Novelist Alan Hollinghurst describes a young biographer in search of his elderly late subject’s legacy. He writes of someone who ‘was asking for memories, too young himself to himself to know that memories were only memories of memories’. 

Two recent South African deaths and their respective memorialisations –just weeks apart in the past month – have provided both a personal and country perspective on Hollinghurst’s universal truth, even if his subject was the stuff of fiction.

The furious narrative and counter narrative on the consequential life of Winnie Madikezela Mandela after her recent passing, drew to mind the words of another novelist who also in his own country’s struggle for freedom moved from protest to power.

Vaclav Havel ‘s take on Soviet tyranny was  how the regime he tried   ‘to create an outpost of the state in the mind of every citizen’.

I found myself drawn again  into the controversies around the George Fivaz police investigations of one of the kidnapped members of the Mandela United Football Club, although this too was utterly miscast.

There was no secret plot in which I, and other nefarious or shadowy operatives were machinating behind the scenes.

I met in London in March 1995 with Baroness Emma Nicholson who had provided safe passage and refuge in England  for Katisa Cebekhulu, and had managed to secure his release from a jail in Zambia. But the very serious charges he had levelled against Mrs Mandela were hardly new. They had been chronicled in a book by journalist Fred Bridgland.

I suggested to the Baroness that she allow access to Cebekhulu to allow the veracity of his claims against Mrs Mandela to be tested by either the police or the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. She simply refused stating, “I insist on assurances from the authorities before I do so.”

It is precisely for this reason, after my return to South Africa that I approached Fivaz and he quite correctly sent a team to interview the sequestered Cebekhulu in England. But of course –post mortem – all that detail is omitted and elided.

But two things absolutely amazed me in this brazen attempt to clumsily rewrite history. First, on receiving Fivaz’s response to me –a year later – that Cebekhulu was an ‘unreliable witness’ it was I who provided his letter to this newspaper which aptly gave it front page splash treatment.

And then Mrs Mandela herself, and notwithstanding very public and parliamentary clashes between us sent me a hand written note of appreciation. It sits –should any of the angry revisionists be of mind to search – with my papers housed at the Institute of Contemporary History at University of the Free State. And the entire episode appears in granular detail in my biography.

But of course scoring a point, revealing a non existent plot, casting or recasting ‘the usual suspects’ is the name of this danse macabre, not history, memory or understanding.

Ironically as Winnie Mandela’s daughters were coming to terms with their own grief  my own dear father passed away.

But in his case, or rather cases, the rabid Twitterati  revisionists went into overdrive. They managed the feat of placing my father, a Supreme Court judge,  in a court in which he never sat, delivering a judgment he never gave to an accused person (Solomon Mahlangu) he never tried!

On another judicial controversy in which he indeed was the Judge, the case of Andrew Zondo, it was presented last week as though this was some new revelation. In fact –courtesy of the ruling party attempt at filial demonisation  –it has been in the court of public opinion these past two decades.

But there is something far more hopeful than the cacophonous  virtue signalling which constitutes the ‘noise of time’.. My Father lived until the great age of 93. He was born before the great depression. Yet in his lifetime he saw Nazism, Communism, Apartheid and the great evils of the last century arrive and depart. He witnessed massive improvements in the human condition, here and everywhere.

And having never used a computer, he thought Twitter is what birds did.  In that respect he was very fortunate.

  • Leon (@TonyLeonSA), a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications and is a senior adviser to K2 Intelligence of London
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