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Historian who combines time and place to tell stories

By unknown | Jun 30, 2008 | COMMENTS [ 0 ]

As the Madiba magic sweeps through the world, one woman works quietly in her study in leafy Observatory, eastern Johannesburg, putting the finishing touches to more creative work to celebrate Nelson Mandela's 90th birthday.

As the Madiba magic sweeps through the world, one woman works quietly in her study in leafy Observatory, eastern Johannesburg, putting the finishing touches to more creative work to celebrate Nelson Mandela's 90th birthday.

Historian Luli Callinicos does not remember if it was before or after Sharpeville that she met "this tall giant of a man" at a fund-raising party for the ANC - a band of terrorists in the eyes of the authorities at the time.

What she recalls vividly, though, is being awestruck by this same man who, with the benefit of hindsight, she knew was on the lookout for the hated Special Branch, perennial gate-crashers at such gatherings.

Twenty-seven years after the selfsame stranger was released from prison and came to lead the first democratic South Africa, Callinicos has met Mandela several times, including writing a book on him.

But hers, titled The World that Made Mandela, is not your average biography: "Mine is a different sort of biography because I'm using places to tell the story of his life, and those places tell the stories of people and the culture that shaped his life.

"Mandela himself has said many times that he was made by his people. He is who he is because of his people. That is like the bottom line way of describing a good leader."

What confines her to the study on a weekday afternoon while London is abuzz with the merriment of the 46664 celebrations is a creative piece of work, for which she's lead writer.

"It is an exhibition for his 90th birthday," she reveals, "which will be shown at the Apartheid Museum and the Nelson Mandela Museum in Mthatha."

The exhibition is made up of photographs, film clips, Madiba's voice and scripts of his life, says Callinicos, perhaps best known for her biography on Oliver Reginald Tambo, Beyond the Engeli Mountains.

Her unusual approach was informed by the fact that a lot has been written about the affable Mandela, a remarkable man in Callinicos' words, whom she likens to Mahatma Gandhi, the father of Indian independence.

A council member of the South African Heritage Association, she says: "As a historian I have always been concerned with the passage of time too - how it affects our memories.

"Time and place. I wanted to combine these two to tell the story of Nelson Mandela."

She then commences from the young man born of royal blood, who was meant to be an advisor to King Sabata but chose "to widen his world, so that he's not just the leader of AmaTembu".

Callinicos notes that Johannesburg becomes an important place where Mandela grows and widens his scope, "meets the wonderful Walter Sisulu and, of course, the quietly impressive Oliver Tambo".

"What I did was look at those places, and where possible, took photographs from the past. These places have a lot of memories; during the time of Mandela and long after he's thrown into Robben Island."

Lilliesleaf, Qunu, Alexandra, Alice ... and all the places touched by the presence of Mandela come to life in her book. She says her book is different from other biographies: "And I hope it's rich."

For posterity's sake, we need to tell these stories, she says. "These memories may disappear unless we record them."

The party she went to for the chance encounter with the tall man was at the Orange Grove home of Ben Turok, now an ANC MP. At the time she was a 19-year-old member of the Congress of Democrats.

"The next time I looked, he was gone," she says of the man at the door.

She was introduced to OR by Ruth First when she lived in Benoni. OR, one of the few black attorneys at the time, was also from the small East Rand town.

Of OR, she recalls: "He was calm, in a spiritual atmosphere. He had a beautiful face with scars on it, the scars contrasted with the elegant suit he wore."

In 1992 Eleanor Kasrils asked her if "I wasn't interest in writing about OR".

She leapt at the chance!

Biographies are a very powerful way of understanding a people, she repeats. She talks very excitedly about Tambo, who she contends few people really knew. A deeply spiritual person, Tambo was intent on giving up his law practice to be ordained as a priest, she says animatedly.

"But the ANC said forget the church; there's this other church to lead."

Callinicos, born nine months after her parents came here from Ithaca, Greece, is married to Wits sociologist Eddie Webster.

The couple have six grandchildren from their four kids.


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