Belfast Telegraph

Nelson Mandela death: We followed the Black Pimpernel in Africa and across the world

Njabulo Ndebele grew up through the apartheid era and his political consciousness was awakened by Nelson Mandela. He pays tribute to the man he saw as the founder of his nation

To black South Africans, he was like a father caring for his children. At various times over six decades I have received many pieces of sad news, of many kinds.

The news of the death of Nelson Mandela joins many of them in a kind of equality of sadness.

Known for proclaiming his ordinariness, he might have understood my reaction.

A human being has passed on. It is his humanity I choose to remember at this time.

Young people the world over ordinarily sense the environment of their upbringing without understanding its larger implications.

I was too young to be aware of the full implications of the Treason Trials in the late 1950s in which Nelson Mandela was one of the accused. But I do have a clearer memory of the potato boycotts of 1959, in which black people protested against potato slave farm conditions in Bethal.

I was 12 years old when I heard about people killed at Sharpeville in 1960. One memorable utterance, by my maternal grandfather, embossed the event in my mind permanently.

Unexpectedly, he dropped in on us on that fateful day, March 21, 1960.

I heard the radio in the living-room crackle. The Big Ben chime followed announcing the seven o'clock news from the SABC.

"Fifty-seven dead!" my grandfather's voice boomed from the living room.

It must have been the tally at the time of the shootings at Sharpeville where black people had gathered in protest against identity documents by which a hostile state controlled their movements. I stayed with the figure of 57 until I learnt much later, that as many as 69 people were shot dead and 300 injured.

My father decided to send me to Swaziland, to St Christopher's Anglican High School, in 1961.

In 1953, the white Nationalist government had passed the infamous Bantu Education Act to make way for an inferior education designed for black people.

It was at St Christopher's that my childhood impressions of the world took on the contours of understanding, as my consciousness broadened.

It was there also that Nelson Mandela wandered into my full awareness, in a way I could never have imagined.

I remember that a picture of Nelson Mandela with Ben Bella of Algeria circulated through the school. The Black Pimpernel, as Mandela was known at that time, had skipped the country clandestinely to establish the military wing of the ANC as a signal for the abandonment of peaceful protest and the beginning of the armed struggle.

As he travelled across Africa and beyond, Nelson Mandela took us along with him across the world.

The anti-colonial struggles in Africa and Asia entered our consciousness, there to remain linking individuals to others in ever expanding communities of common purpose.

That purpose was to achieve freedom for black people in South Africa and the world over. We sensed it and lived it.

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