Sunday, September 16, 2007

Lucas Mangope: One of South Africa's living legends

Do I do my best thinking when I'm in pain? Apparently so. I woke up this morning with the sudden realization that a) my tooth was still hurting and that b) I live only half a mile away from one of the most important men in recent South African history this side of Nelson Mandela! What a chance to meet a true mover-and-shaker! Let's see if I can pull it off.

When I first got to South Africa, I saw a video about the last days of the Apartheid regime and it mentioned Lucas Mangope, the president of a so-called "homeland" for Black South African Setswanas. And according to one person I talked with when I first got here, "Mangope was head of the whole northern region of South Africa at the time when Apartheid was ending and he wanted to take his Bantustan out of Mandela's newly-proposed republic and form his own country -- but in order to make this happen, he asked for the support of the Apartheid government and this action sparked an invasion of Mangope's territory by the ultra-right-wing Afrikaner Eugene Terre'Blanche and his private army of racist thugs. Basically, they arrived in Mafeking and shot up the town. As a result, Mangope found himself in political turmoil because he had managed to anger the people of his region, who then put him under a lot of pressure to join with Mandela after all in order to protect the Bantustan from the right-wingers."

Listening to this side of the story, I made the assumption that Mangope had been merely a self-serving obstructionist who had foolishly stood in front of the Mack truck of history and had been forced to jump to the side of the road as Mandela swept to victory, end of story.

But now that I'm learning more about Lucas Mangope, I'm realizing what a great man he actually was; heroically holding his Bantustan together against all odds all throughout the Apartheid era.

The fnext story I heard about Mangope I sort of stumbled across by accident. I'd been asking around for information about sangomas – also known as traditional healers, also known as witch doctors (I should find one and see if he or she can do anything about relieving my toothache!) and apparently one of a sangoma's jobs was to conduct initiation ceremonies.

"The sangomas used to hold initiation ceremonies for the boys in this village," one of the local residents told me, "and when boys turned 16, they would take them up into the hills for secret ceremonies that included circumcision. Sometimes, however, the newly-initiated boys would come home singing, go to one of the initiated boys' homes and drop his clothing off on his doorstep. And that was how the boy’s parents would find out that their son was dead and that they would never see him again, not even his body.”

“But how did the boy die?” I asked.

“Nobody knows. It’s all very secret. And no one would dare say anything for fear of retaliation. Probably boys died from cuts and wounds. But there are no initiations held in this village any more. Because they caused so many deaths, Lucas Mangope put a stop to them.”

Here’s another rumor I heard about Mangope: Back in the day of the Bantustans, Black South Africans had no access to formal education, which meant that almost no one had a degree in nursing or engineering or even knew much about farming. Plus almost no one could afford to go to university to get a degree and even if they could come up with the money, the Apartheid government wouldn’t let them go there anyway. So Mangope knew that there was a big problem here but he got around it by setting up an apprenticeship system, educating people on the job. He also set up several teachers’ colleges.

Someone else told me a story about Mangope's’s influence in building up the city of Mafeking. During the Boer War in the nineteenth century, Mafeking was famous for a big battle there between the Afrikaners and the Brits. Then everyone forgot about Mafeking until Shirley Temple made it famous again when she starred in a movie about a poor little rich girl whose father had been injured during the siege of Mafeking, forcing poor sweet little Shirley to live in a freezing cold attic because everyone thought that her father was dead. But after that, Mafeking sank back into the armpit of history once again.

Today, however, Mafeking is a bustling city and the capital of the North West province. “Lucas Mangope did that. Back in the Apartheid days, he turned Mafeking around -- from being just another backwater town known only for having been mentioned in a Shirley Temple movie and into a thriving capital.” Humm…. And this man lives right down the road from me? I started to ask around about the chances of me getting an interview with him.

“Right now, Mr. Mangope is very sick,” I was told. Oh, okay. But when he gets better, I’d love to talk with him – one of South Africa’s living legends. But in the meantime, I should actually sit down and do some research on the man. I hate research. But thank goodness for Google.

According to one report I found on Google, Mangope was born in 1923 in the Transvaal. He grew up there, went to the Diocesan Teachers’ Training College near Pietersburg and became a secondary school teacher. Then, in 1959, he also became the chief of his village. And went into politics. And the rest is history. From what I can gather after reading this article on Google, the Apartheid government appointed him as the head of the Bophuthatswana Bantustan in 1972 because Mangope went along with their policy of separating the races. “Sure,” he told the Apartheid guys, “we’ll be separate from the whites. But we had darn well better be ‘Separate But Equal’ too!” -- or words to that effect – and then he hit the Apartheid guys up for big bucks. And as a result, the Setswana Bantustan under his governance survived the Apartheid era in much better shape than the rest of the Bantustans and townships of the time.

Another report stated that Mangope allowed a big-time developer to capitalize on the National Party's stern anti-gambling by building a Las-Vegas type area in Bophutswana, which Frommer's Guide describes as "the hodgepodge of inferior land into which the Tswana were forced. As an 'independent' state, headed by the corrupt Lucas Mangope, Bophutswana was literally a law unto itself, and millions began to swarm to 'Sin City'". I can't say if Mangope was corrupt or not but apparently he put the income from Sun City to very good use.

Okay. Now I’m really intrigued. How can I go about meeting this man? I once again asked around. “He’s not really sick,” someone else told me. “He just got back from a weekend in Jo'burg so he can’t be all that bad off. It’s just that he is very wary of granting interviews to anyone. There has been a lot of offensive stuff written about him in the press over the years and he’s not really willing to put himself in the position of being hurt again.” Can’t fault him for that. But still. I would love to chat with the man. What to do?

“You want to talk with Mangope?” another man asked. “That’s easy. He goes to church every Sunday. Catch up with him there.” Great! I’ve got a plan. So I actually did up my hair and put on a skirt and trundled off to services last Sunday. And guess what? The church doors were locked! Good grief! Did they find out that I was coming and barricade the place? Or what?

“Don’t take it so personally,” said a passerby. “This is the one Sunday a year when the whole congregation visits its fellow congregation in the next village.” Okay. So that plan fell through.

“I know Mangope’s sister,” someone else told me. “Let me see what I can do to hook you up.” But then it turns out that this person and Mangope had been arguing over something – I wasn’t sure what – for several years and so this plan fell through too.

Then someone else told me that Mangope went for a walk on the road outside his home every morning. “If you get there by 6:30 am, you can usually see him there.” Say what? Me get up and be dressed and coherent by the crack of dawn? No interview is that important! But when the next morning actually came, I did make the effort and diligently trudged down to his house really really early. But was the trip worth it? Yeah. I live in the most beautiful village in the world. The sun had just risen, the full moon was still in the sky, the cows and chickens and goats greeted me ecstatically and I made footprints in the red dust as I walked along. Young boys and old women greeted me on their way to help make preparations for the next day's funeral or to get their buckets filled at the standpipes. The air was fresh, the mountains shone in the background and I fell instantly in love with my village all over again. But. Did I get to see Lucas Mangope? No. But I learned a kick-arse recipe for making four barrels of beer in three days from one of the older women who was making it for the funeral.

So. Things were still not looking good in terms of my interview. But I did see Mangope's car drive down the street. Does that count? In terms of living legends? What if I had seen JFK’s car drive down the street? Or Elvis’s car? Would that be enough information to turn into a top story? Sadly, no. And now I’m starting to feel like a paparazzi. Or even a stalker. Forget it. Maybe I’ll just take a bus up to nearby Namibia and focus on trying to get an interview with Brad Pitt instead. Hey, he’s a living legend too….

PS: Later on I did manage to talk with another villager about Mangope and this guy was actually willing to spill. We were sitting on the front porch of a store down the street from the cemetery after a funeral and he started reminiscing about the old days. And after a while I started to take notes because what he told me was so fascinating. Here’s his story:

“First you need to understand,” said my hot new source, “that when the Apartheid laws went into effect, 90% of the population in South Africa was Black and they were forced into Bantustans which only occupied 13% of the land.” Wow! I had no idea. All I have seen of South Africa so far has been Pretoria and the market towns. I never would have guessed that 90% of the country was Black. But I do know that 100% of my village (except for me and my NGO) is Black, so just multiply that by a ton of other villages and townships and it makes sense. Pretoria then becomes the exception rather than the rule.

“When the Black population was sent off to the new Bantustans, there were nine main tribal groups in South Africa and the National Party – the inventors of Apartheid – gave each tribal group a “homeland” and then looked for a figurehead chief to rule each one.” The man sighed, took a sip of his tea and continued. “Before the homeland laws, this village was very sparsely populated. And it is located on soil that is basically rocks. You’ve seen it here. Most of the valley is rock. It's not exactly prime real estate. But when the homelands came, this area suddenly became highly populated as people were herded into the Bantustans, away from good farmland and away from jobs and industry. This village is the size of about one White person's small farm but suddenly it was supposed to hold thousands of Setswanas." Yikes.

"Mangope was the only tribal chief who used his new wealth to help out the people instead of squandering it on himself. He built a TV station even. And a radio station -- BOP -- that played good music and he built schools and clinics and police stations. There was nothing in this whole Bantustan prior to him. He built universities, gave out scholarships, developed student work-study programs and built stadiums and civic centers. The centers were called 'Mabana' -- mother of the children. People had never had anything like this before. Mangope had cops patrol the beer halls and shabeens. He built teachers colleges in Mankwe and Taletso and vocational training colleges and furthered education all over the Bantustan, which was now called Bophutswana. And he built little industrial areas in the homeland so the fathers wouldn't have to go all the way to Johannesburg to work. For instance, he built a brick-works right here in this village."

This is all well and good, but what about some hot gossip? Let's spice it up a little bit here. So far Mangope's saga has been sorta dry. "On the flip side," my new source obliged me, "Mangope was a tyrant and a bully! He and his wife ruled this village with an iron hand. Your life belonged to him. If his fields needed weeding, he'd pick you up off the street to do it. And it was compulsory to go to hear him speak whenever he held a rally. He ordered people around. He made people who had worked hard all day on their own jobs come to work for him once they got off. And if you had a business, you had to go into partnership with him or with one of his children or else you wouldn't get your license renewed." Oops, too much information! Be careful what you wish for. This guy was on a roll!

"The people of our Bantustan feared Mangope -- but they didn't like him. And he only helped the Setswana, not all Black South Africans. He even had his own border post. You had to have a Bophutswana passport to get in -- not just the dumpass. And you were discriminated against if you weren't a Setswana. You couldn't live here. You couldn't get a job here. My neighbor's grandson was part Setswana only and he wasn't allowed to move here because he was only Setswana on one side of the family." I wonder what he would make of Americans -- who are born and/or raised all over the place. Then we drank another cup of tea.

"Anyway, when Nelson Mandela got out of jail, the Apartheid government told him that he had to return to Transkei where he was born but Mandela replied that they had taken him out of Soweto and now he would bloody well move where he wanted to. So he went around and looked at all the homelands before he moved anywhere. And he said that Bophutswana was the best homeland, in the best shape and he wanted Mangope to come on board with the ANC." Aha! Insider information. My very own Deep Throat!

"Mandela then invited Mangope to the Codesa conference. He said, 'I see what you have done. You've done a good job.' But Mangope and Buthelezi of the Zulus refused to come to Codesa. 'We have our own people now,' they said. 'We own them.' They thought that they had all the power inside their homelands. But Buthelezi was a turncoat but Mangope didn't know this. And that was how Mangope was left out by himself while the other eight homeland chiefs supported Mandela. It was a stupid move that Mangope made. He might have been the President of South Africa after Mandela retired but he was brought down by his own pride." Hubris.

"Before Mandela, Mangope would bully the other eight chiefs. When platinum was discovered in Rustenburg, he had a showdown with another tribe that wanted to have influence at the mine and didn't want Mangope lording it over them. Mangope wanted to take over the mines too but the Bafokeng tribe won the case in court. And there was another chief in a village near here who tried to stand up to Mangope and as a result even now that village has no running water and is one of the poorest villages in the Northwest province. No running water, minimal schools. All because the chief had opposed Mangope and wouldn't listen to him."

"Tell me more about what happened during the 1994 elections," I said.

"Sure. Mangope wanted Bophutswana to be a separate country so he didn't put his name on the ballot for the elections. However, as soon as Mandela got out of jail, no one here listened to Mangope any more. Mandela came here and spoke at one of Mangope's stadium and almost everyone in the whole homeland came. All that were left at home were the dogs. Mangope had NEVER packed a stadium like that! Then Mangope held a rally and almost nobody came." Good grief!

"Mangope resisted when his people became pro-ANC. But it was of no use. When he tried to tell them not to support Mandela, they went crazy and rioted in Mafeking to show him that they were Fed Up. But then Terre'Blanche interfered in the showdown against Mangope even though Mangope hadn't been the one to ask him in. But for whatever reason it happened or whoever was responsible, Mafeking was in flames. Terre'Blanche had appeared to want Mangope to be an ally of his against Mandela but what Terr-Blanche had really wanted was to start a civil war." Not good.

"Then, after the protests, Mangope gave a speech. 'My people, you are ungrateful!' he told them. 'After everything that I've done for you, you have turn on me and supported a jailbird instead.' He actually called Mandela a jailbird. And a bandit. And a criminal. 'And when the bandit comes, you go and listen to him.' But by then Mangope was extremely rich. And he was arrogant." Then we drank more tea. And contemplated our own mortality for a while.

"But someone must have spoken to Mangope because he did end up running for Parliament. That Zulu guy Buthelezi had outsmarted him and was already in Parliament however. Mangope formed his own party -- the African Christian Democratic party, the ACDP. And he didn't run for election himself but his party won a seat and he took it."

"Thanks for the scoop," I told the man. "You've been a big help. But I have just one more question. What is Mangope up to now (aside from trying to avoid running into me, that is)?"

"Mangope? From what I have heard, he is now a very embittered man, well aware that people don't like him. The people don't sing his praises. And his wife was a tyrant too. He re-married not so long after she died. She was a horrible woman, the Eva Braun of Bophutswana. And his new wife is much younger than him."

PPS: This whole process of researching the life of Lucas Mangope has got me to wondering about what the people of America will be saying about George W. Bush once he has been thrown out of the White House (and hopefully been put in jail)? People being what they are, I bet they will diss him too. But the big difference between Bush and Mangope is that while Mangope did some bad things, he also did far more good. He will always be remembered as the hero who held Bophutswana together during some very rough times. Bush, however, will never be remembered for ever having done anything good. A million Iraqis slaughtered, the downfall of the American economy, our army gutted, corruption run rampant, our education system reduced to shambles, the Katrina sell-out, the stolen elections....