncertain future without his towering presence, what I would dare to call his light in our darkness.

And it is now, of course, that Mandela will become ever more dangerously legendary. If he could not defend himself while alive from this incessant sanctification, how can he manage, from the other side of death, to be treated, quite simply, as a human being  of flesh and blood, like all in this universe who are born and who eat, who eat and love, who love and die?

That’s why I would like, in this painful moment when Mandela begins to escape into the speeches and the posters, the statues and ceremonies and monuments, to rescue the real, tangible, corporal man who has just died.

I was fortunate enough to have spent some time with Madiba (the clan name by which he wished to be addressed) on July 28, 2010, when I visited Johannesburg to deliver the Mandela Lecture, a conference which is celebrated every year in his honor. When I received the invitation, my hosts suggested that Mandela would receive my wife Angélica and me for lunch at his residence, as long as he was not indisposed. It turned out that, due to his ailing health, such a treat was not possible, but we were able to meet for an hour at the Foundation which bears his name.

Photo Courtesy of Ariel Dorfman
Ariel Dorfman and Nelson Mandela

It would be one of Mandela’s last encounters with somebody who was not a member of his immediate entourage.

His frailty was readily apparent. But if his movements were slow and precarious, his handshake was warm and firm, and his rather rigid face gloriously lit up when he smiled. Which he did often, especially when he looked at Graça Machel, his second wife, who had taken care of him in his old age, the person we must thank for helping such a mistreated man to survive until his 94th year.

Of what did we speak? Of Allende, naturally. And of the xenophobic attacks on foreign workers from other African nations that were, according to Mandela, shameful. And of his hopes for his own land, the need to carry on without him.

All of which was relatively predictable.

What was special came when he talked about his parents. Like all men who live to an advanced age, he was immersed in his own remote past, and on this occasion, because we spoke about his birthday, he mentioned an incident in which his father had beaten his mother, a degradation that has never been consigned in any of his biographies.

Suddenly, another Mandela appeared. Someone who adores his father but is  critical of his behavior. Someone who loves his mother but is embarrassed by her disgrace. Someone who, decades before turning into the magnificent protagonist who would save his land and would offer an example of moral integrity to our troubled humanity, was just a child, small and defenseless, realizing that injustice always begins with the smallest acts, those that seem most inconsequential and easy to forget. A child that witnesses an attack against his mother—or perhaps this is something that happened before he was born, was recounted to him later, this was not clear from his narration—and asks, confronted by the desolate immensity of the African continent, why pain exists, asks about the mysteries of an authoritarian world that seems so permanent and unalterable and yet must someday be rectified, made right, made better.

That is the Mandela I wish to remember.

The Mandela who lived this terrible century day after day and did not succumb to the will of his captors.

The Mandela who cherished his little garden while in jail.

He loved to plant and reap under the rain and under the sun, knowing that to exercise a minimal influence over that small parcel of earth was a way of controlling his dignity and his memories and his loyalty towards his comrades. A man who shared fruit and vegetables with the other prisoners, but also with his guards, anticipating the sort of nation that he dreamt of and desired.

That is how I wish to remember Madiba.

Like a garden that grows as if it were made of memories. Like a garden that grows like justice needs to grow. Like a garden that reconciles us to existence and  death and irreparable loss. Like a garden that grows, as Mandela must now grow inside all of us, inside this realm that  he helped to create and that will have to find a way to remain faithful to his life and legacy.

Ariel Dorfman’s latest book is Feeding on Dreams: Confessions of an Unrepentant Exile.