A friendship that has stood the test of time

Anna Majavu

Anna Majavu

A giant photo of Nelson Mandela clasping the hands of two former archbishops of Cape Town, Desmond Tutu and Njongonkulu Ndungane, has pride of place in Ndungane's office and testifies to the long road the men have travelled together.

Ndungane's eyes light up when he begins talking about Mandela. The 67-year-old archbishop attended the famous Lovedale High School and it is clear that he feels he has known Madiba almost all his life.

However, he downplays the great relationship they have shared over the years, saying that there is nobody in South Africa who has not been in touch with Madiba in one way or another.

For many years, Ndungane's contact with Madiba was indirect. "I always joke that I built the jail for Madiba because I was on Robben Island before him and was part of the squad that built his jail," says Ndungane.

This changed in 1990 when Mandela was released from prison. Ndungane's first direct contact with Madiba was on the day of his release.

"He had his first press conference in my Bishopscourt garden," said Ndungane. "It was my privilege the following day to drive him to a meeting at the University of the Western Cape. My claim to fame is that on the second day of his freedom I was Madiba's chauffeur. Can you imagine the responsibility with no bodyguards to protect him?"

In the years that followed, the two men became great friends. Ndungane fondly recalls how Mandela would often phone and invite him over for tea or breakfast, as if he were any ordinary neighbour.

"I will never forget when I was the guest of the Catholic Church in Germany. Madiba phoned the convent and said he needed me to bring the religious leaders of Cape Town to dinner when I returned, to help him solve an urgent problem. My esteem among the Catholic nuns rose enormously!" jokes Ndungane.

The archbishop has no shortage of words when it comes to describing the lessons he has learnt from Mandela.

"Madiba has taught me that a leader must always be one step ahead. He created ladders to a new democracy by always being one step ahead," Ndungane says.

Ndungane appears to be referring to South Africa's current political situation when he remarks that "as a leader you learn from Madiba that others must be permitted to have different views from you and that bitterness and anger only stunt one's growth".

Mandela has left an enormous legacy to South Africa and the world. "His legacy to us is really that despite our differences, we need to move forward together," says Ndungane.

An outspoken critic of the ANC government's decision to pay back the debt incurred by the apartheid government, Ndungane says that reconciliation is a hard game for impoverished South Africans when the country is so full of economic imbalances.

"South Africa needs to be creative in redressing imbalances between the 'haves' and the 'have nots'. It is ironic that in South Africa we have the super rich and the super shacks. I'm only a priest but for us to talk about economic growth, which does not translate to creating jobs and improving the lives of millions of South Africans, shows that there is something wrong in the equation. Just as Madiba was always one step ahead, true leaders in South Africa must address this issue together with the private sector," he says.

Ndungane describes the world as a place that faces "multiple crises and grave socio-economic problems".

Like Mandela, he says he favours practical commitment to improving the lives of the poor and criticised the recent G8 meeting for being "a talk shop where there was just acknowledgements that there are problems without measurable practical commitments to address these".

Ndungane insists that the only way for South Africa to take forward the work Mandela started with children and the youth is to prioritise education.

"We should be aiming to produce the best mathematics and science minds, to be technologically advanced and produce those who can contribute to new inventions," he says.

According to Ndungane, Madiba's chief legacy is that solutions can be found to the most difficult of problems.

"No matter how grave our differences are, looking at each other in the eye and sitting around one table, we can begin to work out sustainable visions for the future," is how Ndungane sums up Mandela's message to the world.

"The rest of the world can learn a lot from Madiba on his birthday. The leaders in Israel and Palestine must bite the bullet to find solutions that accommodate both sides. Sometimes you need to take a bold step. Whatever the other shortfalls in South Africa today, we sat together for the greater good and today we are a constitutional democracy," he says.

"The Zimbabweans must sit together and find one another and afterwards address issues of governance and justice. Even after two parties have been at war, they need to sit together afterwards and work out how to proceed," Ndungane says.

His final words on the auspicious occasion of Mandela's 90th birthday on Friday are: "Happy Birthday, Madiba. We wish you God's wishes and ukhule ukhokhobe."