“The townships here were literally erupting in violence, especially in the 1980s,” says Mkhuseli Jack, recalling his time as a firebrand anti-apartheid activist in Port Elizabeth (PE), an industrial metropolis in South Africa’s Eastern Cape region.
Black people would fight running battles with the mostly white police and soldiers. Many of Jack’s fellow activists were killed in the uprisings against white minority rule. Some were kidnapped by apartheid security operatives and secretly executed.
Jack himself spent almost six years detained in prisons around South Africa. Policemen assaulted and tortured him in jail. “I never expected to be alive today,” he says from his office in PE, where he’s now a successful businessman.
“I was just fighting like everybody else, not even thinking about freedom in our lifetime; we never believed that (would happen). We thought that, ‘Oh, let’s just continue (the struggle) and do our bit; we’re going to die like all the others who died before us, but we hope that one day, our people shall be free,’” says Jack.
Graffiti inspires a struggle against oppression
The former leader of the Port Elizabeth Youth Congress remembers the first time he came across the name “Nelson Mandela,” when he was a teenager in the city’s Ibhayi township. “I saw the name scribbled as graffiti at the beer hall. And somebody had written there – ‘Release Mandela, (Walter) Sisulu and (Govan) Mbeki.’”
He says, “I had no idea who these people were.” That same day, someone told him they were in jail.
Jack says, “At first I thought, ‘What’s the big deal about them? If they are in jail, they must be criminals, so why do people want them released?’” But after learning that Mandela and the others were leaders of the African National Congress (ANC) and had been imprisoned for life by the NP (National Party) government for fighting for political and social freedom for South Africa’s black majority, he says something in him “stirred” and he “felt moved to join their struggle.”
Jack reflects, “I didn’t know, when I saw the name on the wall, that it was going to serve as an inspiration that would make us really feel that we could face the might of the apartheid government and not be scared to be hanged or to be jailed or to be exiled or to be banished. We were ready to fight to the finish.”
For more than a decade, the eloquent young activist was a thorn in the side of the NP government. He organized mass protests against apartheid. He led the first boycott of white-owned businesses by black people in South Africa. Wherever he went, he mobilized public opinion against white supremacist ideology.
Meanwhile, Mandela was languishing in prison on bleak Robben Island, off the Cape coast.
‘It literally numbed me …’
“There was not (even) a small sign of hope that Mandela was ever going to be free,” says Jack. The NP had previously made it clear that he would “rot in jail.” In 1985 the then-president of South Africa, PW Botha, said he’d free Mandela if the ANC chief denounced the armed struggle against apartheid. But Mandela refused the offer, angering the ruling party.
However, on February 2nd
, 1990, South Africa’s last white president, FW De Klerk, announced that Mandela would be released within a matter of days. Jack remembers, “It shocked me to my core. It literally numbed me.”
The ANC immediately summoned Jack to Paarl, a town in the Western Cape region. The liberation icon was being held in a house on the grounds of Victor Verster Prison, before being released.
We thought that, ‘Oh, let’s just continue (the struggle) and do our bit; we’re going to die like all the others who died before us ...
“There I saw Mandela for the first time!” Jack exclaims, still excited to this day. “I never believed I was (ever) going to see the man. When he came out of his room in this house, he was a tall man, thin. I couldn’t believe it!”
He says Mandela walked straight to him. “He knew my name; he knew everything about me from newspaper reports he had read about my activities. And then he [said], ‘I thought you were such a big man and yet you are such a small man.’ I nearly collapsed; I nearly fainted in front of him!” Jack says, laughing.
Mandela told him and the other activists present that their work was only just beginning and that together they should build a “new” South Africa. He also said he would soon embark on a countrywide tour to thank people for their support.
Madiba goes ‘home’
Jack was elected to organize Mandela’s visit to Port Elizabeth. But two months after his release on February 11th
, Mandela had still not been there. His supporters in PE became “very anxious,” Jack recalls. So the ANC branch there sent him to Johannesburg, almost 700 miles away, “to fetch Madiba (Mandela’s Xhosa clan name) and bring him home.”
Port Elizabeth is the biggest city in Mandela’s home province of the Eastern Cape.
On a cold March morning, Jack and some fellow “comrades” arrived at the home of ANC stalwart Walter Sisulu in Soweto. They’d been advised to “work through” Sisulu in their efforts to get Mandela to Port Elizabeth.
Jack recalls, “The old man, Walter Sisulu, was busy with his grandchildren – giving them coffee and tea and porridge, and washing some of them in a bath. And then who comes at the door? Nelson Mandela. What! Hey, hey! We couldn’t believe this!”
Jack says Sisulu was very surprised to see Mandela, asking him, “What are you doing here at this time in the morning?” To which Mandela replied, “I took a walk, then someone picked me up on the road and gave me a lift here.” Sisulu immediately admonished the ANC leader for his “carelessness,” telling him sternly that to take such unaccompanied walks was a “big security risk,” with various right wing groupings having threatened to assassinate him.
Jack says what “shocked” him was the fact that Sisulu “did not change the order in which he served coffee and tea” when Mandela arrived. “We were there first, so we were served first. Madiba had to wait. And he was quite happy to do this; he did not expect special treatment. That was amazing.”
Later that morning, Mandela promised to visit Port Elizabeth as soon as possible. And on April 1st
, 1990, he addressed a crowd of more than 300,000 gathered on a field near the city – to this day one of the biggest political rallies ever held in South Africa.
Jack says Mandela thanked the city’s people for their sacrifices in the battle for a non-racial South Africa. He mentioned various activists from the Eastern Cape, such as Steve Biko, who had lost their lives fighting against apartheid.
Jack says it was a “very emotional day.” After the event, he drove an “exhausted” Mandela to his hotel. “When he got into his room, he just got under the blankets with his shoes and suit and everything and he was gone! Fast asleep!”
Mandela earned the respect of the world
In the following years, Mandela would lead the ANC’s negotiations with the National Party and other parties that led to South Africa’s first multiracial elections in 1994 – the year he became South Africa’s first democratically elected president.
Jack says Mandela will be remembered for his “intense belief in humanity. He had all the good values that one aspires to. He knew that freedom would come at a terrible price, and he was willing to pay that price.”
He’s convinced that Mandela’s “greatest gift” to South Africa and the world was in setting an example of someone always willing to forgive his enemies. “He never ever set out to embarrass or humiliate those who had jailed him, for example. If he had done this, South Africa would probably have descended into even greater violence,” says Jack. “With his reconciliation call, he has shown the world that you are far bigger by not showing bitterness to those who have done a wrong thing to you, like those who imprisoned him.”
Jack maintains that Mandela was “unique” in his ability to remain focused on the “long road ahead,” refusing to “sink into the mud of the murky past.” He adds, “Mandela was a doer, not a talker -- and also never shy to give credit where credit was due, even if it meant putting himself in a bad light.”
Jack says many world leaders of today would do well to re-examine Mandela’s life, so as to transform the way they currently rule their nations.
“Mandela has shown us that he could lead by earning the respect of the people, rather than trying to grab the respect of the people through fear, intimidation and demagoguery.”