Literature
11:50 am
Fri December 13, 2013

An Elegy For Mandela Looks Back In Mourning, Forward In Hope

Originally published on Fri December 13, 2013 7:52 am

In his youth, Nelson Mandela cut a dashing figure. He was a revolutionary, an outlaw — by the early 1960s, he was living underground. And he had a nickname to match: he was known as the Black Pimpernel.

The nickname came from the titular character in The Scarlet Pimpernel, a novel set in the French Revolution. Like the original Pimpernel, Mandela was a master of disguise. He'd appear suddenly to deliver a fiery speech, then disappear — as Mandela himself put it, "to the annoyance of the police and to the delight of the people."

Mandela's outlaw years ended eventually. He was imprisoned for decades and went on to become a distinguished elder statesman, beloved around the world; he died on Dec. 5. But it was that young, revolutionary Mandela, the man charged with treason and hunted by the police, whom Mbali Vilakazi had in mind when she wrote an elegy for Mandela — and called it "The Black Pimpernel."

Vilakazi, a South African poet who won last year's Poetry Games on Morning Edition, spoke with NPR's Renee Montagne about her poem. In it, she calls on the next generation of South African leaders to "make [their] own meaning" of struggles yet to come.


Interview Highlights

On the origin of Mandela's nickname

The Black Pimpernel was a derogatory term referencing a fictional character. And that is how he came to be known by the security forces while they were looking for him. And it charts how he donned various disguises to elude the security forces and, in fact, how much he enjoyed it. Because he writes about, you know, how he would use his tickeys [coin currency] to call media to talk about how sloppy the police were in trying to find him.

On Mandela's wide-reaching impact

What has been interesting for me is the response of just ordinary South Africans, and that speaks to how deeply ingrained he was in the fiber of our homes. We grew up with this man. He is ingrained in our personal stories, too. So the fact that he was away, I think, only served to enlarge the idea of him and what the country was going through, even though we were young — because I was young.

On capturing Mandela — and his legacy — in a poem

Where there are no easy answers, there will be no easy poems, and there is so much that has been said and written about him, and there's so much that I feel has also been reduced in relation to him. So for me, I wanted to begin where I stand. I wanted to look back, but I wanted to also begin with a firm footing in the present, looking toward the future, because as that generation that comes after all of what has happened that has enabled even me to be here and have a voice, it is now up to us.


The Black Pimpernel

This hour upon the horizon is its own song; a dirge

But this is not the hour of yesterday
This is not the time for tears
Nor celebration

We have our work to do.

And we have been shown:

Wind of life blown without roots
Into exile and iron fire grieving
Blood and shackled love
And those other things —
Those that remain undone

We have always been reaching

Before the smoke machines
And statues of bronze, and invention
Before martyr and metaphor
Before the truth, and the lies

Before ambiguous
And surface scraped clean
Of complexity

There were regular swoops on your Orlando home then.

There were the workman's blue overalls and the Mazzawati tea glasses
And there was you —
The Black Pimpernel.
The fearsome shadow of purposeful stride
An AK-47 grip on necessity
A chauffeur's hat and your pocketful of 'tickeys'

You have always had your way.

Black fist of words raised beyond the precipice
You bore the burden:
Hammer, rock and
The lime quarry in your eyes

They say it affected your sight.

'I am not a saint' you said.

A man who seeks the hands of children in the crowd.

The terrorist and the statesman
The paradox comes home here
Where we remain.
Where a daughter will remember how she could not touch you
Behind the glass
Behind your smile

Mortal, man, one amongst many
You led yourself and lead us to the same.

Of what you could not give
We will remember that you did not take.

We will make our own meaning.

This hope, it belongs
It is ours

We claim it.

This is the hour of tomorrow.

And if we have stood on the shoulders of giants,
We are giants still
And giants, we will come again

Because we are all Nelson Mandela

And because the struggle continues.

"The Black Pimpernel" by Mbali Vilakazi. Copyright 2013 by Mbali Vilakazi.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

When he was a young man, Nelson Mandela cut a dashing figure; a revolutionary who by the early 1960s, was underground and known as the Black Pimpernel.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

It was a nickname taken from a character in the novel set in the French Revolution, called "The Scarlet Pimpernel." Mandela, too, was a master of disguise; appearing suddenly to deliver a fiery speech, then disappearing.

MONTAGNE: As Mandela himself put it: to the annoyance of the police and the delight of the people. This week, we reached out to poet Mbali Vilakazi in Johannesburg. Last year, she won MORNING EDITION's Olympic Poetry Games. She had that revolutionary Mandela on her mind when she came to write an elegy.

And I would like to quote you just a moment from the poem before you read it to all of us. You write: This is not the time for tears nor celebration. There's a moment in which it's like this is a time to really dig in and do what Nelson Mandela would have you do, I should suppose. How do you see your generation?

MBALI VILAKAZI: What has been interesting for me is the response of just ordinary South Africans, and that speaks to how deeply ingrained he was in the fiber of our homes. We grew up with this man. He is ingrained in our personal stories, too. So the fact that he was away, I think, only served to enlarge the idea of him and what the country was going through, even though we were young - because I was young. So for me, I wanted to begin where I stand. I wanted to look back but I wanted to also begin with a firm footing in the present, looking towards the future because as that generation that comes after all of what has happened that has enabled even me to be here and have a voice, it is not up to us.

MONTAGNE: Let's hear the poem then, "The Black Pimpernel."

VILAKAZI: (Reading) This hour upon the horizon is its own song, a dirge. But this is not the hour of yesterday. This is not the time for tears nor celebration. We have our work to do. And we have been shown: Wind of life blown without roots into exile and iron-fire grieving, blood and shackled love and those other things - those that remain undone.

We have always been reaching. Before the smoke machines and statues of bronze and invention. Before martyr and metaphor. Before the truth and the lies. Before ambiguous and surface scraped clean of complexity.

There were regular swoops on your Orlando home then. There were the workman's blue overalls and the Mazzawati tea glasses. And there was you - The Black Pimpernel. The fearsome shadow of purposeful stride, an AK-47 grip on necessity, a chauffeur's hat and your pocketful of tickeys. You have always had your way.

Black fist of words raised beyond the precipice. You bore the burden: Hammer, rock and the lime quarry in your eyes. They say it affected your sight. I am not a saint, you said. A man who seeks the hands of children in the crowd. The terrorist and the statesman. The paradox comes home, here, where we remain. Where a daughter will remember how she could not touch you. Behind the glass behind your smile.

Mortal, man, one amongst many. You led yourself and lead us to the same. And of what you could not give, we will remember that you did not take. We will make our own meaning. This hope, it belongs. It is ours. We claim it. This is the hour of tomorrow. And if we have stood on the shoulders of giants, we are giants still and giants, we will come again. Because we are all Nelson Mandela. And because the struggle continues.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: Mbali Vilakazi, thank you very much.

VILAKAZI: Thank you so very, very much for having me.

MONTAGNE: Her poem, "The Black Pimpernel," was written upon the death of Nelson Mandela.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.