The National Geographic issue of July 1975 is as delightful a time capsule as you would expect from the magazine that dictated our understanding of the world. On the very first page is an advertisement for Iran Air—against a backdrop of the Manhattan skyline. “Now fly to New York five times a week," the copy cheerfully proclaims, four years before a revolution and a hostage crisis resulted in the US government tossing the airline out of its airspace. There are some bleak Malthusian stories on the hunger games of that decade, and despatches from Cape Cod, the Ozarks, and Philadelphia. In the middle of them all, bookended by ads for a Datsun sports car and the Beechcraft Baron—“You don’t have to live near the water to live near the water"—is a gem of a feature on living near the water, “The Last Andaman Islanders", written and photographed by the late Raghubir Singh.

Singh documents the Jarawas, or what was left of them, with élan. These “brutish idolaters" who, in Marco Polo’s account, “killed and ate every outsider they could lay their hands on", treated him quite sweetly. He realized their famous hostility was simply a survival strategy. His crew was plied with drink, taken on a memorable hunt for “wild screaming pigs," and fondled by muscular tribesmen. The words in the feature are fine, but it is the photographs that leap off the page. One photograph in particular: a Jarawa woman, dancing in an “explosion of merriment" that accompanied the crew’s arrival on shore, according to the caption—which curmudgeonly goes on to add that some Jarawas still distrust strangers and will therefore attack and kill them.

On his 90th birthday, flanked by his former wife Winnie Mandela (right) and wife Graca Machel. Photo: Michelly Rall/WireImage
On his 90th birthday, flanked by his former wife Winnie Mandela (right) and wife Graca Machel. Photo: Michelly Rall/WireImage

“My dearest Winnie, Your beautiful photo still stands about two feet above my left shoulder as I write this note. I dust it carefully every morning, for to do so gives me the pleasant feeling that I’m caressing you as in the old days. I even touch your nose with mine to recapture the electric current that used to flush through my blood whenever I did so. Nolitha stands on the table directly opposite me. How can my spirits ever be down when I enjoy the fond attentions of such wonderful ladies?"

You don’t have to be serving time to see her appeal. There she is, unabashed, naked, dancing on the seashore, radiant in the sun, every bit of her throbbing with sexual energy.

Prison did not diminish Mandela’s keen interest in the body. When his daughter Zindzi expressed hesitation at attending her sister Zenani’s wedding—Zenani was marrying a Swazi prince, and Zindzi was worried she would have to go bare-breasted to the ceremony—Mandela wrote her a charming note of encouragement.

“The beauty of a woman lies as much in her face as in her body. Your breasts should be as hard as apples and as dangerous as cannon balls. You can proudly and honourably display them when occasion demands."

In fact, the convict and his pin-up girl had more in common than they might have been aware of. Both of them were thorns in the side of their states. Despite Jawaharlal Nehru’s public exhortations on behalf of India’s tribal people—“...a people who sing and dance and try to enjoy life; not people who sit in stock exchanges, shout at each other, and think themselves civilised"—his state blundered into their lives and continues to confound them to this day. Both of them were endlessly romanticized, though they would have probably preferred to do a little romanticizing themselves (we know at least one of the two found that opportunity in the pages of a magazine). More significantly, regardless of their different physical predicaments— and this is what made them inexplicable to authority—both of them knew they were free.

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Nolitha. Photo: 2013 Succession Raghubir Singh
Nolitha. Photo: 2013 Succession Raghubir Singh

In Celebrity, an unremarkable Woody Allen film, a character played by Charlize Theron, and identified only as the “supermodel", has a remarkable problem. The problem, by way of Sigmund Freud and Allen’s enduring obsession with psychoanalysis, is that she is polymorphously perverse. “It’s not a flaw, it’s just a weakness," she offers, tentatively. “Every part of my body gives me sexual pleasure." The character who hears her confession is Lee Simon, a failed middle-aged writer played by Kenneth Branagh, who is broken enough to appreciate what he has found. After he strokes her hand into near-orgasm, Simon feverishly thanks the Lord. “...And that was just her hand!"

I can’t say I’ve ever encountered this problem—watching Silk Smitha unfurl in Sadma might be the closest I’ll ever get —but I think I recognize the broad sentiment. I’m old enough to know it’s a blessing, a retrospective reward for a childhood spent futilely banging on the windows of the world to be let in. And I will admit to being unreasonably excited by Mandela’s choice of stimulation on Robben Island; it sounded like the left-handed reading habits of my import-substituted middle-class youth. When things are scarce, the whole world becomes perversely polymorphous. Every third-world child of a certain vintage knows this. When pleasure is out of reach, it’s waiting in plain sight to be discovered; it’s in Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa, it’s in Masters & Johnson, it is, somewhat oddly, in the Thai Ramayan, and it is absolutely and definitely in the pages of the National Geographic, a publication that has thoughtfully featured naked women in my skin tone all the way since 1896.

Mandela outside his erstwhile prison cell in 2003 in his signature floral shirt. Photo: Paul Gilham/Getty Images

While it is widely acknowledged that Mandela left the details of the presidency to his deputy, Mbeki, it isn’t impossible to imagine that some part of the cosmic force he brought to the ambassadorial role he assumed—the indefatigable smile, the fragile political handling, the constant travel, the fund-raising, the pitch-perfect symbolism of his every action, the scrupulous care given to all his millions of social interactions—came from having nowhere to go and not much to do for decades on end.

Mandela was acutely aware of the redeeming value of scarcity, and carried it all the way into his wealthy sunset. He said as much when asked how he kept himself fit. On Robben Island, he explained, he ate brown bread, porridge and lean meat, and was consigned to hard labour. A punishment—for paler prisoners got whiter bread, fatter meat and softer work; and yet, also deliverance—for the enforced restraint preserved his perfect frame all the way to the end.

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In a boxing pose in 1950. Photo: Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
In a boxing pose in 1950. Photo: Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

I know we’re supposed to be grateful to Mandela for keeping South Africa “stable"—which, in the language of racial double-speak roughly translates to “Thanks for not messing up the nice white overclass who messed with you all your life". But however standard the revenge-as-reconciliation model might be in our neighbourhood and other broken parts of the world, it is still an egregiously low qualification to apply to any human being in any part of the world. And it’s hardly like Mandela solved all of South Africa’s problems. Survey after survey shows in the period after 1994, of all the races that make the country, white people and Indians saw the biggest rises in their income, while black people and so-called “coloureds"—a collective 90% of the population—did not benefit anywhere nearly as much. Plenty of activists in South Africa think he didn’t go far enough with land redistribution, especially in comparison to Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe; they chafe at the “St. Mandela/Mad Bob" formulation that sets land reform up as something only a deranged dictator would do.

On the other side of the fence, The Wall Street Journal put forth a theory suggesting he is loved because he had the foresight to become what the American nation in general, meaning the WSJ editorial board in particular, wanted: an enthusiastic capitalist who saw the light and “transcended his party’s history of Marxism, tribalism and violence."

The cold-warriors responsible for this last assessment received a splendid smackdown from the race-warrior Rev. Al Sharpton. “I think it is a betrayal of history to act as if...as Nelson Mandela evolved, the world embraced him," he said on the American network MSNBC. “Let’s remember, the ANC (African National Congress), they were pursuing freedom," he continued. “Many of the Communist nations embraced them, this country did not. It was not like they were born Marxist; they were born people seeking to be free.... We chose sides. We chose the wrong side."

Sharpton was echoing a point Mandela himself had made in an unusually heated interview with American television anchor Ted Koppel during his first visit to the US, shortly after his release from prison in 1990. Chided for his support of Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization and Fidel Castro’s Cuba, Mandela stood his ground, defending the ANC’s right to be loyal to old friends, reminding Koppel of the many Jewish people who were integral to the liberation struggle in South Africa.

In traditional attire in 1950. Photo: Apic/Getty Images
In traditional attire in 1950. Photo: Apic/Getty Images

“When Mandela dies," the Johannesburg-based political theorist Achille Mbembe wrote in a stirring piece for Le Monde diplomatique this August, “we will be entitled to declare the 20th century is over." Mbembe was referring to the wave of anti-colonial and racial justice movements that swept the last century, which themselves emerged out of the churn of abolitionist movements in the 19th century, a long and dramatic continuum of which Mandela was our last significant link. If the future is now open, we would do well to remember just how revolutionary a third-world hero he was. In an arena where tropical leaders—the good ones at least—are seemingly required by law to be dour revolutionaries or dull technocrats, all of them carefully scrubbed of any trace of humanity, here was a man who was interested in fashion, sex, and humour, a man who had no trouble being fierce and dignified while wearing his heart on his sleeve. For the better part of a century, Mandela spun humanity right round, and now, it seems only fair that the world stop spinning for him.

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