JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA —
After South Africa’s last white president freed revolutionary hero Nelson Mandela in early 1990, parts of the country exploded into violence. International observers said it was on the cusp of all-out civil war. Some even predicted the destruction of Africa’s largest economy.
The analysts’ attention was particularly focused on a bitter power struggle between Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC) and the country’s other major black political movement at the time, the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP).
“South Africa was burning.... We would hear about people being killed.… There were running battles; sometimes you didn’t know whose story to believe, who was inciting (violence),” says veteran South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) journalist Angie Kapelianis.
One of the flashpoints was the East Rand – a vast network of impoverished townships near the country’s biggest city, Johannesburg. There, ANC and IFP supporters often clashed. Their weapons of choice were AK 47 assault rifles and machetes.
“A lot of us carry the damage of what we witnessed in those days. Besides all the people who were massacred, journalists were (also) killed,” Kapelianis remembers. “It was a country gripped in madness.”
Also at the time, various black minority groups such as the Azanian People’s Liberation Army were still launching attacks on targets – such as bars and churches – frequented by white South Africans. Far right white groups were attacking black people.
There were many fatalities.
Kapelianis says, “Today, it seems like it all happened in another country. It’s unreal to believe that that boiling pot is where we came from.”
‘I’d put you in my pocket …’
The central figure in this cauldron, the man who took it upon himself to end the insanity, was Nelson Mandela – freshly free from a 27-year stint in prison for leading an armed struggle against white minority rule.
Although Mandela “very clearly belonged to the ANC,” says Kapelianis, “he also transcended petty politics.” At gatherings all over South Africa, the liberation icon emphasized that “everyone” was involved in building a new country.
“He would say to every single rally – ‘If my pocket was bigger, I’d put all of you in there and I’d take all of you home with me,’” says Kapelianis.
Reconciliation was Mandela’s mantra, and just as he preached good relations between black and white South Africans, so he urged ANC and IFP supporters to find common ground.
Kapelianis explains, “He really made a great effort to show South Africans and the world that people who had been so divided, who had been so politicized, could actually live together, work together, sleep together, chat together, drink together.”
Mandela’s work was rewarded in the 1994 elections. While all and sundry had predicted widespread bloodshed during South Africa’s first democratic polls, the vote was “surreally peaceful,” the journalist says.
Mission to ‘heal amnesia’
For the past seven years, Kapelianis, funded by the SABC, has been compiling a radio archive of Mandela’s life. The material is being stored at SABC headquarters for future broadcast. She’s uncovered material from all over the world to paint a comprehensive “picture in sound” of the man she describes as one of the most remarkable human beings in history.
The reporter’s confident her project will “heal amnesia.” Kapelianis says people’s memories of events are often “distorted,” but her sound archive will present “who said what (and) how they said it” at the time of certain “special moments” in Mandela’s life and political career, such as his speech at Cape Town’s Grand Parade after his release on February 2nd, 1990.
Kapelianis’s mission has also uncovered “the unexpected, unknown, unusual gems” within Mandela’s career. For example, after months of intensive “digging” at South Africa’s national archives, she discovered a “primitive sound recording” of Mandela giving one of his most famous speeches, at a treason trial of ANC members at Rivonia in 1964.
“No one seemed to know whether his words had ever been recorded. But it turns out the court worker at the time taped it,” Kapelianis tells VOA. The SABC had to send the “dusty, old” recording to experts in Britain to restore the sound.
Kapelianis says, “When I listened to that extract, where he says he was prepared to die for his principles and his beliefs, it is still as powerful today – maybe more so – than it was at the time, because it was (delivered) in the court setup; it wasn’t in a stadium or on a platform.”
She acknowledges, though, that “it’s been very difficult to come up with such fresh – or refreshed – stuff in the case of a person of the stature of Nelson Mandela, because there’s such a lot known about him.”
But Kapelianis says perhaps her greatest challenge lay in getting South Africans, from ordinary people to high-profile individuals, to talk about Mandela. She explains, “There are a lot of cultural sensitivities, that you don’t talk about someone or you don’t prepare for someone going, when they’re still around.”
Another issue Kapelianis had to confront in her project was how to present Mandela’s “weaknesses” and “shortcomings.” She stresses, “There must be space for that. We must also hear the views of those who very close to him, and to get them to reveal the different facets of his character – good and bad. As much as we accord Nelson Mandela godlike status, the fact is he was a human being, with greatness as well as flaws.”
It was Mandela’s humanity, she says, that compelled him to emerge from retirement in 2002 to publicly disagree with his beloved ANC’s approach to South Africa’s HIV/AIDS epidemic. Then President Thabo Mbeki was refusing to provide millions of HIV-infected citizens with life-prolonging antiretroviral drugs, on the grounds that the medicines were “poisonous.”
The journalist recalls, “Mandela called a news conference where he basically instructed the ANC government to act with regard to HIV/AIDS. He basically told them, ‘You’ve got to make sure our people receive the treatment; that they receive the care and love that they deserve.’”
This famous incident is also reflected in her sound archive.
Masking his emotions
Mandela’s voice has been ringing in Kapelianis’s ears for many years. So she’s in a unique position to comment on his qualities as a speaker. She says the man was always “a very calculating, measured speaker, quite halting; he’s not the great orator, like a Martin Luther King. He doesn’t have that charisma when he speaks. But I think what he is, is a man of his word. When he has said something, he means it.”
She remembers “crisscrossing” South Africa covering Mandela’s election campaign in 1994. “That was when I first got the impression that Mandela didn’t particularly enjoy giving speeches,” says Kapelianis. “He would deliver a prepared speech that you knew someone else had written for him. But the cue for us journalists became that the minute he took off his glasses, or put his speech down – we knew that that was where the news lay. That was when he would start speaking from the heart.”
Yet she describes Mandela’s leadership as “extraordinarily non-emotional.… He didn’t seem able to express anything that was really emotional.”
Kapelianis is convinced that this was as a result of Mandela’s almost three decades of incarceration. “I think he learned to mask his emotions and how he was really feeling, in prison. And I think that was a coping mechanism,” she says.
‘The People’s President’
But her sound archives will reflect that Mandela was also capable of “extraordinary friendliness. He would make unannounced visits to shopping centers, for example, to meet ordinary people. He would walk around his neighborhood greeting people in the street.”
Kapelianis will remember Mandela as “a man who understood people, and who wanted to touch people. Just like we had the late Lady Diana as the ‘People’s Princess,’ I would call him the ‘People’s President’ of the world.”
She says she hoped Mandela would live “forever and ever.”
But she’s sure her project will provide the Nobel Peace Prize winner with a “great send-off.” Kapelianis explains, “There’s something very powerful, at the time of someone’s death, to hear on radio them speaking in their own words, their own voices, expressing their own views. It kind of like shakes you awake. (You say), ‘My God; this is the person who’s just passed away and here they are speaking.’ And nothing can replace that.”