Only one man was on his mind, as thundering applause propelled Wole Soyinka down the carpet towards the podium. It was December 10, 1986, he was in Stockholm, Sweden and about to become the first, black African recipient of the prestigious Nobel Prize for literature.
The man on his mind was not his father, nor his brother. His thoughts were within the confines of a Pollsmoor prison cell in South Africa, nearly 17,000km away, with a man whom he had never met; a man who had been imprisoned since November 1962. This man was Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela.
Soyinka dedicated his Nobel acceptance speech to Mandela’s resistance against the apartheid regime. He also made extensive reference to him and the political situation in South Africa in his Nobel lecture two days earlier.
He described him as a man of great stature, whose public persona preceded him. While Soyinka has received numerous accolades throughout his career as an African writer, playwright and poet; the highlight of his career was meeting Mandela for the first time.
“I always felt that I knew him. I had no problem at all, entering his mind and the kind of person he was. This is a man who has been in my imagination for so long, about whom I had written poems. He was exactly as I always pictured him. As I got to know him, I found him to be very warm, full of sentiment, and mischievous."
"I grew to like him and he became like an elder brother to me. He is a man of quiet courage. My projection of him, what he exuded when finally I saw him, was that he was the kind of person, who doesn’t miss a beat, no matter what conditions he’s moving into or from: a man of great composure,” says Soyinka.
In many ways it was no surprise that the two hit it off. Mandela’s hopes for an Africa liberated from the chains of colonialism were steeped in Soyinka’s written works. Soyinka empathized with the struggles against Apartheid-ruled South Africa; he acted in and directed The Biko Inquest, a 1979 stage play about the human rights activist, Steve Biko, who died in police custody.
He also honored Mandela through his anthology Mandela’s Earth and Other Poems in 1989. Soyinka knew what struggle was. He was in self-imposed exile; went into hiding and was imprisoned on numerous occasions for his politics. The longest spell inside lasted 22 months.
Soyinka says Mandela’s outrage at writer Ken Saro-Wiwa’s hanging in 1995, was a manifestation of the real Mandela: a man capable of flashes of anger and uncompromising commitment; a man with a steadfast obligation towards freedom.
“Someone who would conduct his life... exactly the same way, if he were not black… Mandela was a towering figure, a role model of human aspiration.”
As far as Soyinka is concerned Mandela’s greatest gift to Africa was that he knew when to step down.
“What [other African countries] could take away from Mandela is the grace of yielding; when it’s time to move and let other people take over and contribute their bit, whether it’s a constitutional requirement, or whether it’s an inner sense of ‘I have occupied the stage long enough’, let others take over. ‘I am just another human being, who has done all I can in the circumstances with what I have and now I feel it is time for me to move aside and let others carry on.’ This is what other African countries have failed tragically to learn from Nelson Mandela,” he says.
On that glorious night in Stockholm, the only thing Soyinka could not have foreseen is that seven years later prisoner 46664 would accept the
Nobel Peace Prize with his former foe, President F.W. De Klerk. But then again who did?