The face SA’s apartheid state feared

Only on his re­lease from prison in 1990 did the world see what Nel­son Man­dela looked like

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - NELSON 1918-2013 - JAN CRONJE

WHEN Johnny Clegg & Savuka’s song Asim­bo­nanga (we have not seen him) was re­leased in 1987, it had spe­cial sig­nif­i­cance for South Africans: im­ages of Nel­son Man­dela were banned.

Only jail­ers, in­mates and prison visi­tors had seen him since he had been sen­tenced to life im­pris­on­ment in 1964.

No one else knew what he looked like.

This was re­ferred to in the sec­ond line of the song’s cho­rus: asim­bo­nanga uMan­dela thina (We have not seen Man­dela).

While in prison, Man­dela’s face was so closely guarded that when Time mag­a­zine pub­lished a cover of him six days be­fore his re­lease, they based it on old pic­tures and had to imag­ine how he had aged.

Man­dela’s im­age was also used by anti-apartheid ac­tivists on posters af­ter his ar­rest and trea­son trial. But, like Time, they had to imag­ine what he looked like based on old pho­tos.

Only on his re­lease from Vic­tor Ver­ster prison on Fe­bru­ary 11, 1990, did the world see Man­dela in per­son.

Prior to this, jour­nal­ists risked a visit from the se­cu­rity po­lice if they used his im­age.

“Man­dela’s like­ness was il­le­gal. He was in jail, the law was clear,” wrote jour­nal­ist De­nis Beck­ett, ed­i­tor of an­ti­a­partheid mag­a­zine Front­line in the 1980s.

In his book Rad­i­cal Mid­dle, Beck­ett writes about how, in Au­gust 1987, the mag­a­zine pub­lished a cover bear­ing a Man­dela like­ness.

Drawn by a Joburg artist, the pic­ture showed Man­dela in Par­lia­ment, to­gether with 25 other “recog­nis­able” South Africans, in an ide­alised fu­ture.

The mag­a­zine risked a knock on the door by the se­cu­rity po­lice, but none came.

And Beck­ett still doesn’t know how or why there were no reper­cus­sions.

The cover was a suc­cess: “The first thing about that cover is that when it ap­peared ev­ery­one who saw it said un­hesi­tat­ingly ‘ that’s Man­dela’,” he wrote.

Two years later, in 1989, Cosatu pub­lished a more up-to­date de­pic­tion of Man­dela based on the rec­ol­lec­tions of a jour­nal­ist who in­ter­viewed him in prison.

The jour­nal­ist de­scribed to a Dutch artist what Man­dela looked like, and the artist drew a por­trait that the trade union fed­er­a­tion used as a poster.

The poster was se­cretly printed and dis­trib­uted at the same time that Cosatu’s sec­ond na­tional congress was tak­ing place, ac­cord­ing to Mar­lene Pow­ell, a for­mer Cosatu me­dia of­fi­cer.

She said the poster was stealth­ily handed to Cosatu del­e­gates stay­ing at ho­tels be­fore the congress started.

“It was a thing of de­fi­ance,” said Pow­ell.

“I sup­pose in a way it meant free­dom was tan­ta­lis­ingly

Jour­nal­ists risked a visit from the se­cu­rity po­lice if they used his im­age. ‘Man­dela’s like­ness was il­le­gal. The law was clear’

close. There was a real feel­ing of ‘al­most get­ting there’.”

She added: “A lot of us in­volved in the strug­gle didn’t think we would see the change in our life­time.

“Can you be­lieve they (the apartheid state) tried so hard to rub some­body out?”

Man­dela, Pow­ell said, was a “very po­tent fig­ure” his whole life.

“(The state) had hoped to block him out. But the way Man­dela con­ducted him­self in prison ac­tu­ally strength­ened the ANC.”


HERE HE IS: In 1989, the year be­fore Man­dela was re­leased, Cosatu printed this poster fea­tur­ing an artist’s im­pres­sion of Man­dela based on a reporter’s rec­ol­lec­tions. At the time Man­dela’s im­age was banned.

AL­MOST TIME: Time mag­a­zine’s cover with an artist’s im­pres­sion of Nel­son Man­dela from Fe­bru­ary 5, 1990, six days be­fore he was re­leased.

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