My Moment with a Legend – by Benny Gool
When I first began taking photographs on the streets of Cape Town in the 1980s, Nelson Mandela was a mythical figure, a hidden presence on Robben Island whose name embodied the people’s global resistance to apartheid and the suffering of the people of South Africa.
No-one really knew what he looked like; the vestiges of his youthful looks all that remained during the last published images at the Rivonia trial. It was a crime to publish his photo. Yet his name was on everyone’s lips, in the words of struggle songs, on the posters of activists calling for his release, musicians, artists, world leaders, even the architects of apartheid.
In those heady days of the eighties, I photographed protests, attended rallies and press conferences of the United Democratic Front, witnessed mothers’ chaining themselves to the gates of parliament to plea for mercy for the release of their children or in most instances, their whereabouts.
I staked out Pollsmoor Prison (after Madiba was moved there from Robben Island), then Victor Verster Prison; Tygerberg Hospital (where he was treated for TB) and Constantia Medi-Clinic where he underwent surgery. I documented members of his family and legal team as they disappeared through the gates to visit. But, of course, I never saw him.
In a way, things were quite simple, then. Nelson Mandela and his comrades-in-arms were our heroes, and those who imprisoned them – and continued to make life a misery for the majority of the people – were the enemies.
On 11 February 1990 I saw Nelson Mandela for the first time. It was a momentous day for our country and continent – and also for photojournalists. The process to democratize South Africa exploded into public view. Our daily battles with news editors to place “struggle photographs” were over. Fresh pictures of the extraordinary Mr Mandela and the peaceful settlement he led were much in demand.
In the beginning, it felt as strange for us to photograph the talks between the ANC and then-governing National Party (as it must have felt for the participants to be talking to each other). Mandela, Sisulu, Mbeki and Slovo with De Klerk, Meyer, Coetzee and Botha, surrounded by people we then regarded as sinister security-types, in the same frame!
Madiba made it seem so natural. We learned from him every day. We couldn’t get enough of him. And so began a special journey.
Through the talks about talks, to the talks, themselves; through cities and towns in the middle of nowhere in the run-up to the first election; the Presidency; the Constitution-making process; the post-Presidency; the retirement from public life …
When prosecutors pursued me to give evidence in court about photographs I took of the killing of a gangster in Cape Town, President Mandela promised to bring me fish and chips if I was imprisoned.
And after stepping down from the Presidency, he regularly quipped he was in need of employment. “Yes, Benny! How are you?” he would greet me cheerily. “Do you have a job for me?”
Of course, one of the hallmarks of the brief period in which Mr Mandela graced public life was his willingness to speak to everybody – great and not so great – and to listen. For many who have had the opportunity to interact with him these meetings are life-defining.
The stories of My Moment with a Legend are the stories that we will tell our grandchildren. Each story is a thread in the tapestry of the magic of Mr Mandela – and the hope and promise for our new nation that he personified.
My Moment with a Legend is therefore a history project weaving together my catalogue of official and unofficial meetings with Mr Mandela – covering a 21-year period, from 1990 to 2011 – with memories of each encounter that collectively tell South Africa’s triumphal story through hundreds of diverse strands.
The people in the photographs include world political and religious leaders, sports and film stars, captains of industry, family members and comrades. But arguably the most insightful parts are the reflections on Mr Mandela’s leadership articulated through the memories of so-called ordinary South Africans. Enter the site, click on a photograph and share the moment.
I am very proud to have been able to form a partnership with the Nelson Mandela Foundation Centre of Memory to bring this special project to life. I would like to thank everyone in the photographs who has contributed to making the project a success but above all, thank Madiba for allowing me to share this special journey with him.Browse Moments »