Dispatch

The Angry Man

Why we remember Mandela the smiling grandfather, not Mandela the fighter.

JOHANNESBURG — One of my first few nights driving around Johannesburg, four and a half years ago, I heard an eerie, captivating song on the radio. I pulled over to the side of the street in a congested part of downtown, despite being alone and in a rental car -- both things I'd been darkly warned made me a sitting target for a carjacking. I rifled through my bag to look for something with which to write the lyrics down; the song would end soon, and I knew I had to find it again. The words were in an unfamiliar language, but I recognized again and again the word "Mandela": "Uh-SEEM-bonanza Mandela," it sounded like.

As soon as I got home to Google, I found it: "Asimbonanga," an ode to the imprisoned Nelson Mandela written by a singer named Jonny Clegg in 1987. Clegg formed the first big-name integrated pop band in South Africa in the 1980s, in contravention of the apartheid government's rules. In moody, wistful harmony, "Asimbonanga" mourned an invisible leader: "We have not seen him, Mandela, in the place where he was kept," the Zulu chorus goes, referring to Robben Island, the prison in which Mandela was incarcerated for 18 years. (He spent the remaining nine years of his imprisonment in other jails on land.) The song's bereft singer tries to visualize the place where his shepherd is, somewhere across the cold sea, but fails. "We have not seen him, Mandela."

The song had a hymn-like quality, and it occurred to me that for such a large part of his time at the center of the life of South Africa, Mandela was vanished, almost like a Jesus figure, crucified by the law and spirited into darkness, leaving those who looked to him only the vague hope he would come again.

In prison, Mandela, who had risen to fame as the brilliant -- and notoriously combative -- leader of the militant wing of South Africa's black liberation struggle, was so divorced from ordinary life it was almost like a death. Early on, he was allowed no phone or radio; a prison calendar on which he noted big events recorded nothing around June 16, 1976, the date of a huge Soweto protest that began to shatter the apartheid state. Mandela didn't even know it was happening. His flock was in the dark about him, too. He was remembered at the time as an amateur boxer: tall, pugnacious, headstrong, and angry for justice. Would he still be that way when he got out, or would prison have broken him? Toward the end of his imprisonment, when it became clear he would be released, people were consumed with questions over his appearance: What would he look like? This question subsumed the greater, almost unimaginable question of what he would think like, how he would lead.

In his absence, Mandela assumed a titanic symbolic importance. What makes the song "Asimbonanga" most powerful is how intensely its chords evoke longing. The figure of Mandela transfigured the more inchoate black South African longing to be free into a longing for a single man's liberation. Like Abraham Lincoln or John F. Kennedy, his disappearance from public view helped create his myth.

When he emerged, he did so as a changed man. Not broken, but tenderized, coruscated, and made wise and magnanimous by suffering. That incredible magnanimity, that unexpected absence of hate, forms the subject of the vast majority of the remembrances after his death on Dec. 5 at 95.

There's the retelling of the time he invited one of his former jailers to a state dinner, the time he donned a rugby jersey in front of a throng of suspicious Afrikaners, the time he traveled to an all-white enclave to have tea with the widow of the architect of apartheid. On the radio, Archbishop Desmond Tutu compared Mandela's time in prison to the stress that produces a gem: "Like the most precious diamond honed deep under the surface of the earth, the [Mandela] who emerged from prison in January 1990 was virtually flawless."

What the narrative of that transfiguration left behind, though, was the other Mandela, the angry Madiba -- the man whose African name, Rolihlahla, portentously meant "troublemaker." Crucial to his young persona was his identity as a boxer; he founded the militant armed wing of the African National Congress (ANC), Umkhonto we Sizwe ["Spear of the Nation"], against the desires of some of the ANC's other leaders. In his autobiography, Mandela frankly recalled how -- before incarceration put a stop to his direct involvement in the struggle for liberation -- he and his fellow fighters discussed the merits of "four types of violent activities" against white South Africa: "sabotage, guerrilla warfare, terrorism, and open revolution." The discussion was starkly pragmatic. "For a small and fledgling army, open revolution was inconceivable. Terrorism inevitably reflected poorly on those who used it."

In part, Mandela himself encouraged the narrative of his complete rebirth. He spoke often about the epiphanies in prison that allowed him to let go of his anger and become a better leader. "Hating clouds the mind," he told the New York Times. "It gets in the way of strategy. Leaders cannot afford to hate." After his release, Mandela cultivated a benevolent, almost aggressively warm and grandfatherly persona. I was reminded of it when I looked up "Asimbonanga" again today: The first YouTube link gets you to a live version that Jonny Clegg played in France in 1999. Toward the end of the song, an 81-year-old Mandela makes a surprise appearance onstage, shimmying gamely. Grinning all the while, he taunts the audience for not dancing energetically enough.

But I think we also willfully scrub Mandela's anger from our memory because the story of a total transfiguration forms part of his appeal to us. His life becomes a real-world fairy tale of how suffering lifts us up and forgiveness sets us free. In fact, it's not so simple. People involved in the negotiations to end white rule in South Africa -- after Mandela was released from prison -- have often told me how unbelievably "stubborn," even disposed to flashes of rage, he could be, and how that stubbornness contributed to the ANC's gains at the bargaining table just as much as his newfound warm-heartedness. They sort of whisper it, like it is a dirty secret.

Long before Mandela died, some young black South Africans I knew were going in the opposite direction with the leader's legacy. They were turning their back on his post-apartheid persona and asserting that Mandela's pre-Robben Island anger was what really gave him a claim to greatness. They even replaced their Facebook photos with an image of the young Mandela in a boxing pose. When his anger cooled, they said, he lost his will to fight entrenched economic powers, leaving the South Africa of today still mired in inequality.

The urge to reduce our heroes from complex figures to one-line lessons is fierce. Lincoln got one of his first seriously intricate treatments in mainstream art with Steven Spielberg's film -- only 150 years after his death. Invictus is no such work of art.

On Friday afternoon, I went to Nelson Mandela Square, an open-air quad in a Johannesburg mall presided over by a smiling bronze statue of the South African liberator. The statue was attracting a line of photo-snapping tourists, perfectly representative as it was of the magnanimous version of Mandela. Nearby, I stumbled across a small, temporary art exhibit depicting images from Mandela's earlier, more pugnacious life, including a picture of him boxing and several of him frowning and raising a fist. There was nobody there viewing them.

I'd hardly spent a minute or two inside before the man at the exhibit's front desk apologetically called me over and handed me a plastic token. "Now this I know you'll like," he said. I was to go to an adjacent shop and exchange it for a commemorative coin of Mandela smiling.

ALEXANDER JOE/AFP/Getty Images

Dispatch

Out and Down in Syria's Civil War

Caught between the regime and Islamists, Syria’s gay community just struggles to stay alive.

BEIRUT — When Syrian rebels first captured Raqqa in March, seizing the northern city from President Bashar al-Assad's regime seemed enough for them. They didn't interfere with citizens' private lives, said Amir, a Syrian from the city.

The grace period, however, did not last. As al Qaeda-linked groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and Jabhat al-Nusra gained strength, they began to impose their own particular brand of Islamic justice on the population. "Slowly, they started to purify the city of its un-Islamic elements," Amir says. "In other places, there is a court, a trial ... with them, within a day or two, they just chop off people's heads."

Life in Raqqa soon became impossible for Amir, who is gay, and he made his escape to Beirut. He is almost certain that the jihadists have marked him as a wanted man. "You can't bribe people the way you did with the Syrian government before," he says. "Some people are so religious that they are immune to bribes." 

As the violence in Syria continues unabated, many have retreated into their ethnic and religious communities for protection. Unlike other minority groups -- such as Christians, Kurds, and Alawites -- sexual minorities, notably gay men, do not enjoy the protection of any political, ethnic, or religious institutions. For gay Syrians, nowhere is safe: Across the country, they have been the target of attack by pro-regime militants and armed Islamist militias alike -- at times because of their sexual preference; at other times simply because they are perceived as weak and easy to extort in the midst of a chaotic war.

Through my work as a program manager at the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP), I was able to conduct interviews with dozens of gay Syrian refugees who fled to Lebanon to escape persecution. IRAP provides legal assistance to refugees of all nationalities to help them navigate the resettlement process. Many gay Syrians agreed to give testimonies for this article, which was separate from IRAP's assistance to them in the resettlement process. In our conversations, these men described a shocking culture of violence that stands out even amid Syria's myriad egregious human rights violations.

Gay Syrians still in the country must not only evade discovery themselves -- the capture of one of their acquaintances can also present a mortal threat. Amir recounts how one of his gay friends, Badr, was kidnapped this summer by Jabhat al-Nusra, which extracted information from him about other gays before executing him. "Several days later, Jabhat al-Nusra gathered people in the square and denounced another guy as a faggot," says Amir. "They chopped his head off with a sword."

Not all of this violence appears to be driven by radical Islamist beliefs -- some seems to be spurred by a simple desire to exert power and authority. Even gay men themselves, forever cognizant of the danger they face if ever outed, have participated in acts of violence against other gay men.  

Imad, a gay Syrian who fled the country in September, tells a story of a gay acquaintance who is currently fighting with an Islamist group. "He used to sleep with one of my gay friends for money," Imad says. "Then he disappeared for a few months and it turned out that he was doing military training abroad. He came back with a long beard. He probably just wants money and protection from them."

While many of those fleeing Syria's violence hail from areas controlled by opposition fighters, the violence against gays is not geographically confined. One Damascus resident, Najib, fled his home after his brother discovered he was gay. His work took him to a rebel-controlled suburb of the capital, where he began a relationship with an Islamist fighter. The head of the brigade, a very conservative Muslim, soon came to suspect a relationship between the two, forcing Najib to flee once again to a suburb closer to the city.

One morning, pro-regime militiamen stopped him at a checkpoint. Najib recognized one of the men, Kheder, from an unofficial gay park they used to frequent prior to the revolution. The men blindfolded him and brought him inside a building, demanding $15,000 or else they would hand him over to the state security apparatus. "After that they told me to take off my clothes. They took my phone and started to take pictures of me," Najib says. "Another other guy kicked me in my face and called me a prostitute and cursed at me. Then they sexually molested me."

Najib brought the men some money the next day, and promised to bring more in the days ahead. Instead, he fled to Lebanon. "A gay person in Syria is between two fires -- the regime and the opposition," explains Najib. "The issue is that most people do not see targeting homosexuals as being problematic."

Though violence has gotten much worse in the past several years, the persecution of gay men in Syria existed well before the uprising. The Syrian penal code criminalizes unnatural sexual acts, punishable by up to 3 years in prison. Syrian society's general lack of acceptance of homosexuality has long forced gay individuals underground, meeting in secret to evade potential arrest or "honor crime" retaliation.

In 2009, police arrested a group of gay men in Raqqa after obtaining a tape of two men having sex. Security forces extracted names of other gay men under torture, and arrested them as well. "A lot of people were put in tires, beaten, and then interrogated. Most admitted to being gay to stop being tortured," says Selim, a gay man who fled Raqqa last spring, about life in the city prior to the revolution. "However, if one had connections to someone high up in the government, they got off.  Not everyone was arrested -- some people were just extorted for money or others paid bribes to security."

For some gay Syrians, their own family members pose the greatest threat to their discovery. Joseph, a Christian from the eastern city of Deir Ezzor, fled from Syria several months ago after he mistakenly left his computer screen open while at a café with his cousins. He had forgotten that he was in the midst of a conversation with his boyfriend.

"The next day they approached me and said 'get out of Syria, you are going to scandalize our family. If you don't leave we kill you,'" Joseph recounted. Within 24 hours, he fled to Lebanon.

While Beirut is often heralded as the most open and liberal city in the Middle East, many gay refugees find that their lot does not dramatically improve when they arrive there. In the Lebanese capital, some have found that they are exploited in the same ways as they were back home.

Hussein fled from northern Syria last spring, after a relative tried to kill him after discovering that he was gay. Having nowhere to stay in Beirut, he began sleeping on a beach, where he was forced into sex work to survive. "One time, I was picked up by a guy for sex," he says. "Instead, I was gang raped by several Lebanese men. After the attack, I went back to the beach because I had no other place to go."

Throughout my interviews, when asked if they could relocate to a safer place, many gay Syrian refugees echoed the refrain that they had nowhere else to go. This has to change: While it is undeniably difficult to advocate for greater LGBTI rights in a conservative society engulfed by civil war, refugee aid organizations can do more to address the plight of this forgotten minority. Staff should be specifically trained to address the needs of this population, services for male victims of sexual violence should be expanded, vulnerable individuals should be given access to safe shelter, and refugees who are most at-risk should be resettled in a third country.

For these beleaguered Syrians, the struggle to find a safe place is a daily challenge -- and some are finding that they would rather be on their own than risk trying to find protection in a community.

Yaman, a gay Syrian who fled the northern city of Qamishli, describes how he could find no place to live in Beirut, and was subsequently taken in by a wealthy man in exchange for sex. But the man would lock him in the house when he departed from work, leaving Yaman trapped. "After a while, I couldn't stand it anymore so I left," he says. "I would rather be hungry and homeless."

Spencer Platt/Getty Images