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Free Mandela, a South African tragedy by Steve Payne

Author says, we celebrate Black History Month by presenting the CTT readership with this "what might have been" story in which Nelson Mandela contracts tuberculosis from the damp prison cells on Robben Island.

In 1985, on this day the battle lines of the anti-apartheid struggle were finally and tragically drawn across the ANC Leadership, shattering both the marriage of Nelson Mandela and his second wife Winnie, and also his life-long friendships with both Walter Sisulu and Oliver Tambo. And by accepting a secret deal with Prime Minister P.W. Botha, Mandela would be freed on the single pre-condition of "unconditionally rejecting violence as a political instrument".

Free Mandela

Powerlessly watching the destruction of Sophiatown in February 1955, the bitter truth that Gandhi's doctrine of non-violence could not defeat apartheid had been agonisingly demonstrated to the ANC leadership. But thirty years later, political violence, and a new and terrifying development - black-on-black violence - was now sweeping South Africa, threatening to make the country ungovernable even to a future black majority government in Pretoria. And Mandela himself had entertained serious doubts about the long-term consequences of the armed struggle after the death of Steve Biko. Because the new class of political detainees at Robben Island were different, they punched the guards and argued amongst themselves. And when the Bishop of Johannesburg, Desmond Tutu had been awarded the Noble Peace Prize in 1984, his mind had been set on a new course.

"I am not a violent man, let Botha now renounce violence. Let him say that he will dismantle apartheid .. your freedom and mine cannot be separated. I will return" And so his daugher Zindzi announced the news before a packed stadium in Soweto, the first time anyone in South Africa had heard his words legally in twenty-three years. "I am not a violent man, let Botha now renounce violence. Let him say that he will dismantle apartheid .. your freedom and mine cannot be separated. I will return".

Whilst Nelson's daughter attempted to redefine black consciousness, the former social worker Winnie Mandela was not present, she was articulating a rather different vision for "Amandla!" (power):

"We have no guns - we have only stones, boxes of matches, and petrol. Together, hand-in-hand, with our boxes of matches, and our necklaces we shall liberate this country".

In fact his wife's wild behaviour had distressed and embarrassed Mandela for some time, having taken a few wrong turns, she was now surrounded by "Mandela United", a personal army of bodyguard manned by young Soweto gang members.

"Together, hand-in-hand, with our boxes of matches, and our necklaces we shall liberate this country" Yet there was a deeper truth to Mandela's change of heart - he was fast running out of time. Because Nelson Mandela was a desperately sick man that had developed a cough that would not go away. Soon after his release, doctors discovered that the damp prison cells on Robben Island were the cause of Mandela's tuberculosis.

Realizing that "the only thing worse than a free Mandela is a dead Mandela", P.W. Botha was forced to honour his end of the bargain. Because if a government of national unity could not be formed and quickly, then surely a terrifying civil war with Winnie's "Mandela United" must follow.


Author says, Significant amounts of content have been repurposed from Laaren Brown and Lenny Hort's book, "Nelson Mandela: A photographic story of a life" (2006) in developing this story.


Steve Payne

Editor of Today in Alternate History, a Daily Updating Blog of Important Events In History That Never Occurred Today. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Imagine what would be, if history had occurred a bit differently. Who says it didn't, somewhere? These fictional news items explore that possibility. Possibilities such as America becoming a Marxist superpower, aliens influencing human history in the 18th century and Teddy Roosevelt winning his 3rd term as president abound in this interesting fictional blog.


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