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.
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
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
And surface scraped clean
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.