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Column: Anger, Too, Was a Key Component in Mandela’s Personality

Johannesburg, South Africa

One of my first few nights driving around Johannesburg, four and a half years ago, I heard an eerie, captivating song on the radio. I pulled over to the side of the street in a congested part of downtown, despite being alone and in a rental car — both things I’d been darkly warned made me a sitting target for a carjacking. I rifled through my bag to look for something with which to write the lyrics down; the song would end soon, and I knew I had to find it again. The words were in an unfamiliar language, but I recognized again and again the word “Mandela”: “Uh-SEEM-bonanza Mandela,” it sounded like.

As soon as I got home to Google, I found it: Asimbonanga, an ode to the imprisoned Nelson Mandela written by a singer named Jonny Clegg in 1987. Clegg formed the first big-name integrated pop band in South Africa in the 1980s, in contravention of the apartheid government’s rules. In moody, wistful harmony, Asimbonanga mourned an invisible leader: “We have not seen him, Mandela, in the place where he was kept,” the Zulu chorus goes, referring to Robben Island, the prison in which Mandela was incarcerated for 18 years. (He spent the remaining nine years of his imprisonment in other jails on land.) The song’s bereft singer tries to visualize the place where his shepherd is, somewhere across the cold sea, but fails. “We have not seen him, Mandela.”

The song had a hymn-like quality, and it occurred to me that for such a large part of his time at the center of the life of South Africa, Mandela was vanished, almost like a Jesus figure, crucified by the law and spirited into darkness, leaving those who looked to him only the vague hope he would come again.

In prison, Mandela, who had risen to fame as the brilliant — and notoriously combative — leader of the militant wing of South Africa’s black liberation struggle, was so divorced from ordinary life it was almost like a death. Early on, he was allowed no phone or radio; a prison calendar on which he noted big events recorded nothing around June 16, 1976, the date of a huge Soweto protest that began to shatter the apartheid state. Mandela didn’t even know it was happening. His flock was in the dark about him, too. He was remembered at the time as an amateur boxer: tall, pugnacious, headstrong and angry for justice. Would he still be that way when he got out, or would prison have broken him? Toward the end of his imprisonment, when it became clear he would be released, people were consumed with questions over his appearance: What would he look like? This question subsumed the greater, almost unimaginable question of what he would think like, how he would lead.

In his absence, Mandela assumed a titanic symbolic importance. What makes the song Asimbonanga most powerful is how intensely its chords evoke longing. The figure of Mandela transfigured the more inchoate black South African longing to be free into a longing for a single man’s liberation. Like Abraham Lincoln or John F. Kennedy, his disappearance from public view helped create his myth.

When he emerged, he did so as a changed man. Not broken, but tenderized, coruscated, and made wise and magnanimous by suffering. That incredible magnanimity, that unexpected absence of hate, forms the subject of the vast majority of the remembrances after his death last week at 95.

There’s the retelling of the time he invited one of his former jailers to a state dinner, the time he donned a rugby jersey in front of a throng of suspicious Afrikaners, the time he traveled to an all-white enclave to have tea with the widow of the architect of apartheid. On the radio, Archbishop Desmond Tutu compared Mandela’s time in prison to the stress that produces a gem: “Like the most precious diamond honed deep under the surface of the earth, the ‘Mandela’ who emerged from prison in January 1990 was virtually flawless.”

What the narrative of that transfiguration left behind, though, was the other Mandela, the angry Madiba — the man whose African name, Rolihlahla, portentously meant “troublemaker.” Crucial to his young persona was his identity as a boxer; he founded the militant armed wing of the African National Congress, Umkhonto we Sizwe, “ Spear of the Nation,” against the desires of some of the ANC’s other leaders. In his autobiography, Mandela frankly recalled how — before incarceration put a stop to his direct involvement in the struggle for liberation — he and his fellow fighters discussed the merits of “four types of violent activities” against white South Africa: “sabotage, guerrilla warfare, terrorism and open revolution.” The discussion was starkly pragmatic. “For a small and fledgling army, open revolution was inconceivable. Terrorism inevitably reflected poorly on those who used it.”

In part, Mandela himself encouraged the narrative of his complete rebirth. He spoke often about the epiphanies in prison that allowed him to let go of his anger and become a better leader. “Hating clouds the mind,” he told The New York Times. “It gets in the way of strategy. Leaders cannot afford to hate.” After his release, Mandela cultivated a benevolent, almost aggressively warm and grandfatherly persona. I was reminded of it when I looked up Asimbonanga again today: The first YouTube link gets you to a live version that Jonny Clegg played in France in 1999. Toward the end of the song, an 81-year-old Mandela makes a surprise appearance onstage, shimmying gamely. Grinning all the while, he taunts the audience for not dancing energetically enough.

But I think we also willfully scrub Mandela’s anger from our memory because the story of a total transfiguration forms part of his appeal to us. His life becomes a real-world fairy tale of how suffering lifts us up and forgiveness sets us free. In fact, it’s not so simple. People involved in the negotiations to end white rule in South Africa — after Mandela was released from prison — have often told me how unbelievably “stubborn,” even disposed to flashes of rage, he could be, and how that stubbornness contributed to the ANC’s gains at the bargaining table just as much as his newfound warm-heartedness. They sort of whisper it, like it is a dirty secret.

Long before Mandela died, some young black South Africans I knew were going in the opposite direction with the leader’s legacy. They were turning their back on his post-apartheid persona and asserting that Mandela’s pre-Robben Island anger was what really gave him a claim to greatness. They even replaced their Facebook photos with an image of the young Mandela in a boxing pose. When his anger cooled, they said, he lost his will to fight entrenched economic powers, leaving the South Africa of today still mired in inequality.

The urge to reduce our heroes from complex figures to one-line lessons is fierce. Lincoln got one of his first seriously intricate treatments in mainstream art with Steven Spielberg’s film — only 150 years after his death. Invictus is no such work of art.

Last Friday afternoon, I went to Nelson Mandela Square, an open-air quad in a Johannesburg mall presided over by a smiling bronze statue of the South African liberator. The statue was attracting a line of photo-snapping tourists, perfectly representative as it was of the magnanimous version of Mandela. Nearby, I stumbled across a small, temporary art exhibit depicting images from Mandela’s earlier, more pugnacious life, including a picture of him boxing and several of him frowning and raising a fist. There was nobody there viewing them.

I’d hardly spent a minute or two inside before the man at the exhibit’s front desk apologetically called me over and handed me a plastic token. “Now this I know you’ll like,” he said. I was to go to an adjacent shop and exchange it for a commemorative coin of Mandela smiling.

Eve Fairbanks, a writer living in Johannesburg, is working on a book about post-apartheid South Africa.