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Lucas Mangope: One of South Africa's living legends

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Jane Stillwater
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Do I do my best thinking when I'm in pain? Apparently so. I woke up this morning with the sudden realization that a) my tooth was still hurting and that b) I live only half a mile away from one of the most important men in recent South African history this side of Nelson Mandela! What a chance to meet a true mover-and-shaker! Let's see if I can pull it off.

When I first got to South Africa, I saw a video about the last days of the Apartheid regime and it mentioned Lucas Mangope, the president of a so-called "homeland" for Black South African Setswanas. And according to one person I talked with when I first got here, "Mangope was head of the whole northern region of South Africa at the time when Apartheid was ending and he wanted to take his Bantustan out of Mandela's newly-proposed republic and form his own country -- but in order to make this happen, he asked for the support of the Apartheid government and this action sparked an invasion of Mangope's territory by the ultra-right-wing Afrikaner Eugene Terre'Blanche and his private army of racist thugs. Basically, they arrived in Mafeking and shot up the town. As a result, Mangope found himself in political turmoil because he had managed to anger the people of his region, who then put him under a lot of pressure to join with Mandela after all in order to protect the Bantustan from the right-wingers."

Listening to this side of the story, I made the assumption that Mangope had been merely a self-serving obstructionist who had foolishly stood in front of the Mack truck of history and had been forced to jump to the side of the road as Mandela swept to victory, end of story.

But now that I'm learning more about Lucas Mangope, I'm realizing what a great man he actually was; heroically holding his Bantustan together against all odds all throughout the Apartheid era.

The fnext story I heard about Mangope I sort of stumbled across by accident. I'd been asking around for information about sangomas – also known as traditional healers, also known as witch doctors (I should find one and see if he or she can do anything about relieving my toothache!) and apparently one of a sangoma's jobs was to conduct initiation ceremonies.

"The sangomas used to hold initiation ceremonies for the boys in this village," one of the local residents told me, "and when boys turned 16, they would take them up into the hills for secret ceremonies that included circumcision. Sometimes, however, the newly-initiated boys would come home singing, go to one of the initiated boys' homes and drop his clothing off on his doorstep. And that was how the boy's parents would find out that their son was dead and that they would never see him again, not even his body."

"But how did the boy die?" I asked.

"Nobody knows. It's all very secret. And no one would dare say anything for fear of retaliation. Probably boys died from cuts and wounds. But there are no initiations held in this village any more. Because they caused so many deaths, Lucas Mangope put a stop to them."

Here's another rumor I heard about Mangope: Back in the day of the Bantustans, Black South Africans had no access to formal education, which meant that almost no one had a degree in nursing or engineering or even knew much about farming. Plus almost no one could afford to go to university to get a degree and even if they could come up with the money, the Apartheid government wouldn't let them go there anyway. So Mangope knew that there was a big problem here but he got around it by setting up an apprenticeship system, educating people on the job. He also set up several teachers' colleges.

Someone else told me a story about Mangope's's influence in building up the city of Mafeking. During the Boer War in the nineteenth century, Mafeking was famous for a big battle there between the Afrikaners and the Brits. Then everyone forgot about Mafeking until Shirley Temple made it famous again when she starred in a movie about a poor little rich girl whose father had been injured during the siege of Mafeking, forcing poor sweet little Shirley to live in a freezing cold attic because everyone thought that her father was dead. But after that, Mafeking sank back into the armpit of history once again.

Today, however, Mafeking is a bustling city and the capital of the North West province. "Lucas Mangope did that. Back in the Apartheid days, he turned Mafeking around -- from being just another backwater town known only for having been mentioned in a Shirley Temple movie and into a thriving capital." Humm.... And this man lives right down the road from me? I started to ask around about the chances of me getting an interview with him.

"Right now, Mr. Mangope is very sick," I was told. Oh, okay. But when he gets better, I'd love to talk with him – one of South Africa's living legends. But in the meantime, I should actually sit down and do some research on the man. I hate research. But thank goodness for Google.

According to one report I found on Google, Mangope was born in 1923 in the Transvaal. He grew up there, went to the Diocesan Teachers' Training College near Pietersburg and became a secondary school teacher. Then, in 1959, he also became the chief of his village. And went into politics. And the rest is history. From what I can gather after reading this article on Google, the Apartheid government appointed him as the head of the Bophuthatswana Bantustan in 1972 because Mangope went along with their policy of separating the races. "Sure," he told the Apartheid guys, "we'll be separate from the whites. But we had darn well better be 'Separate But Equal' too!" -- or words to that effect – and then he hit the Apartheid guys up for big bucks. And as a result, the Setswana Bantustan under his governance survived the Apartheid era in much better shape than the rest of the Bantustans and townships of the time.

Another report stated that Mangope allowed a big-time developer to capitalize on the National Party's stern anti-gambling by building a Las-Vegas type area in Bophutswana, which Frommer's Guide describes as "the hodgepodge of inferior land into which the Tswana were forced. As an 'independent' state, headed by the corrupt Lucas Mangope, Bophutswana was literally a law unto itself, and millions began to swarm to 'Sin City'". I can't say if Mangope was corrupt or not but apparently he put the income from Sun City to very good use.

Okay. Now I'm really intrigued. How can I go about meeting this man? I once again asked around. "He's not really sick," someone else told me. "He just got back from a weekend in Jo'burg so he can't be all that bad off. It's just that he is very wary of granting interviews to anyone. There has been a lot of offensive stuff written about him in the press over the years and he's not really willing to put himself in the position of being hurt again." Can't fault him for that. But still. I would love to chat with the man. What to do?

"You want to talk with Mangope?" another man asked. "That's easy. He goes to church every Sunday. Catch up with him there." Great! I've got a plan. So I actually did up my hair and put on a skirt and trundled off to services last Sunday. And guess what? The church doors were locked! Good grief! Did they find out that I was coming and barricade the place? Or what?

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Stillwater is a freelance writer who hates injustice and corruption in any form but especially injustice and corruption paid for by American taxpayers. She has recently published a book entitled, "Bring Your Own Flak Jacket: Helpful Tips For Touring (more...)
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