December 13 2013 at 03:43pm By John Yeld
Cape Town - A picture is worth a thousand words, they say - and of course it can still be an inspiration and a powerful symbol even when there are no words competing with it.
One such image was the famous photograph of Nelson Mandela, taken by a journalist in 1977 midway through his 18 years of incarceration on Robben Island during a government-sponsored propaganda visit for the media.
Leaning on his spade, the world’s most famous political prisoner, whose words were banned by the apartheid government, glares in icy disdain at the photographer who had clearly not asked his permission to take it.
And it was that defiant air of Madiba that inspired a group of Cape Flats youngsters as they developed their own political consciences and became immersed in the struggle during the increasingly turbulent decade of the 1980s.
One of them was a young Hishaam Mohamed, now regional head of the Department of Justice and Constitutional Affairs and then a young schoolboy at Perivale Primary School, which was just across the street from his family home in Lotus River.
Mohamed’s early political awareness came when he discovered that, as a very keen young rugby player, he would never be allowed to play for the club of his choice as sport was then still segregated.
“I was a rugby nut and I wanted to play for Villagers, but people told me ‘you can’t go there’,” he told the Cape Argus this week.
When he realised that was true, he helped organise a placard protest, even though he was only in Grade 7 at the time. He used materials from the school’s art room and a slogan from the anti-apartheid Sacos (SA Council on Sport) - “No normal sport in an abnormal society” - something he had read about in the Cape Herald newspaper which was then published by the Argus group.
During their subsequent, higher profile, protests against the tricameral system that was being introduced by the apartheid government, the then high school students attracted the attention of the police and the security branch, and Mohamed was detained three times at Wynberg police station for contravening the state of emergency regulations.
“I spent two weeks in the Wynberg cells (on one occasion) and I remember Lynne Matthews, Trevor Manuel’s former wife, bringing us koeksusters,” he recalls.
It was during this period that Mohamed obtained a copy of the Mandela photograph, possession of which was highly illegal. It really inspired and motivated him and his peers on the school’s SRC and in the Western Cape Student Association to pass matric in 1985, despite having to write during the highly stressful state of emergency that had been declared, he says.
“We were involved in resistance during the day and were studying at night. It was difficult but that picture really inspired us. I would never have got through matric without that picture. We were inspired by Madiba’s spirit and said to ourselves ‘let’s do it, let’s get somewhere (in life) and to do this we need to be educated’.”
But there were some doubting Thomases who were not convinced the image was really Mandela - “some of them thought it may just be some bandiet (criminal prisoner), but later Dullah Omar (then a lawyer who had represented Mandela on the island) confirmed it was indeed him. He said ‘no, this is him!’ and so I protected that picture and really looked after it.”
Mohamed said while he appreciated that his tale of the picture was just a very minor element in the major story of Mandela’s life, the memory of it had reverberated during this week’s Mandela tributes when he saw again how many other people had also been inspired by Madiba. “It felt good,” he said.
Another memory triggered by Mandela’s death was about the loss of his car, Mohamed revealed.
“I was so excited about the news of his release from jail that the day before (February 10, 1990) I decided to spraypaint my old blue Datsun with ANC colours, just to get into the spirit of things. It was old and with just two nuts on one of the wheels, but we used it to go to Paarl and we wanted to make sure we had the first spot at the gate for his release.
“And of course the wheel fell off along the way, so we just abandoned the car and jumped on the back of a bakkie that was going to the jail.”
He and his friends also got lifts back to the Grand Parade for Mandela’s first speech after his release - and while all that was happening, someone stole the vehicle.
“Just like Dawood (Khan), I’m still looking for my Datsun - it cost me R1 600 of bursary money!” he laughs.
(He was referring to businessman Dawood Khan, who supplied the Toyota Cressida that ferried Mandela from jail to the Grand Parade for his first public address. The car was subsequently sold, and all attempts to trace it have failed.)
Mohamed is also proud of helping to organise Mandela’s electioneering visit to Grassy Park ahead of the first democratic elections in 1994, because this southern Peninsula area was considered a “heartland” of the conservative National Party and the ANC felt it needed to make a major statement there with its trump card - and Madiba duly obliged.
This week, Mohamed is officiating at tributes to Mandela by Justice Department and court staff - all being held either during the lunch hour or after hours, because “duty comes first - that’s what Madiba would have wanted”.
The staff are recommitting themselves to upholding Mandela’s legacy through their responsibility to dispense justice equally and uphold all the principles of the constitution, Mohamed says.
“Madiba showed us that public service is a means of effecting societal change. And we have to bring back integrity, it’s critical. We have to live that integrity - there are a lot of temptations!”