Chapter Twenty-Seven – Dead or Alive
On Robben Island, panic was setting in. Island prison head Vorster sat in his office, deep in thought about what his superiors had ordered him to do the night before. A man whose looks reassembled Nelson Mandela, and who was of similar height and build, had been placed in Mandela’s old prison cell.
The apartheid leaders thought that they were cleverer than anyone else on the planet. Soon they would learn, who would be fooled and who would be the fools.
Vorster was still none the wiser as to where the real Nelson Mandela was. Some believed that the ANC icon had died from injuries sustained on the island, but nobody in Vorster’s circle had seen the body. Mandela was in his cell when Vorster went off duty one night, and gone the next morning. If anyone on Vorster’s team knew the truth, they were too scared to speak about it as they could quite possibly also disappear off the face of the earth just like Mandela did.
Vorster knew the drill. He was paid to do his job and not to ask questions.
One of the Correctional Services uniformed men by the name of Gert van Schalkwyk entered Vorster’s office.
“Nog tien oorsee media mense wat vir Mandela wil sien (another ten overseas media people who want to see Mandela),” said van Schalkwyk, tall and in his late twenties.
“Hulle glo dat Mandela miskien dood is en will hom self sien (they believe that Mandela may be dead and want to see him for themselves).”
That was bad news for Vorster. How on earth did the foreign media get to think that Mandela was possibly dead? The ANC man was never allowed to see or speak to the press yet somehow word must have got out that he could well have left this earth.
Of course, if the media were allowed to speak to the so-called Mandela who was in the cell, they would possibly not know the difference as they had never seen the real Mandela. However, Vorster could well be without a job if he let the media speak to the man in the cell. He dared not to phone Pretoria and ask for authorisation on the matter.
Vorster need to stall the media. He needed some time to think of a plan.
He looked at the calendar on his desk with today being Monday.
“Vertel vir die media dat hulle kan Woensdag n foto van Mandela neem maar niemand kan met hom gesels nie (tell the media that they can take a photo of Mandela on Wednesday but nobody can talk to him),” said Vorster, as he lit up a cigarette.
Vorster watched as van Schalkwyk left his office and then he picked up a set of keys and headed for the prison cells.
He knew all too well that Mandela was prisoner number 466/64, meaning the 466th prisoner in the year 1964.
Vorster arrived at the prison cell which had been the island home to the ANC man. He stared at the man in the cell.
No, man, Vorster, this was not the Mandela that you had seen a few weeks back, that is for sure or had too many glasses of brandy and Coke now impacted on my judgement?
Then Vorster had another thought. What if this was a mirror image of reality? What if the previous person that had been in the cell had not been the real Mandela, and this individual in front of him was the ANC leader?
Confusion reigned in the mind of the prison official.
Vorster squinted his eyes, with the wrinkles making his weathered face look a good ten or more years older than what he actually was.
Vorster, if this was the real Mandela, then why did the government bring him to Robben Island at such a crucial stage of South African history, and who was the guy who had been in the prison cell before him?
Clearly, there were now more questions than answers in the mind of the island’s prison boss.
“Jy daar (you there)!” shouted Vorster at the prisoner, but the man in the cell kept staring at the floor, as he refused to give the oppressor the satisfaction of being acknowledged.
“Mandela!” screamed the prison chief at the man in the cell.
Still there was no movement from the prisoner.
“Kyk vir my, jou dom donner (look at me, you dumb arsehole)!” yelled the prison boss. One of the prison guards standing close by could not help but to giggle.
Still the man in the cell kept staring at the floor.
“Kan jy nie Afrikaans verstaan nie (can’t you understand Afrikaans)?” asked Vorster in rhetorical fashion.
The man in the cell remained motionless.
“Jy is nie Mandela nie, is jy (you are not Mandela, are you)?” questioned Vorster.
The amount of media interest in Mandela did not even allow Vorster to work out that a changing of the political guard was imminent. Like most government officials, the belief was that apartheid was here to stay for atleast another ten to twenty years. By that time, many like Vorster, would be retired and sitting at home looking after their grandchildren. Quite simply, they didn’t care much about Mandela or the ANC. Life was fine without them.
Vorster looked at the guard standing behind him and shook his head.
“Robbeneilaand doen dit aan n man (Robben Island does this to a man),” said the guard.
“Hierdie plek is woes (this place is rough).”
Vorster turned his attention back to the man in the cell.
“So, jy is bereid om jou hele lewe hier uitteleef terwyl die ander swartes daar buite vryheid het (so you are prepared to live your whole life here while the other black out there have freedom)?” asked Vorster.
The man in the cell did not entertain the question. What did the white South African man, a government worker, know about blacks and freedom? Many white South Africans considered blacks to be one step lower than a human being.
Very few whites understood what the real liberation struggle was about.
In 1994, when Mandela did eventually become President of South Africa, the armed struggle was a thing of the past, but the new government found itself facing a whole host of new challenges from crime, to corruption, land issues and many more.
How was Vorster to know that he was speaking to and belittling the real Nelson Mandela? Mandela was not responding simply because he would only speak to a person when mutual respect was in place. He had the answers to all of Vorster’s questions, but it was difficult to change the mindset of someone who didn’t want to hear the truth.
What Mandela did know was that his future Parliamentary Cabinet and respective government departments would be representative of all the demographics that make up South Africa. He had no intention of side-lining the whites or other minority groups once he was in a position of power. He wanted to take South Africa forward, not sideways.
His colleagues knew of his plans, but this was one of the reasons why many in the ANC and it’s facilitates saw Mandela as too compromising with the whites.
Why can’t we just go with the ‘kill the boer, kill the farmer’ approach, asked many. It would be inevitable that someone, like Pieter Erasmus, would eventually try and eliminate Mandela on Robben Island or elsewhere.
As history shows, this nearly happened, with only a last minute change, seeing the militant Chris Hani becoming the target instead of Mandela in April 1993. Members of the right wing Conservative Party felt that Hani was too much of a threat to the whites and took care of him, while Mandela lived to tell the story.
Vorster looked at the guard.
“Eendag wanneer ek afgtree is, gaan jy hier staan en probeer gesels met die spul (one day after I have retired, you will be standing here trying to talk to this lot),” said a frustrated Vorster.
The guard grinned.
“Ek het nie die geduld wat jy het nie (I don’t have the patience that you have),” said the guard to his superior.
“Ek sal vir hulle kalksteengroef toe vat en n les leer (I would take them to the lime quarry to be taught a lesson).”
The lime quarry was where Mandela and his fellow prisoners worked daily hammering away on the rocks. The lime dust played a major role in getting into the eyes of the prisoners causing ANC prisoner stalwarts like Steve Tshwete, Water Sisulu and Mandela himself to wear thick glasses in the latter stages of their lives.
As Vorster began to walk away from the cell area, the prisoner spoke.
“Mr Vorster, do you believe in human rights?”
Vorster turned around and looked stunned.
“I believe in human whites not human rights, because your people don’t act in a civilised money, hence it will not be possible for them to run a country,” replied Vorster.
The prisoner did not look taken aback by the response. It was the sort of reply that Afrikaner government officials lived by from generation to generation.
“I thank you, Mr Vorster, there is no reason for us to discuss any further,” said the prisoner.
Vorster tried to continue the chat.
“Are you really Mandela?” asked the island prison boss.
There was no response forthcoming as the prisoner had gone back into silent mode.
“Mandela, is dit jou werklike naam (Mandela, is that your real name)?” demanded Vorster.
Again the question was met with silence from the man in the cell.
The prisoner was fully away that one can only transform the mind of someone who wanted to have their mind transformed. The old philosophy applied – you can take the donkey to the water, but you can’t make the donkey drink.
“Mandela, wanneer gaan jou ANC besef dat hull kan nie vir die Suid-Afrikaanse weermag uitwis nie (Mandela, when will your ANC realise that they can’t wipe out the South African army)?” asked Vorster.
The prisoner remained silent, as he stared at the floor.
“Ek voel eintlik jammer vir julle, dat julle nie kan sien dat die wittes vir ewig hierdie land sal beheer (I actually feel sorry for you that you can’t see that the whites will rule this country forever),” remarked Vorster.
The prisoner mumbled something, but Vorster could not make out what he said.
“Praat harder (talk louder),” said the island prison boss, as he held his right hand to his right ear.
Vorster was about to turn away and then he had another idea.
“Mandela, weet jy hoeveel mense vir jou will doodmaak (Mandela, do you know how many people want to kill you)?” he asked.
“En moenie n fout maak en dink dat al die mense wit is. Baie van jou uie velkleur will ook vir jou uit die pad he).”
The prisoner listened but did not respond.
“Jy is n held met die media, maar dit is nie die media wat vir jou vryheid gaan gee nie (you are a hero with the media, but it is not the media that will give you freedom),” said Vorster.
“Jy het die wit man nodig. Maak nie saak wat die swart man doen, nie, hierdie land gaan nerens sonder die wit man wat alles gebou het (You need the white man. It doesn’t matter what the black man does, this country is going nowhere without the white man who built it).”
Despite Vorster’s arrogance, the prisoner actually felt that there was some merit in his views. When the ANC got to power, the plan was not to wipe out all white South Africans. All citizens of the country were needed and would have to play key roles in taking South Africa forward.
While Vorster certainly did not believe that both black and white could live peacefully next door to each other in a New South Africa, he had the intellect to realise that the new dawn would force the country to have an ‘all hands on deck’ approach.
“Gaan jy nie vir jou mense verdeedig nie (are you not going to defend your people)?” asked Vorster to the prisoner.
“Gaan jy net daar sit en stil bly (are you just going to sit there quitely)?”
The prisoner cleared his throat.
“Mr Vorster,” he began, in his deep, husky voice.
“My dream is to make South Africa into a peaceful land for all to live in, regardless of race or creed. One life lost is one too many.”
“Dan vertel jou manne om optehou met die oorlog teen die regering (then tell your men to stop with the war against the government)!” demanded Vorster.
“I can only do that if the government promise to abandon all racial policies and to treat all people equally,” remarked the prisoner.
Vorster stared at the prisoner. He knew his bosses too well. They were not the sort to compromise too easily.
“Ek dink dat jou droom is net dit, n droom (I think that your dream is just that, a dream),” said Vorster.
“Mr Vorster, things will change in this country at a quicker rate than you think they will,” said the man in the cell.
Vorster shook his head and walked away.
The prison chief looked back.
“Mandela, hel sal ys word voordat n swart regering in plek is in Suid-Afrika (Mandela, hell will turn to ice before a black government is in place in South Africa),” said Vorster.
“Droom verder (carry on dreaming).”
The prisoner shook his head. He was not a prophet but he knew what the future held.
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