Nelson Mandela through the eyes of a photographer

A South African photographer had a childhood link to Nelson Mandela before the icon was arrested. After the leader’s release he took his picture many times. Words and photos by Greg Marinovich

Mandela in Kliptown, Soweto, with a woman who hid him when  he was a fugitive from 1963 to 1964.
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As a child, the centre of my world was my maternal grandmother, Bosica Balich, whom I called Baba.

Both of my parents worked and it was my Baba who looked after me through those endlessly long days of childhood in northern Johannesburg.

Growing up amid the deprivation of the First World War in the Balkans, she was serious about food. One of the ways she expressed love was through cooking. If a crust of bread fell from the table, she would immediately pick it up, kiss it, and make the sign of the cross before eating it. Bread, above all, was never to be wasted.

Her passion was tending her vegetable patch. As the South African morning sun rose higher, and it became too hot for us to keep working, we would retreat to the deep shade of the tangled branches that covered a large, reddish-black granite rock.

Baba would wipe the sweat off her brow and puff away at her first cigarette of the day, while I pruned the inner branches of the rather nondescript Highveld tree to make our refuge even more cave-like.

Those times sitting with her on the rough, weathered rock were the highlight of my day, because it was story time. Her stories were mostly traditional European ones such as Little Red Riding Hood, but with a twist of cruelty that had been edited out of the English versions I read to my children.

Just behind our refuge, across a rusty, barbed wire fence, lay the neighbouring farm, Lilliesleaf.

That farm was the secret headquarters of the banned South African Communist Party, and was where they and members of the African National Congress’s armed wing – Umkhonte we Sizwe – met.

It was here that Nelson Mandela, Govan Mbeki, Walter Sisulu and others plotted the overthrow of the apartheid regime.

In July, 1963, when I was not yet a year old, my grandmother noticed that a car had taken to remaining parked for very long periods at the top of our drive, which ran parallel to Lilliesleaf’s drive. A lone white man sat for hours in it.

My grandmother took up a thermos of coffee for him, and confirmed her suspicion that he was a policeman.

Within days, Lilliesleaf farm was raided and a slew of top ANC operatives arrested. Mandela himself had been caught the previous year at a police roadblock, apparently on the strength of a CIA tip-off.

He had been pretending to be the caretaker at Lilliesleaf and the arrest warrant was for “David Motsamayi, caretaker and cook”.

The arrests led to the famous Rivonia Trial of 1963-64, when Mandela gave his “I am prepared to die” speech from the dock.

Years later, when he was the world’s most famous prisoner languishing on Robben Island and I was a young man rebelling against society and apartheid, Baba would tell me about her neighbour’s blue-overalled “gardener”, as she called Mandela.

“He was a good boy, very well mannered,” she would say with a mischievous smile. “He would bring down the milk from where it was delivered at the top of the drive.”

Our driveway and that of Lilliesleaf ran along a common fence to the street, where milk in glass bottles was delivered in white, battery-powered carts. Mandela, ever the gentleman, could not resist bringing the milk to my gran, who was rather charmed by the gesture.

Perhaps my Baba was even charmed by Mandela, but I will not let my imagination run away with me.

Mandela’s release in 1990 was a pretty surreal series of events for me. As a fledgling photographer I was thrilled when a British agency asked me to cover it. It was a great chance to make a break into the business, but I was conflicted. I had also managed to gain access to an otherwise secretive ceremony in the far north of the country, scheduled for the same day.

The distance between Pollsmoor Prison where the news crews of the world were camped out and the mysterious stockade of the Modjadji was some 2,000 kilometres. I had to choose between two competing once-in-a-lifetime shoots.

I decided to drive north, away from Mandela’s release. The chance to document a secret ritual in the realm of the fabled Rain Queen – the inspiration for Sir Henry Ryder Haggard’s queen Ayesha in his novel, She – won through.

I hoped that there might be a delay in Mandela’s release – there was.

The radio droned on for hours as Mandela failed to appear. I hoped that the delay might even be long enough to allow me to get to Cape Town, but as I drove along the rural back roads, farm workers lined the way, excitedly and yet nervously holding hand-drawn cardboard signs celebrating his release. Mandela was free.

Just a few months after his release, the townships around Johannesburg erupted in violence between the ANC and the Zulu Inkatha Freedom Party.

To my professional fortune and personal misfortune, I photographed two killings in the first month of violence. The first was of Inkatha Freedom Party supporters killing an alleged ANC supporter.

It was the first time I had witnessed a murder and I was horrified. I was especially horrified that I had not tried to intervene in some way.

The second murder was of ANC supporters stabbing and burning alive a man said to be Inkatha. This time I repeatedly did try to stop the killing, but with no success. It was these images that would win me a Pulitzer, among other prizes.

The incident was filmed by the BBC’s Panorama programme, who later approached Mandela for comment on my images, which had gone around the world.

He responded that one had to understand that it was a white man who had taken those images, and thus that a white man’s aim, my aim, was to show the ANC as barbaric, unable to govern. I was gutted.

I photographed Mandela frequently over the years. He would always recognise the regular correspondents and greet us warmly. I doubt he ever connected me to the photographer he had publicly reviled. Or maybe he did. Mandela was a politician through and through, hardly ever allowing his personal feelings to get in the way of his political discipline.

On several occasions, I was tempted to ask him about my Baba and the milk bottles, but my awe of the man and an apprehension of how he might respond, prevented me blurting it out. By then, Baba was lost in the distant realm of senility, and not being able to share it with her made it seem rather meaningless.

Mandela’s life as president-in-waiting was filled with drama, both political and personal. While leading the negotiations to bring white rule to an end, he fought tensions within the ANC as violence claimed tens of thousands of lives.

He loyally stood by his wife, Winnie, during her trial for the kidnapping of murdered child activist, Stompie Moeketsi, despite her clear involvement in his kidnapping, if not directly in his death.

She was jailed and, although her sentence was reduced on appeal, her status as “Mother of the Nation” had been forever tarnished. It was her affair with a young lawyer, to whom she sent lovelorn letters, that finally precipitated Mandela suing her for divorce.

As the end game of apartheid played itself out, Mandela’s leadership was mostly impeccable. From the bloody massacre at Boipatong, to the assassination of Chris Hani by right-wing extremists, Mandela never allowed himself to get distracted from his goal. He used each incident to keep pressure on the white regime in the protracted negotiations towards a non-racial South Africa. When the ANC president, Oliver Tambo, passed away, it was naturally Mandela whom the ANC chose as its leader.

He stamped some of his personality on the ANC during that period, especially in reconciling with political opponents such as right wing Afrikaners and former Bantustan leaders.

Yet Mandela slipped in some critical areas. One was to never condemn his wife for the excesses of revolutionary power that led to Stompie’s death, and other incidents. Another was his blind spot on the danger of Aids to the nation. He just ignored it, perhaps in part because of the white regime’s propaganda that said it was a disease brought back from the ANC’s camps in exile.

The other was related to the Hostel War, as described in The Bang Bang Club by Joao Silva and myself.

Mandela, Winnie, and Hani were usually the leaders to arrive at the scene of a massacre, or attend the funerals of otherwise anonymous ANC supporters killed in clashes.

It led me and others to believe that he truly felt for the loss of those individuals – yet as the years have passed I have provisionally revised my opinion.

At the time, it seemed so important, and Mandela would address the young lions, boys and girls fighting and dying on the dusty streets in the name of liberation.

As the years since then have passed, and the lives of those young lions have not been improved, nor their sacrifices rewarded, it makes me think it was a bloody sideshow. All the while, the real battle was being fought in smoky rooms, where political deals were struck. The rest was theatre – macabre, deadly theatre.

Today, the majority of those former child soldiers do not eat of the fruits of freedom. They are unemployable as they forsook their education for revolution. Connected ANC members rise to the cream of society through sweetheart business deals, while the anonymous foot soldiers live and die in poverty.

Mandela campaigned tirelessly ahead of the 1994 election, and the ANC won with ease. Of course, there have been two presidents since Mandela stepped down after just one term.

His successors have managed to steadily diminish the legacy of nation building and patriotism that Mandela engendered among all South Africans and have squandered the enormous cache of goodwill accrued by the ANC in exile and its first years in government.

Mandela’s Aids blindness is benign next to Thabo Mbeki’s pathological campaign to deny that the illness was a result of sex. Current leader Jacob Zuma’s greed and hunger to stay in power seem destined to plunge the country into disaster.

Looking through my boxes of images, I am amazed at just how often I photographed Mandela. Most of the negatives seemed foreign, as if someone else had taken the photographs. I was astonished to see Mandela and former world heavyweight champion Gerrie Coetzee, the Boksburg Bomber, hamming it up in a genuinely enjoyable moment for Mandela. Coetzee, on the other hand, seemed a little stunned.

Despite some failings, Mandela proved he was a great human being and a great leader, and to my mind, without precedent in modern politics.