by Piet Coetzer

Tribute to Madiba

personal journey with a man who became a true South African Tata

Madiba, a true tata of our nation

From the man who at one time symbolised some of the deepest fears of my youth, growing up with a siren sounding at 10 o’clock at night warning black people they had to disappear from the streets of our town, to one  I can honour as –  and who truly deserves the title – Tata or father of the South African nation.

Three days short of my 13th birthday in March 1960 our town of Vanderbijlpark in the Vaal Triangle was transformed into something resembling a war zone. The streets were flooded with men in uniform and armoured vehicles patrolled the  outskirts, when Sharpville exploded on our doorstep.

From then on the 10 o’clock siren became a fixed feature of our daily lives and words like 'agitators', 'militants' and 'terrorists' became part of our vocabulary.

Then in 1963 and 1964 those words were attached to names and personalities as the trial began in which 10 leaders of the African National Congress were accused of conspiracy to commit sabotage and overthrow the South African state.

The trial became known as the 'Rivonia trial' after 19 ANC leaders were arrested at Arthur Goldreich’s Liliesleaf Farm at Rivonia on the outskirts of Johannesburg. More arrests, including that of Nelson Mandela, would follow later.

Despite the trial and the ANC leaders all being sentenced to life imprisonment, acts of 'sabotage' and 'terrorism' became regular features on the South African news scene.

Then in 1966, while I was doing my national military service, the South African prime minister, Dr H.F. Verwoerd was murdered in Parliament. As the country went on high alert I found myself guarding the home of a senior general of the Air Force because there were fears of a wider conspiracy to kill the then leaders of the country. The levels of fear and paranoia went up by some notches.

During the second half of the 1960s, as a political science student at Potchefstroom University, reading-up on the Rivonia trial, I came to the conclusion that the state made a grave 'error' at that trial, leaving the country shackled with what was fast becoming a focus point  for international opponents: Nelson Mandela.

In passing sentence, judge Quartus de Wet on 12 June 1964, one year short of a half century ago, said: “The crime of which the accused have been convicted, that is the main crime, the crime of conspiracy, is in essence one of high treason. The State has decided not to charge the crime in this form. Bearing this in mind, and giving the matter very serious consideration I have decided not to impose the supreme penalty, which in a case like this would usually be the penalty for such a crime.”

In the early 1970s my perception of Nelson Mandela the man, as opposed to the so-called 'terrorist', started to change. As a young political journalist I smuggled a then illegal copy of his Long Walk to Freedom into the country to read.

It was the statements in this work, such as “If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner,” that started to change my perception of the man.

There were others, especially the late Dr Wimpie de Klerk (older brother of F.W.) who played a role in persuading me that reform of the political system of the time was not only necessary, but indeed possible. When involvement in the early days of the so-called 'Codesa talks' came my way, and Mandela became more than written words, that my conviction was strengthened.

After the elections of 1994, as a member of parliament I also came to know him as a man who responded warmly when he discovered that he and my daughter shared a birthday.

One of the institutions that survived from the 'old' parliament into the 'new' was a regular Thursday fellowship meeting. At the first of these meetings, after the 1994 elections, I could share my thoughts on the 'mistake' of the state's charges at the Rivonia trial and how I am now firmly convinced that it was indeed a divine blessing bestowed on our nation.

One can only hope and pray that we as a nation, despite our many unavoidable differences, will conduct ourselves in such a way that we do not squander that blessing and live up to another quote from Long walk:

For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”


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