Timely reminders of greatness

Sunday Times, Johannesburg
Posted Oct 30, 2006
Michele Magwood

I worked out afterwards that it was precisely as Trevor Manuel was speaking that my husband was being robbed at gunpoint a few kilometres away.

Manuel had taken the microphone at the launch of Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s biography, Rabble-rouser for Peace, and had launched into a stinging attack on the younger generation of South Africans, for their “exceedingly vulgar” ways, their greed and their lack of appreciation for the older generation — like Tutu “who lives in service of God and of his people”. Younger South Africans, he said, don’t know what it is to live a life of personal sacrifice.

Before that, Tutu’s biographer and former press secretary John Allen spoke about his days at Bishopscourt, how unsafe Leah Tutu had felt in the vast house and how she feared for her husband’s own safety as he took on the government and security police. Tutu would say to her “If I’m doing God’s work He should jolly well look after me!”

Rabble-rouser documents how the Nobel laureate’s physical and moral courage shaped the country’s history, but also reflects his humour, feistiness and profound wisdom in humanity.

Days later Manuel was at the microphone again, this time at the launch of Mandela — The Authorised Portrait at the Mandela Foundation in Houghton. This thick, splendid book is a definitive record of Mandela’s epic life, containing seminal images and interviews with old comrades and world leaders alike. On the stage, before a ceaseless whir of cameras, Madiba sat next to Thabo Mbeki who had an affable smile arranged on his face. A photograph of them holding the book together was carefully choreographed — apparently it was the first time that Mbeki had ever set foot in the Foundation building.

Ahmed Kathrada was on stage too, and in the audience were Albie Sachs, Helen Suzman, Frene Ginwala, Tokyo Sexwale, Frank Chikane — a parade of towering individuals in the struggle.

I am not alone in feeling a growing sadness at the twilight of these great figures, fighters who, as Manuel said, devoted themselves to the service of their people. “Our generation is privileged,” he said, “to have sat at the feet of such people as Archbishop Tutu.”

Could they have foreseen that South Africa would soon be strangled again, not by injustice and racial oppression, but by a different evil? Death is stalking each and every South African every day, in the wraith of Aids and killer TB, and on highways, in shopping centres, in school playgrounds and on quiet suburban streets. André Brink has written of this “tsunami of violence” that has come “not only to cloud all the laudable achievements of our young democracy but to threaten the very likelihood of success for this democracy.”

In years to come we will take these books down off the shelf and be reminded of what true greatness means. And one looks around at the vulgarity and greed and rapacious ambition of the succeeding generation and can only wonder where the new heroes are that will fill the pages of biographies 20 years from now.

# Rabble-rouser for Peace published by Ebury Press, R249; Mandela: The Authorised Portrait published by Wild Dog Press, R349