A radical return for Mandela

A file photo taken on August 28, 2007 shows former South African president Nelson Mandela waving to the media as he arrived outside 10 Downing Street, in central London, for a meeting with the British Prime Minister. AFP PHOTO/LEON NEAL

“I was very young, angry and, if I’m honest, immature,” Mohlomola Ntoane recalled of his radical student activist days in apartheid-era South Africa.

“I realise that now. He taught me that,” Ntoane said, pointing to a picture of Nelson Mandela as he stood in line for a chance to view the freedom icon lying in state in Pretoria.

As a young man, Ntoane, now 56, had been a member of the South African Students’ Organisation (SASO) co-founded by Steve Biko, who died in police custody in 1977.

SASO evolved into the influential Black Consciousness Movement, and Ntoane became one of a growing number of increasingly radicalised young, black South Africans who felt that the main liberation organisation, the African National Congress (ANC)was ineffective.

“You have to remember that there was something of a hiatus then, with most of the top ANC leaders, including Mandela, in prison,” he said.

“We were impatient. We felt the ANC was moving too slowly and we just wanted power at any cost.”

After his friend and fellow activist, David Webster, was shot dead by the security forces in 1989, Ntoane was told he was also a potential target and fled to Britain where he remained for nearly 25 years.

“This is my greatest joy and my biggest regret,” he said, wrapping an arm around the shoulder of his daughter, Agisanang, a 30-year-old quality control technician who grew up in South Africa.

“I missed her growing up. We should have done things together. Things like this,” he said, as they waited for the bus to take them to the Unions Building where Mandela’s casket was on public view.

In Britain, Ntoane was involved in a number of activist causes, but South Africa remained his main focus and he watched as Mandela emerged from 27 years in prison in 1990 and four years later moved into the presidential palace.

“What a man. What a hero,” Ntoane said, shaking his head.

“He wasn’t constricted by boundaries and ideologies. He could see so far.

“Me? My outlook was so narrow. Not wrong, just very limited,” he said.

Even as Mandela became the country’s first black president, Ntoane stayed away, convinced that Mandela’s policy of reconciliation and his vision of a democratic, multi-racial society was too ambitious.

“I thought it would all become segregated and ghettoised and that the Afrikaners would try and carve off their own homeland,” he said.

“It didn’t happen, did it,” he said. “He gave people the confidence to try, not just black people, but white people as well.”

Arriving at the Unions Building, the imposing seat of government that overlooks the city, Ntoane pointed to staff looking out of the windows of the president’s office at the people arriving for the lying in state.

“Black faces in those offices. That was what we dreamed about, and there they are,” he said.

After filing past Mandela in his open casket, Ntoane moved to comfort his daughter who was clearly overwhelmed by the occasion.

“At least he isn’t suffering,” he told her as they walked back to the bus.

Next year, Ntoane said he plans to return to South Africa for good, and possibly get into local politics by running for a council seat.

“I’m much clearer in my head these days and more mature,” he said.

“I think I can contribute something.”

– Sapa

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