Leaders of society

I’ve been thinking about Zuma, Kathrada and Mandela.

I’ve been feeling a bit uncomfortable about the almost hysterical self-righteousness with which society has responded to Zuma’s machinations. I do not excuse him, but I do recognise a part myself in them.

This insight dawned as a result of a tweet from a stranger.  Here is how it happened. I was responding to a tweet from well-known author, Zakes Mda:

Now that Gordhan & Jonas have been purged (it had nothing to do with all the smoke and mirrors of cabinet reshuffle) (1) nuclear deal is on.

Replying to @ZakesMda

Nuclear deal? Oh dear. I just bought a house in Jeffrey’s Bay. Around the corner from proposed site.Media preview

ZakesMda's avatar
Give it to me, John. I’m nuclear-proof.
busani99's avatar

@johnmountford white people gloting about their wealth!!

 At first I was offended by dicolonise’s tweet, but later in the day I gained new perspective on it. I do not regard myself as wealthy, but wealth is relative, and our relative wealth is important to us all as a society.

We are an acquisitive society, from the wealthiest to the poorest. We seek security in what we own and not in who we are. We look to control and manipulate our immediate environment to maximise our wealth and security. And then we point fingers at others who do it on a bigger scale than ourselves. We are horrified that our leaders are just like us.

Society is a collection of individuals. We create society, society does not create us. Those who are the most successful in manipulating their environment for their own material security rise to the top. But we do not want our leaders to be like us. We want them to be selfless, not prone to the need for security through acquisition and control. However, that will only happen when the majority of individuals in society find security in who they are and not what they own.

Like Mandela and Kathrada.

Unlike Zuma. Unlike most of us, wherever we stand in the relative scale of wealth.

When, occasionally, a leader emerges from society who is totally unlike society, we idolize them. Understandably. They have swum against the tide, risen above the rest. We lament that all our leaders are not like them, but that will only happen when most of us become more like them.

We are society. We are the world. We are the ones who make a brighter day, so let’s start giving.

You were right, dicolonise. I was ‘gloting’ (sic), but you were envious. We both have work to do.


This could have been the scene of an assassination.

Inauguration of Nelson Mandela in 1994 at the Union Buildings, Pretoria.

Truth is indeed stranger than fiction.

In Book One of The Mandela Trilogy (which I’m hoping to have published before the end of 2017) the opening chapter reveals a plot by the CCB, a covert creation of  South African Military Intelligence, to assassinate Nelson Mandela shortly before his release from prison. This plot is code-named MAMUD, an acronym for Mandela Must Die.

This is, of course, fiction, the creation of the author’s imagination. So you can imagine my surprise when the news broke three weeks ago alleging that a plot had indeed been hatched to assassinate the great man at his inauguration in 1994,

four years after his release from prison. Furthermore, as in my fictional account, this foiled plan emanated from within the ranks of government!

This ongoing court case is sketchy on details, but here are the basics:

  • Major-General Andre Lincoln, a former ANC underground operative, obtained information “that someone, a sharpshooter, would shoot President Mandela at his inauguration…. The firearm to be used was in a certain office of the Organised Crime unit.”
  • A handcrafted rifle was found under the desk of a senior police officer in Pretoria, however, Lincoln said, he had to turn to the High Court in Pretoria to obtain a search and seizure warrant. Top police officers quashed the probe.
  • Lincoln said that the plot to assassinate Madiba was “totally covered up” and that the investigation continued to be blocked by the police at all levels. The intended crime was never properly investigated.
  • Lincoln further alleges that the head of Organised Crime, Neels Venter, and the minister of Foreign Affairs, Pallo Jordan, were on the payroll of a notorious mafia kingpin, Vito Palazollo. Venter and his officers were involved in a covert operation, ‘Project Donna’, involving the printing of counterfeit money. Some of the officers working in Donna were linked to the Mandela assassination plot.
  • Lincoln headed a Presidential Investigation Task Unit set up by Mandela in 1996. Its work too was sabotaged and hampered at every turn by the police.

The trial continues and I shall be watching with interest.

I must admit to a little smugness as I read the breaking story. When I got to the part that detailed the modus operandi of the of the assassination plan I got goosebumps: the similarities to Book Two of my trilogy were eerie!

As any writer of fiction knows, the muse is real.

Author and Muse

The most original plot and character ideas come from a place outside of the author’s own conscious imagination. This is the primary reward of writing fiction and is the reason writers continue writing despite the long delays in being published. Being a part of a creative process is inspirational, and being inspired is one of life’s rarest pleasures.





A Long Walk To Freedom, Nelson Mandela, John Mountford, Kill Mandela, Top Ten Tips

‘A Long Walk To Freedom’ is Nelson Mandela’s autobiography. It was written by himself in the crucible of his suffering, and not in the relative ease of his later years. It tells us what he really believes and feels, without fear, favour or prejudice; and as such it provides us with a blueprint for greatness.

Here, in my opinion, are the top ten characteristics of greatness as recorded, and lived, by the great man himself:

A Long Walk To Freedom, Nelson Mandela, John Mountford, Kill Mandela, Top Ten TipsTRUE TO THYSELF

Mandela knew what the values and ideals were that defined who he was, and never betrayed them:

  • “I realized that they could take everything from me except my mind and my heart… I decided not to give them away.”
  •  “In prison you must find consolation in being true to your ideals, even if no one else knows it.”
  • “Any man or institution that tries to rob me of my dignity will lose because I will not part with it at any price or under any pressure.”
  • Braam Fischer begged Mandela not to read the last sentence of his declaration from the dock, but Mandela was adamant – his ideals were more important to him than his own life:

“But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

A Long Walk To Freedom, Nelson Mandela, John Mountford, Kill Mandela, Top Ten TipsKINDNESS

Mandela, despite his fierce determination to overthrow the unkindness of apartheid, never allowed it to harden his own heart:

  • “I learned as a boy to defeat my opponents without dishonouring them.”
  • “I did not contemplate escape when people were kind to me – I did not want to take advantage of their trust.”
  • After punishing a fellow prisoner for jeopardising their privileges by his selfish behaviour, Mandela felt sorry for him soon after and relented:

“He had suffered far more than I had. I had not eaten half my sandwich, and I immediately gave it to him.”

A Long Walk To Freedom, Nelson Mandela, John Mountford, Kill Mandela, Top Ten TipsUNAFRAID OF CHANGE

Mandela was a man of definite opinions, but was never afraid to change when the circumstances or facts demanded:

  • Despite his deep ties to culture and king, Mandela refused to submit to the kings attempt to marry him to someone he did not love. His decision to leave home to escape what he perceived as the unreasonable demands of culture, was a brave one:

“I felt that all the currents of my life were taking me away from the Transkei and towards what seemed like the centre, a place where regional and ethnic loyalties gave way to a common purpose.”

  • His determination to pursue the armed struggle, despite the deeply rooted ANC tradition of non-violence, was one he never gave up on despite repeated rejection by the ANC leadership.
  • At the end, just before his release, his decision to forge ahead with talks with the government without the approval of the ANC leadership was inspired by his belief that:

“There are times when a leader must move out ahead of the flock, go off in a new direction, confident that he is leading his people the right way.”

A Long Walk To Freedom, Nelson Mandela, John Mountford, Kill Mandela, Top Ten TipsSELF CRITICISM

Mandela was a man without the debilitating effects of ego on personal growth. When he, or the ANC, made an error, he was always quick to own it and apologise:

  • At a meeting Mandela criticised ANC president Chief Luthuli for being ‘overawed by the white man’. Luthuli responded by pointing out that Mandela was yet young and ignorant of the white man, being ‘barely out of your student uniform.’ Mandela says:

“I immediately withdrew my charge and apologized. I was a young man who attempted to make up for his ignorance with militancy.”

A Long Walk To Freedom, Nelson Mandela, John Mountford, Kill Mandela, Top Ten TipsDISCIPLINE

Mandela understood that discipline is the triumph of the mind over the body; as such he subjected himself to a strict routine of arising early and daily exercise:

  • As a boxer he attended the gym for one and a half hours each evening from Monday to Thursday. When his work in the struggle demanded that he sacrifice this pleasure, he determined to arise at 5.00 am every day and run on the spot for an hour.
  • On Robben Island he continued do his exercises every day in his cramped cell at 5.00 am. When he was transferred to Pollsmoor, now in his sixties, he rejoiced at being in a large, communal cell:

“I now had room to stretch out. I followed my usual regimen of stationary running, skipping, sit-ups and fingertip press-ups. My comrades were  not early risers and my programme made me a very unpopular fellow in our cell.”

A Long Walk To Freedom, Nelson Mandela, John Mountford, Kill Mandela, Top Ten TipsPASSION

Nelson Mandela was a passionate man. Education, reason and organisation were all necessary tools in his box, but it was his passion that drove him to where other, equally educated, reasonable and organised men could not go:

  • He was passionate in his personal relations. Listen to how he felt about Winnie on their first meeting:

“Something in me was deeply stirred by her presence…I do know that the moment I first glimpsed Winnie Nomzamo, I knew that I wanted to have her as my wife.”

  • An important part of Mandela’s reading on Robben island was the classic Greek plays, of which he says:

“I found them enormously elevating… that a hero was a man who would not break down even under the most trying circumstances.”

A Long Walk To Freedom, Nelson Mandela, John Mountford, Kill Mandela, Top Ten TipsGRATITUDE

Graciousness and greatness are almost always synonymous. Mandela never took anything for granted, and was always grateful for even the smallest act of kindness towards him:

  • When taken by his Victor Verster warder, W/O Brand, to meet the warders family, Mandela responded to the kindness by sending the children Christmas cards every year after that.
  • When about to be released from Victor Verster, one of Mandela’s first concerns was that he should get the opportunity to thank the guards and warders, and their families, before he left. When, in the rush of those last, historic moments, he was not able to do this, he was deeply upset:

“I was greatly vexed by the fact that I did not have a chance to say good-bye to the prison staff.”

  • While travelling from Victor Verster to the Cape Town City Hall to deliver his freedom speech, and already nearly two hours late, Mandela insisted they stop at the side of the road to thank a white family who showed their support.

A Long Walk To Freedom, Nelson Mandela, John Mountford, Kill Mandela, Top Ten TipsINTROSPECTION AND REFLECTION

Although a man of action and a hard worker, Mandela found strength and inspiration by going inside himself. Mostly it was nature and reading that were the mediums he used to do this. He said:

  • “Although I am a gregarious person, I love solitude even more.”
  • On Robben Island Mandela looked forward to the march to the lime quarry each day:

“I much preferred being outside in nature…to observe birds flitting overhead, to feel the wind blowing in from the sea….”

“Some mornings every living thing, the seagulls and wagtails, the small trees, and even the stray blades of grass seemed to smile and shine in the sun.”

  • “One book that I returned to many times was Tolstoy’s great work, War and Peace. It reminded me once again that to truly lead one’s people one must also truly know them.”

A Long Walk To Freedom, Nelson Mandela, John Mountford, Kill Mandela, Top Ten TipsRECONCILIATION

There is a time for war, and a time for peace, and knowing the difference is the hallmark of greatness. Mandela refused to renounce violence until his people were liberated, but he was always pursuing peace:

  • When the PAC repeatedly tried to frustrate the ANC’s efforts, dividing the people at a critical moment, Mandela sought commonality rather than conflict:

“I paid particular attention to their policy statement, with the idea of finding affinities rather than differences.”

  • In talks with the government while in prison he said to them:

“South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white. Whites are Africans as well; we do not want to drive you into the sea.”


A Long Walk To Freedom, Nelson Mandela, John Mountford, Kill Mandela, Top Ten TipsHUMILITY

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Mandela never sought fame, fortune or power as a reward for liberating his people. He said:

  • “I have always believed that to be a freedom fighter…one is fighting for the liberation of millions of people, not the glory of one individual.”
  • Mandela lived as he preached. In Victor Verster prison, where he had his own chef and staff to look after him, he washed the dishes and made his own bed each day.
  • After his release and return to Johannesburg, he insisted on returning to sleep in his own, humble house that he lived in before his imprisonment:

“I yearned to resume a normal and ordinary life….”

The ANC advised him to move into the grand house that Winnie had built a few blocks away, but he resisted:

“It was a house that because of it’s size and expense seemed somehow inappropriate for a leader of the people. I rejected that advice as long as I could. I wanted to live not only among my people, but like them.”


A Long Walk To Freedom, Nelson Mandela, John Mountford, Kill Mandela, Top Ten Tips

Greatness is always buried deep in the soul of those who possess it; like gold and diamonds, it requires a huge effort to bring it to the surface. It was the evil of apartheid that mined the greatness out of Nelson Mandela, an irony that he recognized:

“Another, unintended, effect was that it produced the Oliver Tambos, the Walter Sisulus, the Chief Luthulis, the Yusuf Dadoos, the Bram Fischers, the Robert Sobukwes of our time – men of such extraordinary courage, wisdom and generosity that their like may never be known again. Perhaps it requires such depths of oppression to create such heights of character.”

In his praise of others, Nelson Mandela provided us with the perfect epitaph for himself.


Nelson Mandela, A Long Walk To Freedom, Robben Island, John Mountford, Kill Mandela


When a plant in your garden dies, you pull it up and throw it onto the compost heap to rot.

Not Nelson Mandela.

When his beloved Robben Island tomato plant withered and died despite his best efforts to save it, he says:

‘I removed the roots from the soil, washed them and buried them in the corner of the garden.’

Something deep inside of me stirred as I read these words. I could see the heartbroken Mandela, probably with tears in his eyes as there were in mine, tenderly laying his dead plant to rest. He loved that living plant, and when it died he afforded it the dignity of a proper burial according to his custom.

This one sentence alone in ‘A Long Walk To Freedom’ told me more about Mandela than the entire 700 pages did. Have you ever heard of someone burying their deceased plant? I never had until I read this, and I’m sure I never will again.

Nelson Mandela, Robben Island, A Long Walk To Freedom, john Mountford, Kill Mandela



I believe there are two things that contributed to his love for that tomato plant:

1) Nature

Mandela loved nature. He tells us that he was grateful to do hard labour in the lime quarry each day because the march there and back gave him the opportunity to:

‘… see the grass and trees, to observe the birds flitting overhead, to feel the wind blowing from the sea…and smell the eucalyptus blossoms. Although some of the men regarded the march as drudgery, I never did.’

Even in the confined space of the prison courtyard he was able to feel that:

‘… every living thing there, the seagulls and wagtails, the small trees, and even the stray blades of grass seemed to smile and shine in the sun.’

2) Regret

Throughout ‘ALWTF’ Mandela repeatedly refers to his anguish at having not been able to look after those that he loved as he should have – as a son, a husband and a father. This was his greatest regret in having followed the path that he did.

I believe that tending to his little patch of garden, and nurturing his tomato plant, was a substitute for this loss. In this way Mandela was able to care for something living that depended upon him, and when it died he was able to bury it with all the love that he was deprived of when his son and mother died in his absence.

Why do you think Mandela loved that tomato plant so?


A Long Walk To Freedom, Nelson Mandela, Robben Island, John Mountford, Kill Mandela

I can forgive the error of injustice, but I cannot forgive the error of inhumanity.

Nelson Mandela’s imprisonment on Robben Island was the result of the first type of error; his treatment in prison was the consequence of the second. Was it not enough that he had been deprived of ‘life and liberty’ indefinitely? Why was he then further subjected to inhumane acts of petty cruelty?

This, to my mind, is what made apartheid a ‘crime against humanity’: not that it was an ignorant and unjust political system; but because, driven into it, were the nails of cruelty and inhumanity.

Once on Robben Island, isolated, vulnerable and no possible threat to the authorities, surely Mandela and his fellow prisoners could have been treated with humanity? Apparently not – and here is where the roots of apartheid are exposed: not as a doctrine that says I disagree with your way of thinking, but as a belief that says I regard you as less of a human being than myself.


These are some of the cruelties inflicted on Mandela while on Robben Island that I cannot forgive:

Nelson Mandela, A Long Walk To Freedom, John Mountford, Robben Island, Kill Mandela


Mandela, and other blacks, were forced to wear short trousers. They were not deemed human enough to wear long trousers like their fellow Indian and coloured inmates.


Mandela was allowed one visitor, and one letter, every six months. And then at times, after waiting six long months for the single letter, he was told without any explanation: ‘we have a letter for you, but we cannot give it to you’. The letters he did receive were censored so heavily that they were in tatters by the time he received them.

After Winnie’s first visit, she was not allowed to visit again for two years.


These may seem like an unnecessary luxury for a prisoner, but for those working in the lime quarry, as did Mandela, they were a medical necessity. It took three years of streaming, squinting eyes all day in the quarry before, at the insistence of a doctor, they were allowed sunglasses. Even then they had to pay for the glasses themselves.


As if one visit every six months by his wife was not punishment enough, the authorities placed every obstacle they could in the way of those visits:

  • She sometimes received only a days warning, making travel arrangements from Johannesburg, some 2000kms distant, difficult.
  • She was forced to fly, knowing how little money she had.
  • As a banned person Winnie had to apply for a special permit to visit Nelson. Sometimes the authorities would deliberately delay the issuing of a permit until after the plane had departed.
  • Visits were non-contact, and only for 30 minutes through a small square of thick, smudged glass with a few small holes drilled into it.
  • Winnie and her family were persecuted constantly by the police.
  • In an attempt to make his life even more miserable, the warders placed press clippings of Winnie’s tribulations on Mandela’s bed for him to discover upon return from a long, hard day at the quarry.


Mandela’s mother died while he was on Robben Island. As her eldest child and only son, it was his responsibility to bury her. His request to attend to this, the most important of African traditional family duties, was flatly turned down.

Less than a year later Mandela’s first and eldest son, Thembi, was killed in a car crash. Again, his request to attend to his responsibilities at this funeral were denied.

Mandela, speaking of the cumulative effect of both incidents of inhumanity said: ‘I do not have words to express the sorrow, or the loss I felt. It left a hole in my heart that can never be filled.’


How do you feel about Mandela’s treatment in prison? Was it the normal treatment one would expect in a harsh prison environment, or the deliberate decision to add to his suffering through petty acts of cruelty?

Could you forgive it? Should he have?