Mandela, that Mad Fella
The great Mandela used to walk about, looking from head to toe, like a mad man. His words, not mine. Rolihlahla (meaning ‘troublemaker’ in the Xhosa language), a young gentleman born to a global pandemic—the 1918 Influenza, and a world war—World War I, and then bred in a number of tiny villages; semi-orphaned, having lost his father at a tender age of nine, and having been adopted by his guardian—a chief, chose to leave behind his comfortable life in the village—the static, predictable, rural life, for the progressiveness and unpredictable life of the city.
And it was in the city that this young gentleman, aspiring to be a lawyer, met poverty that threatened to break more than it did to make, “In that first year [of law school], I learned more about poverty than I did in all of my childhood days in [the village]. I never seemed to have money and I managed to survive on the meagerest of resources.”
[All quotes interspersed throughout this article are Mandela’s, taken from his autobiography, ‘Long Walk to Freedom.’]
Then a student doubling as intern of a law firm, Madiba had to live on a meagre salary. From that monthly stipend, he had to carve out a living. Food, shelter, transportation, school fees, candles, clothing, etc., all came out of that tiny salary. Something had to give. Most often than not, one or more of these items, no matter how vital they were to the act of living, had to give. And most times it was transportation, food, and clothing he sacrificed, but never the school fees or the candles (he needed the light to study).
“Many days I walked the six miles to town in the morning and six back in the evening in order to save bus fare. I often went days without more than a mouthful of food, and without a change of clothing.” And thus began the era that Nelson Rolihlahla (Madiba) Mandela, an entire nation and race’s liberator would walk around, looking not very much unlike a “tramp”. Again, his words, not mine.
“Mr. Sidelsky [his lawyer mentor], who was my height, once gave me an old suit of his and, assisted by considerable stitching and patching, I wore that suit every day for almost five years. In the end, there were more patches than suit. One afternoon, I was returning [home] by bus and took a seat next to another fellow about my age. He was one of those young men who affected a style of dress that mimicked the well-tailored gangster in American movies. I realised that my suit was just touching the hem of his jacket. He noticed it also and very carefully moved away so that my jacket would not sully his. It was a tiny gesture, comical in retrospect, but painful at the time.”
But no matter how much his very purposeful life throws these otherwise demeaning events into retrospect, it does not take away how bad his situation was—a situation so deplorable that he had to, on occasions, run away from former classmates. “One morning, I decided to walk to town to save money and spotted a young lady [an old classmate] …she was walking toward me on the same side of the street. I was embarrassed by my threadbare clothing and crossed to the other side hoping she would not recognise me. But I heard her call out, “Nelson… Nelson! I stopped and crossed over, pretending that I had not noticed her until that moment. She was pleased to see me, but I could tell that she observed how shabby I looked…”
But what is the heart if not heartless—incognizant of one’s situation? For this young man, he knew exactly how un-delightful his situation made for viewing—how undeserving of attraction poverty had made him. Yet, this heart of his chose to put him in further trouble by stumbling in love with a neighbour. “I also fell in love with her [Didi]. But Didi barely took notice of me, and what she did notice was the fact that I owned only one patched-up suit and a single shirt, and that I did not present a figure much different from a tramp. Every weekend Didi … was brought home by a young man who I assumed was her boyfriend, a flashy well-to-do fellow who had a car, something that was most unusual. He wore expensive, double-breasted American suits and wide-brimmed hats, and paid a great deal of attention to his appearance. He must have been a gangster of some sort, but I cannot be sure…”
We learnt from last two weeks’ gangster flick, ‘Scarface’ that the mob always get the girl. So just as Tony won the heart of Poppy, this South African pseudo-American gangster won the heart of Didi—beating Mandela to it hands-down. But Mandela’s failed attempt at love is not our focus for today—neither is your contemplation right now over past loves lost. I am sorry about your heart, but we’ve got to move on…
…to the matter at hand
This hardship relayed was not Mandela’s alone. The large chunk of the South African Black population had been condemned to poverty. Suffering a peculiar African situation where their past colonisers, chose not to leave the land but remain and impose upon them further racialism—the only few times the world has experience the minority ruling over the majority—the South African, native to the land, was made to be the scraps of that land—the very bottom of their own country.
“The township was desperately overcrowded; every square foot was occupied either by a ramshackle house or a tin-roofed shack. As so often happens in desperately poor places, the worse elements came to the fore. Life was cheap; the gun and the knife ruled at night. Gangsters—known as ‘tsotsis’—carrying flick-knives or switchblades were plentiful and prominent; in those days they emulated American movie stars and wore fedoras and double-breasted suits and wide, colourful ties…”
Bearing the brunt of capitalism—capitalism of the most brutal kind, where the ‘haves’ were a particular tiny set of people (the Caucasians), and the ‘have nots’ being the vast majority of the Black South African—our kinsfolk in South Africa stood little to no chance. Apartheid did its job denying the Black person access to quality education, employment, healthcare, housing, etc. Many had little to no choice but to take their chance with crime. Black crime rate in the country around this time, was at an all-time high; incarceration was at an all-time high. The Caucasian had, in denying the Black man human dignity in all aspects, succeeded in creating just the Black person they wanted—crime ridden.
The Caucasian had succeeded in making poverty the property of the Black folk. So much so that seeing a poor White person was on a subconscious (and conscious) level, considered by one, an abnormally. “While I was walking in the city one day, I noticed a white woman in the gutter gnawing on some fish bones. She was poor and apparently homeless, but she was young and not unattractive. I knew of course that there were poor whites, white who were every bit as poor as Africans, but one rarely saw them. I was used to seeing black beggars on the street, and it startled me to see a white one. While I normally did not give to African beggars, I felt the urge to give this woman money. In that moment I realised the tricks apartheid plays on one, for the everyday travails that afflict Africans are accepted as a matter of course, while my heart immediately went out to this bedraggled white woman. In South Africa, to be poor and black was normal, to be poor and white was a tragedy.”
No Nation for Follywood
Imagine what effects the romanticisation of crime against such a backdrop—this economic and socioeconomic reality—would have on a people. It would be disastrous, right? And ‘disaster mode’ is precisely what ensued. We have Mandela here, attesting to it. The Black South African, in their own home, just as they were being carefully morphed by White-South-African hands into criminals, were, in proxy, being morphed by yet another pair of White hands—this time around, White Western hands into further deterioration. The latter was arguably unintentional, but its effects were as consequential as the former.
America, having its own peculiar national journey, had Hollywood movies awashed with crime—the romanticisation thereof. And Hollywood, being then not just a national phenomenon but a global one, had differing influences on differing people. The deterioration one would ordinarily envisage upon a people from whom such blatant romanticisation of crime proceeded, was strangely not so felt on that society—USA, but nations having then an incipient journey. Nations like ours—those of us in Africa…
Slavery, colonialism may have been successfully rooted out. But ideological slavery and Stockholm syndrome, being certain side effects of these occasions, cannot be boldly said to have been fully rooted out. In each stage of our national lives—be it sociopolitical, economical, socioeconomical, in our individual lives, we witness our own selves showing signs and symptoms of these side effects.
The Socioeconomic Philosophy Behind the Commerce of ‘Pure Water’
These are not as popular as they used to be: vendors having ice chests seated on tables by the roadside, selling ‘nsu’ a.k.a. ‘pure water.’ One would find, more often than not, these vendors sometimes having abandoned their stations. And you, needing that water, would have no option but to open the ‘Coleman’, pick that water you crave, and leave a ten or twenty pesewa coin (whatever the price was) on top of the ice chest.
Even though these ice chests were unmanned, the chances of persons picking sachets of water without paying would almost always be zero to none. Why? Because the economic reality the nation finds itself in, ten or twenty pesewas does not create a hole in one’s pocket. So, one would not sacrifice morality and good conscience for just that sachet of water. Our economic, socioeconomic dynamic as a people of the entire globe, pretty much runs on this ‘Pure Water’ philosophy.
Societies spread worldwide, no matter how incipient or advanced their journeys, have their values only as strong as their individual financial standings. So then America, in the 20th century, having come out of WWII a prosperous nation, and having its citizenry adequately fed, clothed, housed, and entertained (remember the rise of Hollywood), could not be easily provoked into crime.
The American had way too much to lose if they resorted to crime—the perfect family, the perfect home, a car, gainful employment, a bank account. Living the ‘American Dream’, having their ‘pure Water’ moment, the American could not be easily enticed with crime. So then Hollywood could afford folly—‘Follywood’ if you will. And entertainment, no matter how aggressively it seemed to romanticise crime, in the end served solely the flimsy purpose of entertainment—and that was it. It was just an avenue for experiencing catharsis, and some sort of harmless ‘schadenfreude.’
Rather than engaging in, and satisfying their human, animalistic urge to wish upon their neighbour harm, the American could rather engage in, courtesy of Hollywood, wishing upon that movie character harm. By so doing, that sadistic human urge is appeased; catharsis, experienced—a purge undertaken; and life resumes to business as usual—living of the American dream.
But then, in our part of the world, we, being in an entirely different stage of our national journey, one very much delayed, through no (real) fault of ours, this narrative, one spurred by Follywood—Hollywood, could only reap adverse end results in real life. South Africa bore the brunt. And the youth, being the most impressionable bunch of people, blessed with profound energy (a liability if paired with unhinged impressionability), are always the group that suffer this adverse socialisation.
This dynamic of the ‘teaching White’ and the ‘learning Black’ has been our narrative since the 15th century when the Caucasian took sail and set foot on this African continent. And it is a narrative we shall painstakingly attempt to unfold in the coming weeks. But let me just say that we the Black race did not fall upon this earth, and immediately assumed a search for a people from whom to learn. We had a mind of our own. We had destinies of our own. We had cultures of our own—cultures borne from our particular experiences and conditions. We did not set out, looking for teachers—the exact opposite rather ensued.
The Caucasian, having been thrown down upon this earth, by the same Creator who had done us, and having their own thinking—one which was influenced by their own particular set of experiences, and having scant the wisdom to discern that different realities make different people, set sail with the intention to steal but under the guise of teaching. So, with the Ship, the Bible, the Gun, they infiltrated our land.
The Bible, they themselves barely believing in it, they saw as their best chance at indoctrinating the Black folk—because don’t the Black person just love God! We love God—we are unapologetic in this stance, and remain so still. This writer loves God and is unapologetic too about it. But sadly, that became one of our many Achilles’ heel that did us in. The Caucasian, they didn’t just gift us with a ‘supposed white God’, but with Western language, dress codes, conducts, ideologies.
And right there and then, an entire new course of history had been forged. The Black folk was to, in all aspects of their lives, their very existence, their thinking, couch their way of life by the White code. Which is quite unfortunate, because with human beings, being of nature an impressionable bunch, cultures would have, with time, been rendered fluid, just as our travels by seas had been.
And we the people, imposed upon this earth, would have willingly learnt from one another. From Africa, to Asia, to the Americas, to the Archipelagos interspersed in between us all, humans would have learnt from one another—without one group—dubbing themselves the repository of all knowledge—and hence forcing their ideologies upon others.
As we sit here watching on as the West, having attained national self-actualisation of a sort, descend, in many aspects, into plain stupidity, just as we in our history have at certain points of our national lives done, one cannot help but recall our African proverb, “nyansa nni nnipa baako tirim.” Wisdom does not lie in the head of one person—true.
The Two Drunkards. [Smokers worldwide, pardon this analogy]
“Bra ha!” “Bra ha!” These two drunkards I passed by the other day, said to one another menacingly. In that nasal drawl typical of drunkards, these two men, being at odds, decided they were going to fight. But that fight never happened—because none of the two were obedient enough to comply with the other’s order of “bra ha!” which quite literally means “if you like, come here, and see what I will do to you”.
They were taking forever to resume that fight; I couldn’t just stand there waiting. But as I passed by them, I couldn’t help but conclude that these two men at odds were in fact very much in agreement about one thing—well, two things, actually. 1) Akpeteshie. 2) Cigarettes. They reeked of these two ‘condiments’ which in turn reeked of one thing—failure. One could not help but hold their breath to the stench.
But, having managed to hold my breath until I passed by these cigarette-smoke-infused gentlemen, I could not help but notice what a hypocrite I was. Because I had been in a presence of one gentleman some few years back. He, an astute individual, a member of the nation’s elite, had during his youth—while “hustling away in America”—taken up smoking, as some sort of stress relief, and had grown addicted.
He smoked the whole time we brainstormed over issues. But my question is, although this thing called the cigarette has one and only infamous smell—no matter how high-end the brand, why did the smoke that proceeded from this friend of mine’s cigarette smell different from those of the two poor drunkards I met the other day? This question of mine calls to mind this quote from a certain American TV sitcom, and I paraphrase, “When I was poor, I was considered mad; now that I am rich, I am eccentric!”
That is just it right there: the same thing can have two distinct interpretations, effects, meanings when proceeding from two different people. Yes, a cigarette in two separate hands can have two separate implications. When you find a nation like Ghana, taking on certain characteristics of a nation like America, a nation of almost three centuries old, a nation having amassed such enormous wealth over those years, one cannot help but scoff—and see these two differing analogies unfold: the rich smoker on one end (eccentric)—America, and the poor smoker on the other end (mad)—us.
I didn’t have to take today’s piece this far—recalling into mind, Mandela’s many hardships. But his insights into early South African society, interwoven as it was to his personal life, was very much needed. And now that we have started, we cannot stop. Especially when he got to have the last laugh: “One day, much later, when I was practicing law in Johannesburg, a young woman and her mother walked into my office. The woman had had a child. And her boyfriend did not want to marry her; she was seeking to institute an action against him. That young woman was Didi, only now she looked haggard and wore a faded dress. I was distressed to see her, and thought how things might have turned out differently. In the end, she did not bring a suit against her boyfriend, and I never saw her again…”
Let’s end today’s matter here, and pick it right up again next week.