Ranjeni Munusamy: What if Madiba was never one of us?

"What would have happened had Madiba died in prison?" Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu asked at the memorial service for Nelson Mandela. Indeed, what would have happened? Would South Africa have been the country it is now? Was the path to democracy inevitable, even if Mandela had not walked free from prison, led the process of peaceful transition and become president in 1994? In truth, South Africa's destiny is so entwined with that of its founding father that it is almost impossible to imagine how history would have unfolded without him.

Nelson Mandela's pain was so palpable when Walter Sisulu died on 5 May 2003. He allowed me to interview him about the death of his friend and comrade of 62 years; it was not an easy thing to do. It seemed as if I was invading his grief by trying to probe deep into his memory. But he wanted the world to know about the relationship which shaped him into the international icon he turned out to be.

He told how Sisulu took his breath away the first time they met. Mandela was a young aspirant lawyer and his cousin took him to see Sisulu, then an estate agent.

"I was amazed by him. In his office was an African lady, Marjorie, and she was typing. I had only seen men typing in Umtata, using their index fingers. But this was as if she was playing the piano. I was absolutely mesmerised.

"I looked at this show and then this chap [Sisulu] came and opened the door. Yet again, I was amazed. He was speaking English better than me who came from Fort Hare, where I had done a BA. He spoke English so fluently and he was running a successful estate agency with no degree.

"That is how my respect for him originated, the fact that he had an office of his own and he had a typist of such knowledge, such mastery of the typewriter."

So began their journey together. Mandela had already forged a relationship with Oliver Tambo when they were at the University of Fort Hare but he said it was Sisulu who moulded him as an activist.

"He taught me about the ANC. I came to follow everything that he said, that he advised me about. But it was when we were functioning as the Youth League that I developed respect for Walter. He was so confident, so full of ideas."

Even in adversity, their bond triumphed. When they were arrested at Rivonia in 1963, Mandela said he was sitting anxiously alone in his cell when he heard a familiar cough nearby.

He called out: "Walter?"

"Nelson, is that you?" Sisulu replied, and the two burst out laughing.

What if Mandela and Sisulu had never met? What if the two of them together with Tambo had not formed the ANC Youth League to jack up the ANC leadership of the time, which they thought was "a dying order of pseudo-liberalism and conservatism, of appeasement and compromise". Would Mandela have still risen to be the giant of the liberation struggle, the symbol which sustained the opposition to Apartheid through so many years while he was in prison?

What if Mandela, Sisulu and others had not been arrested at Rivonia in 1963 and sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island? Their cruel fate developed relationships among them which we will never truly understand. Their suffering moulded their characters and their political education. While they went into prison as dedicated activists, they came out as a legion of heroes with refined political perspectives, ready to be the torchbearers on the road to democracy.

And what if Madiba had not met Winnie? His great love for her sustained him through his imprisonment, and his longing for her was intense. In one letter to her on 26 October 1976, he wrote:

"I have received only one letter since you were detained, that one dated August 22. I do not know anything about family affairs, such as payment of rent, telephone bills, care of children and their expenses, whether you will get a job when released. As long as I don't hear from you, I will remain worried and dry like a desert.

"I recall the Karoo I crossed on several occasions. I saw the desert again in Botswana on my way to and from Africa - endless pits of sand and not a drop of water. I have not had a letter from you. I feel dry like a desert.

"Letters from you and the family are like the arrival of summer rains and spring that liven my life and make it enjoyable.

"Whenever I write you, I feel that inside physical warmth, that makes me forget all my problems. I become full of love."

Would he have been the same person had he not felt the intensity of love for her over 27 years? Would he have been dispassionate or bitter instead?

In 1976, Mandela was approached by Jimmy Kruger, then Minister for Police under President BJ Vorster, with an offer to renounce the struggle and settle in the Transkei. Mandela refused. By then he had been in prison for over 12 years. The prospect of freedom must have been tempting, but Mandela would not be baited by the Apartheid regime. Had he done so, he would have been branded as a sellout. He might have disappeared into obscurity.

By staying on in prison, the international pressure mounted against the government to release political prisoners. This eventually forced the National Party government into secret negotiations with Mandela and the ANC. Had PW Botha not had a stroke and resigned, who knows how much longer it would have taken for Mandela to walk through the gates of Victor Verster Prison.

And had he walked out bitter and vengeful, where would South Africa be now? Had he bowed to pressure from some of his comrades in the ANC and SA Communist Party to continue the armed struggle, would South Africa be a war-torn country like so many others on the continent? Mandela instead displayed an astonishing ability to forgive and champion a process of reconciliation and nation building.

Mandela could have used his fame and political power to make up for lost time and feather his own nest. He certainly would have been entitled to do so considering his tremendous personal sacrifices. But instead he built himself into a towering figure, using his prominence to court the world's rich and famous to contribute towards social and charitable causes in South Africa.

Mandela could have become drunk on power and decide to serve another term as the country's president. The honeymoon period of South Africa's democracy would then have been over and he would have been bogged down with the complexities and pressures of government delivery. The course of history would have been very different had Thabo Mbeki not have become president when he did. Perhaps Cyril Ramaphosa would have been president instead? Jacob Zuma might have remained in KwaZulu-Natal for a longer period, and never set off on the path that led him to the Union Buildings.

South Africa's destiny could have been different had Mandela lived his life differently. We turned out to be a peaceful, vibrant nation because he was one of us. If, like Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu asked, he had died in prison, South Africa would never have had its rainbow nation-ness, its special place in the world, its love affair with itself.

If Madiba never allowed himself to fall in love and marry again, he might not have wanted to live as long as he did. He stayed on because Graça Machel was there to sit by his bedside and hold his hand, reminding him of how much his people loved him.

During that interview after Sisulu's death, Mandela spoke of the last time he saw his old friend and comrade. Sisulu had been sick for a while and Madiba had gone to see him several times.

"At one time, I went with Graça to see him. He had breathing apparatus on and was leaning to one side. He never saw us. I thought then that he was going."

Two days later, Sisulu called. "Madiba, I want to congratulate you. You are doing very well," he said.

When Mandela went to see him the last time, he made peace with the fact that his friend would not live much longer. "He was satisfied. We have done what we set out to do. The ANC is in power and he was satisfied."

Mandela stayed on a decade more, even though he faded away from public life as he became frailer. But he remained South Africa's lodestar. His character, his politics, his choices and his loves defined him, and so too, defined us.

South Africa will now have to find its way without him.

Hopefully, the peace he wished on his friend is now his too.

This column appeared in Daily Maverick.