An early encounter with Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela

By Steven Sack

It was 1988, and I had arranged to meet Dumile Feni at the offices of the ANC in New York.  Feni was scheduled to meet with the head of an ANC delegation to show him the poster that he had been commissioned to make of Nelson Mandela on the occasion of his 70th birthday. The small offices with their paper-thin walls, meant that I could hear the conversation that ensured. “This is a serious matter. You should be careful about making the poster too colourful,” appeared to be the only comment from the head of the delegation.

Did you know…

Mr. Mandela’s birth name Rolihlahla is an isiXhosa name that means “pulling the branch of a tree”, but colloquially it means “troublemaker”. His father gave him this name.

A few days later I visited the Schomburg Center, a major center of research into African lives and experiences. I was wanting to look through their archives to see what information they had on art in South Africa; I was at that time undertaking research for a catalogue for an exhibition entitled, The Neglected Tradition: Towards a new history of South African Art, 1930-1988. I did not find much, although there was very thin file on Mandela which had a few photos of him. Such images were difficult to come by in South Africa (in fact it was illegal to have such images in one’s possession) and so I asked for a some of the images to be photocopied.

Multi-coloured poster. Reproduction of part of the Pathfinder Mural in Greenwich Village, New York. Portrait of Mandela painted by Dumile Feni. Complete mural painted by 80 artists from 20 countries. Celebration of release of Nelson Mandela. SAHO

Jump forward to the early 1990s: I receive a request from Barbara Masekela, the reason for which was a call she had got from the Shell Oil Company.  Mandela had been given money to acquire a new head office for the ANC, and Mandela (unsurprisingly given his complete inexperience) had made a really bad investment by acquiring the Shell Oil Company’s building, in a part of the city that was already experiencing major urban decay.

The executives of Shell had secured a meeting with Mandela and wished to give him a gift. Masekela, who was in charge of Mandela’s office, asked me if I could select an artwork or two for him to receive on the occasion of this meeting. I took a number of artworks from the Goodman Gallery up to his office, which at that time had nothing other than some black leather couches, black blinds and a large empty desk. Masekela arranged for him to look at the works I had selected, and a meeting was arranged at which he would make his selection. When I met him, he was as always charming and very quickly decided which of the artworks he preferred. Masekela was most unimpressed at the fact that Mandela chose two works both by Cecil Skotnes. She added a work by Tony Nkotsi to the set, to ensure a better representation. (Later, I related this conversation to Linda Goodman, who told me that F.W de Klerk’s favourite artist, was also Cecil Skotnes.)

I returned some weeks later to install the works in his office, to discover that the ANC had arranged for new blinds to be installed in his office. They were now black, green and gold stripes, and completely overwhelmed the newly installed artworks.

Back to 1988, New York: I return to South Africa with the Mandela photocopies in my luggage. I begin to ponder, nervously, the prospects of the images being found by custom officials at Jan Smuts Airport.

I leave the plane and the images of Mandela remain behind, in the pocket of the seat.