Mandela, Bantu and the politics

POLITICIANS and untruths are such compatible bedfellows it is not impolite to invariably mention the two in the same sentence.

"I'm a politician - which means I'm a cheat and a liar. When I'm not kissing babies, I steal their lollipops."

This comes from the movie The Hunt for Red October, and spews out the mouth of a character played by Richard Jordan to his interlocutor, played by Alec Baldwin.

In his post-Robben Island political life, Nelson Mandela has always risen above the label. He's been a statesman; a saint almost, but never a politician.

But in a new biography, penned by the editor of Time magazine, Richard Stengel, the world's best-loved nonagenarian seemed to have stooped down to the level of politicians - the scum of the world.

The book, Mandela's Way, Lessons on Life, weaves into it "remarkable stories of Mandela as the protege of a tribal king, of his early days as a freedom fighter, of the 27-year imprisonment that could not break him, and of his new and fulfilling marriage at the age of 80".

The lessons Mandela imparts span such virtues as "Lead from the Front", "Look the Part", "Know When to Say No", etc.

But it is in Chapter 9 - Keep Your Rivals Close - that the grandfather of modern politics engages in the back-stabbing and double-speak that is the hallmark of politicians.

Stengel quotes Madiba speaking very unflatteringly about General Bantu Holomisa, someone he's always been seen to be close to, especially publicly.

Because of the nature of their relationship, Holomisa, who is omnipresent during functions at the Qunu homestead of the former president, understandably thinks of himself as Madiba's son.

"I don't think when you look at my relationship with Madiba you'd say this is a relationship based purely on politics; he is a father figure to me," says Holomisa, who remains chuffed about overseas trips alongside the older man.

Stengel writes: "When we were in the Transkei, Mandela always wanted Holomisa around. 'Where is Bantu?' he would say. 'Where is the general?' When Holomisa entered Mandela's living room, Mandela would pat the chair next to him and say, 'Ah, general, come sit next to me'."

Stengel tells how Mandela "would hold hands with Holomisa, a tradition among African men, but not one Mandela often practised. He publicly treated Holomisa as a son".

Holomisa cannot be faulted for thinking this was the case too.

But this was a smoke screen, if the rest of the chapter is anything to go by.

Says Stengel: "In private, Mandela told me that Holomisa was a loose cannon who needed to be monitored.

"And that was precisely what Mandela did."

According to the book, Holomisa was fooled: "Holomisa loved that."

But "the idea was to co-opt him by making him feel important and indispensable, and indeed Holomisa seemed to expand with pleasure and pride when Mandela held his hand or put his arm around him".

The coup de grace comes thus: "What (Chris) Hani and Holomisa had in common is not so much that they were actively disloyal, but that they were 'immature', that they made decisions based on 'the blood' rather than the head. He (Madiba) saw this immaturity as a symptom of insecurity. These men, to his mind, suffered from a lack of confidence.

"Such men were unpredictable, dangerous, hard to rely on."

But this is the same Holomisa that Mandela, at least outwardly, had always relied on. Says a demure Holomisa: "That period (the transition to democracy) included us supplying personal security to Madiba directly after his release - up until such a time as MK could return from exile and take over those duties."

Does this mean, if indeed Stengel quoted Madiba correctly, that the world's most famous political prisoner entrusted his own safety to an "unpredictable, dangerous man who is hard to rely on?"

Holomisa says: "It is a privilege that I will cherish to have worked so closely with a man of Madiba's calibre, and to be entrusted with sensitive tasks like looking after senior cadres of the ANC during negotiations with (former president FW) De Klerk's government.

"If the author of the said book implies that Madiba was using me, then so be it, I do not regret one moment for having contributed to the freedom of my country. In fact, I am convinced that the relationship between the two of us contributed immensely to a smooth transition for Transkei to be incorporated into SA, unlike the bloodshed witnessed in other former homelands. Our relationship has developed into a father-and-son type of relationship; hence Madiba requesting me in the early 90s to be responsible for building his home in Qunu (a replica of the house he occupied during his time at Victor Verster prison).

"I continue to assist him, for instance with arranging many functions at his house in Qunu. Even after I had been expelled by the ANC my relationship with Madiba continued. I still go to his house without making appointments, and should I arrive when he has guests, he would greet me and invite me to sit with him and he would introduce me: 'You must be careful of Bantu, he is a coup specialist'.

"It's his reminder to me of our travels to Europe and America during the early 90s, when he'd introduce me to world leaders as 'a dictator, whom I don't want to leave at home, because he might coup me as leader of the ANC in my absence'."

So, given this background, are the comments in the book simply the biographer's sleight of hand or did the saint, in a moment of weakness, degenerate into a mere politician?

Holomisa has the last word: "The relationship between the Transkei military government, Madiba and the ANC during the lead-up to democracy was one of utmost trust and we honoured all our commitments. In fact, the only instructions from Madiba which I could not follow was when he suggested I should apologise to Stella Sigcau for my TRC testimony, and when he requested me to return to the ANC a few years ago. In all other matters I have been honoured to carry out his requests to the letter and will continue to do so in future without hesitation."