Some thoughts after the death of Nelson Mandela

I was born the year before the Rivonia Trial and by the time I was taking my first steps and being toilet trained, Mandela had started his twenty six year stretch as a political prisoner on Robben Island. I had no idea who he was while I was growing up. The first time I heard about him, I was already a teenager. It was 1976 Soweto was burning and I had my first decent history teacher who one day pointed out of the window to where a white man was sitting eating his sandwiches and drinking tea out of a flask, his big red  face shielded from the sun by an umbrella. Around him were three black men, stripped to the waist, sweating and digging a hole deep enough that they could easily have stood up in it. That, my history teacher said, is a snapshot of South Africa. That, she said, fixing us with her serious stare, is what is wrong with this country.
 It was as though she had switched on a light. I suddenly noticed things. I saw how we didn’t have any black friends, and how there were no black kids at my school. I saw that at home we had a boy’s room at the bottom of the garden and how the boy, a black man who was as old as my father, ate from a special chipped plate and mug that my mother kept under the sink. The boy, had All Gold mixed berry jam and peanut butter on white bread. We had Black Cat peanut butter and Koo Jam on whole-wheat.  The only black people I knew were servants. The boy’s name was Harry, which was clearly not his real name, just a name chosen because it was easy for whiteys to say. One night I heard the police banging on the side gate, and my father, in his dressing gown speaking to them in Afrikaans, and the words waar’s sy pas? where is his pass? said over and over. Harry disappeared for two weeks, my father spent some hours in a queue at the Pass Office and then Harry was back, a bit thinner and quieter, but life closed over the gap and went on as normal.

I saw all of this, and this, up until then, had been normal. In 1976, I suddenly realised, this was not the way things ought to be. It was around this time that I heard Mandela’s name for the first time. At home, and on the SABC, he was a Terrorist. According to my history teacher, he was a Freedom Fighter. There were others too, Oliver Tambo, Albie Sachs, Ruth First, Walter Sisulu. These people agreed with my history teacher, and now I too understood, that normal in South Africa was an unjust system that needed to be challenged. I had never even seen a picture of Mandela after his arrest- pictures of were banned. There were some grainy black and white images doing the rounds of him when he was a boxer, his face furrowed, fists raised; the young pugilist. When he was released in 1990, most of the young people of my generation had never seen his face and it was a surprise! Here he was, the tall stately gentleman with serious eyes and a kindly smile. So this was Mandela, the Terrorist, The Freedom fighter, Madiba, the man who now had the responsibility of leading us into the New South Africa. He was to be the architect of the New Constitution, a truly revolutionary document if it were to be followed in spirit and to the letter.

Mandela was never a saint. In the surge of public grief after his death many things will be said as the hagiography begins. But he was someone who was an exceptional human being in difficult circumstances. He had a vision that he pursued to the end, and it cost him most of his middle age years in jail, and much of his family life. He alienated many with his insistence on negotiation and reconciliation. However, for me, as a South African, his unwavering commitment to social justice has been a fine example of how to act in the world, even if I often fall short of the ideal.

Sometimes I despair at the stories coming out of Africa, and how easy it is for us Africans to cluck and shake our heads like the rest of the world, and say, Eesh, Africa, what a mess. But Mandela didn’t believe that. He believed that Africa had a future, that it was a continent that could work together and solve its own differences. He didn’t believe in blaming Britain or the West for all of Africa’s problems. Colonialism had a left a legacy for sure, but we, Africans together, could deal with that.

In his way, always leading by example, Mandela stepped back after five years in power and handed the mantle to Mbeki, taking on the role of elder, guide, father, Tata. What a great legacy this would be for African nations if they could at least follow him in this one principle: to share power, to step down when their time has come. To listen to the will of the people.
Hambe kahle Madiba
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