On Mandela

RW Johnson says the late President's great gift was naivete, something his admirers still share

In the uproar over Phuthi Ramathuba, the Limpopo Health MEC who gave a sharp piece of her mind to an unfortunate Zimbabwean patient in one of her province’s public hospitals, my eye was caught by a piece by Mark Heywood in the Daily Maverick.

Heywood, whose online bio proudly recounts his membership of various ultra-left groups, joined in the general chorus of politically correct indignation against Ramathuba’s xenophobic anger with the foreigners flooding into Limpopo hospitals, taking up beds and absorbing resources intended for Limpopo citizens.

This was not surprising and certainly Dr Ramathuba’s bedside manner left a lot to be desired but the expressions of horror at her neglect of the Hippocratic spirit didn’t actually answer the questions she raised.

At one point she referred to the freeloading foreigners as coming from “countries whose public hospitals have already collapsed” and accused them of “collapsing medical health care in Limpopo”, an interesting turn of phrase suggesting that the collapse of public health care is the natural evolution of events in Africa. And indeed, a glance at the history of the rest of the continent suggests this may well be so. South Africa, in that sense, is well on the way, which indeed raises questions about the wisdom of offering free health care to all comers.

What really caught my eye in Heywood’s article was his contrasting of Dr Ramathuba’s behaviour with “Mandela’s gift”, that is, Mandela’s decision straight after his inauguration that all public hospitals should offer free health care to young children and pregnant women.

Heywood treated this as a wonderful but righteous piece of generosity by Mandela as if he was a medieval king dispensing largesse. He is not, of course, the first to write about Mandela in such hushed tones of awe and gratitude. The idea is that Mandela stood for pure principle, the gold standard against which all later ANC politicians should be judged.

This is really rather odd because “Mandela’s gift” was actually an example of how not to do things. For Mandela had not consulted anyone before he made this announcement and nor had he paid any attention to the needs and resources of our public hospitals. The result was a near-calamity with a huge flood of women and children overwhelming hospitals which were completely unprepared for them.

Thanks to the heroic efforts of doctors, nurses and other staff they were somehow catered for. It says a lot for them and the resilience of the then hospitals that they rose to the challenge. If it was anyone’s gift, it was not Mandela’s but that of the public health system – then undoubtedly the best in Africa - bequeathed by the apartheid regime. If anyone threw a similar challenge at today’s public health system there is no way that it could cope.

What “Mandela’s gift” actually showed was how completely ill-equipped to govern Mandela and the ANC were. Ideally one would have started by asking doctors what the greatest unmet need was. This should have been scientifically examined and not depended on Mandela’s whim. Then the hospitals and their staff should have been prepared, and extra resources acquired. The whole exercise would need to be carefully costed and budgeted. Moreover, such initiatives shouldn’t be one-off gestures but should be programmed into an overall plan for health improvement.

This is not to question Mandela’s many fine qualities, his generosity of spirit, his peace-making and his humane disposition. But given what has happened since certain questions need to be asked. It was Mandela who insisted, very much against Thabo Mbeki’s will, that Jacob Zuma must be made Deputy-President, thus paving the way to Zuma’s presidency.

Moreover, when Zuma was fighting Mbeki, Mandela gave him R1 million. Mbeki and many others within the ANC knew that Zuma was a financial nightmare and that the needs of his many wives and even more numerous children meant that he was always hungry for money and couldn’t afford to be too particular about where he got it. It is inconceivable that Mandela was not warned about this.

Similarly, Mandela had appointed Joe Modise as his Minister of Defence. He must have known that Modise had had a long career as a gangster, that he had run the stolen cars racket in Zambia and that he had sent MK soldiers into South Africa on missions to carry out personal errands for him, such as buying him new shoes.

Modise had been working on what became the arms deal since well before he was a minister and had extensive contacts with foreign arms dealers and members of the apartheid security forces. Modise had also already once tried to murder Chris Hani. All this was perfectly well known within the ANC. Yet Mandela apparently dismissed all this as mere peccadilloes.

When early cases of corruption came to light within the ANC Mandela seemed shocked. When he talked of joining a heavenly ANC branch after he died, Mandela had the idea that such a branch would be full of genial and dedicated cadres like Tambo, Sisulu and his old Robben Island pals.

He seemed entirely oblivious to the fact that the ANC was full of excited cadres who looked forward keenly to getting their hands on the wealth of the country and who had huge appetites for the fancy cars, fancy houses and other consumer goods which that money could buy.

Looking back from 2022 it is perfectly clear that ANC cadres have been engaged in a huge feeding frenzy ever since 1994 and that, like Smuts Ngonyama, they didn’t join the movement in order to stay poor. The Zuma period merely saw the culmination of those tendencies.

Mandela was also nostalgic for the Johannesburg of his youth and liked naming its main streets where he had cut a dash. He took the city as it was in 1994 in his stride, went for early morning walks around Houghton and clearly assumed that the city would stay much as it was.

He would have been utterly horrified by today’s Johannesburg with its water and electricity cut-offs, its pot-holes and general degradation, and even more shocked that the ANC had brought such ruin to this and other cities. He simply had no idea of what was happening.

I often think of a conversation I had with Fikile Bam in early 1990. Fiks, as he was known, had been on the Island with Mandela for ten years. He was deeply concerned at what would happen once Mandela was freed. Fiks described how in jail he’d often watched Mandela taking an almost childlike pleasure from playing simple games. “There’s a wonderful simplicity and naivete about him”, Fiks said. “But the movement contains many very tough and ruthless people, used to getting their way. I worry about what’s going to happen to Nelson when he gets out.”

In fact Fiks’ fears were misplaced: Madiba was held in awe. But Mandela’s naivete endured. Strange though it may seem for an African nationalist leader, he never really understood what sort of creature African nationalism was. He was shocked by Mbeki’s attitude to Aids and by his support for Mugabe because he really believed his struggle had been one for human rights. Mbeki had no such illusions.

Mandela also never seems to have understood the tidal wave of elemental acquisitive instincts unleashed in 1990-94 and how they ran like a river through the ANC. He would not have believed that poverty, inequality and unemployment would all increase hugely under ANC rule and that its leaders would hardly care.

Yet he was leading that party, surfing on that wave. The real tragedy of Mandela is that he never realised that he was riding a tiger, a ferocious beast well able to destroy all that he held dear. Mandela’s gift was naivete, something his admirers apparently still share.

R.W. Johnson

This article first appeared in Afrikaans in Rapport newspaper.