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Gordimer, Mazwai Remember Nelson Mandela


We've heard a lot about Nelson Mandela's political legacy, how he helped overturned apartheid and change the course of a nation. We're now going to hear about another part of his legacy - Mandela's imprint on the lives and work of writers and artists in South Africa. Mandela drew his own inspiration from literature and poetry while serving what would become a 27-year-long sentence in prison on Robben Island. He read the poem "Invictus" as a way to cope. The famous last stanza of the poem by William Earnest Henley reads: (Reading) It matters not how straight the gate, how charged with punishments the scroll. I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul.

Mandela also read the work of Nadine Gordimer, a South African writer who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1991. Mandela is known to have read her book titled "Burger's Daughter" while in prison. It's a novel about a group of anti-apartheid activists set on overturning the South African government. Gordimer, who was white, tackled issues of race and discrimination in apartheid-era South Africa throughout her work. Gordimer and Mandela became close friends and he was a continual source of inspiration for the writer.

NADINE GORDIMER: I mean, Mandela's credo was that of the freedom charter. We, the people of South Africa, declare for all our country and the world to know that South African belongs to all who live in it, black and white, and that no government can justly claim authority. And this is based on the will of the people. So, and that became my political and human credo as well.

MARTIN: Three of Gordimer's books, including "Burger's Daughter," were banned by the South African government during those apartheid years. When we asked her why her work was so incendiary, she said any real depiction of black life was seen as provocative.

GORDIMER: They showed how people were living here. They showed what influences were shaping our lives. And they showed the many different reactions to it among different people here.

MARTIN: During apartheid, many black writers were prohibited from writing. They were literally not allowed to put their work down on paper. So, they committed their poems to memory and passed them around to people as a source of inspiration. They were called struggle poets.

NTSIKI MAZWAI: I am Ntsiki Mazwai. I'm a South African poet, musician.

MARTIN: We asked Mazwai how she sees herself in relation to the struggle poets of apartheid South Africa.

MAZWAI: I'm basically the next generation after the supposed freedom. So, my work is inspired by the fact that there isn't much that has changed since we got our freedom.

MARTIN: She says Mandela helped bring black consciousness to South Africa. But she says it's important to remember the other people who pushed her country toward change.

MAZWAI: I think the mistake that the world sometimes makes is that they single out Nelson Mandela but he's not the only tree in the forest that liberated South Africa, you know? There's almost like it was systematic. We used our arts in a systematic way to help liberate our nation.

MARTIN: Mazwai says, yes, the end of apartheid liberated South Africa's blacks but that's not enough.

MAZWAI: We've been drunk off this freedom and this rainbow nation, but actually what have we achieved?

MARTIN: Nadine Gordimer, too, says the fight isn't over.

GORDIMER: We must hang in there and struggle for it. And, of course, as our service, I know that this is the spirit of Nelson Mandela, of Madiba, that is not (unintelligible) and gone off like a light with him. He could still be with us. It must be (unintelligible) the bind of principles that we really can change this country.

MARTIN: Change that began with a young revolutionary with Nelson Mandela. Here's Ntsiki Mazwai with a poem she wrote to honor Mandela's legacy, using the name given to him by his people, Madiba.

MAZWAI: (Reading) I know a place where the people are bound by magic; an electric force keeps them connected. A place where nations put down guns and replace them with love. A country that gave rise to Madiba's magic. I know a place that looked civil war in the eye and empty smiles and put out a forgiving hand. And in one moment, (foreign language spoken) took a stand. I'm from a place where Madiba did magic. I know a place where once enemies are now friends, where darkness gave way to light, where prayers were heard and waiting mothers turned into laughing ancients. I come from a place of magic, a Madiba kind of magic. I know a place rooted in compassion, truth and forgiveness, a place that rises above hate. A place that gave birth to a man that changed the world. Down in the south of Africa, there once lived a magician. A magician called Madiba.

MARTIN: Ntsiki Mazwai was citing her poem, "Madiba's Magic."


MARTIN: Tributes to Nelson Mandela will extend throughout the week, following today's national day of prayer and reflection in South Africa. Official services begin Tuesday with a memorial event at the FNB Stadium in Soweto, where Mr. Mandela made his last public appearance at the World Cup in 2010. Starting Wednesday, Mandela's body will rest in state in the capital, Pretoria. Saturday, members of the African National Congress will hold a memorial ceremony, and then the body will be flown to Mandela's hometown in Eastern Cape Province. There on Sunday, leaders from around the world will gather for a state funeral and to bid a final farewell to South Africa's first black president.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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