Readings — From the March 2009 issue


From a lecture delivered in January at the Gorée Institute, in Senegal. Breytenbach’s essay “Mandela’s Smile” appeared in the December 2008 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

First it was the voice. It seemed to proceed from a similar hollow in the chest as that of the old man. A voice with coffre. Sounding somewhat sepulchral. Certainly somber. A blue voice. Resonant.

I was listening to Barack Obama, and the tonality, the pitch, the cadences particularly, were reminiscent of the voice of Nelson Mandela. There was a likeness in the diction, too—a hint of cumbersomeness of the tongue. As if they speak neither easily nor for the mere pleasure of making sounds. More remarkably, they both express themselves in full sentences even off the cuff. Sentences you can transcribe and print as is, without having to snip the ums and the aws. As they begin to speak, they both seem to know where each following sentence, covering a thought, is going to end. A saying in Rwanda explains, “If you take your time, you can cook an elephant in the pot.”

Mandela’s voice tends to be higher, and his accent sometimes has an echo. This may be due to bad sound systems in the open air of South Africa.

They speak with emphasis, as if they know the weight of their own minds. The words are seldom original in reference, inventive in imagery, or, for that matter, provocative in thought. They are not riveting speakers, and they try out rhetorical flourishes only timidly, but both tower over their audiences as tribunes. They convey a solemnity of purpose and a kind of urgent, self-evident morality. In a refreshing break with other American public figures, Obama mostly appeared alone before the crowd—not flanked by the usual politburo of sententious sidekicks.

How strange, I thought, that these two men from different continents and more than forty years apart in age could sound so much alike.

They move similarly as well. Watch how Mandela, even in old age, used to rock a few dance steps on stage and how Obama, during the endless and fatuous presidential campaign, would skip up to the podium. (For how long do American presidents actually govern? Two of every four years are taken up by stumping.)

They are conscious of their appearance. The shape is trim, the clothes sharp without being exhibitionist. Mandela has an edge with his patterned “Madiba shirts”; Obama favors the severe apparel of American male seriousness, the drab garb of the power bird with just the tie as a tail feather of color. One is tempted to note similarities with other elegant politicians of protest—Maurice Bishop, Malcolm X, Patrice Lumumba, Osama bin Laden, Sub comandante Marcos, Robert Sobukwe, Modibo Keita… Can there be a correlation between the silhouette and the sense of calling? Mandela and Obama are of the race of kings in the archaic sense, natural leaders who would stand head and shoulders above lackeys and adversaries, radiating resolve and composure. Not for them the vulgar dead-duck strut of a Shoe Bush, the pigeon-toed silkiness of a François Mitterrand, the stagger-and-stump of a drunken Yeltsin or the torturer-on-home-leave swagger of a Putin, nor the decadent and roly-poly joviality of a Sihanouk. “To enter the dance you have to know how to dance,” a Cameroonian saying has it. And (or but): “Eggs should not enter the dance of the stones,” say the West Indians.

They have the bearing of men convinced of higher responsibilities, and this puts them slightly apart from their entourage. They may appear distant but are not unapproachable. In repose they have a severe set to their lips, as of those who have known darkness. And yet one detects an impish sense of humor never far away. Suddenly the smile is there, unforced, as if from nowhere—generous and bright. They give the impression of using themselves to the best effect, of having mastered timing, of being inhabited by faith in a bigger cause but also superbly self-contained. (Obama’s campaign was a triumph of timing despite pressures from ally and foe.)

When necessary, outrage is effectively voiced. I still remember the dressing-down Mandela gave F. W. de Klerk—then the president of the white minority government in South Africa—when the latter questioned the African National Congress’s right to take part in the constitutional negotiations that would lead to the demise of apartheid and a passing of power. Suddenly Mandela spoke from the fist to berate the obtuse white leader. No more pretense at fastidious etiquette; the real issues of moral legitimacy were laid out for all to see. He must have been genuinely angry, but at no moment did one sense a loss of control or direction.

These are men who step delicately but with a clear sense of destination. It must come from knowing how powerfully entrenched the enemy forces are; also from a depth of self-knowledge. Mandela always demanded respect from his jailers, yet he claimed that his first victory was over himself. He entered prison a firebrand and a radical black nationalist: as a young political leader he vehemently opposed collaboration with other political groups that shared his overall mission but were composed of other ethnicities. As a descendant of royalty, he was imbued with the historic task of leading his own people, the Xhosa, to freedom from colonial oppression. And then, during the endless years of incarceration on a barren prison island, with the sun like salt in his eyes, he must have explored the labyrinth of fear and doubt to challenge his own prejudice, however justified it seemed. It was there that the national leader, the nation-builder, was forged. “It is with the body’s water that one draws water from the well,” goes a Hausa saying.

Similarly Obama. According to his memoir Dreams from My Father, he constructed his identity through a willed identification with others, particularly the African-American community. In the process, he too had to channel his anger against a perceived impotence and to calibrate his need to belong. It could only have been a conscious and deliberate effort. He writes in that book that “to be black was to be the beneficiary of a great inheritance, a special destiny, glorious burdens that only we were strong enough to bear. . . . Burdens we were to carry with style.”

Obama’s book is powerful and so well written that I’d suggest he’s wasting his talents as president of the USA. Mandela’s autobiography, A Long Walk to Freedom, was clearly ghosted (ironically, the French term for “ghost writer” is nègre), but we’re told that Obama wrote his own. The writerly flourishes are engrossing; at the same time I could not but notice the tricks—the unlikely reconstruction of childhood conversations, the choice in what was to be remembered, the didactic thrust of the text to make of it an exemplary pilgrim’s progress.

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Breytenbach�s essay �Mandela�s Smile� appeared in the December 2008 issue of Harper�s Magazine.

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