When Nelson Mandela was released from prison in February 1990, I was 17 years old. I had thankfully got over my Christian National Education indoctrination and started thinking for myself, otherwise I (like many of my peers) might have believed that there was a reason to be afraid. I wasn’t afraid. I had done some reading, had bought a “Bill of Rights” T-shirt at the old flea market in Newtown, and I had a sense of what was really right and true. I was glad change was coming to my country. As I watched the TV screen from my Jo’burg home, I wished that I was there, in Cape Town outside the Victor Verster Prison, waiting with the crowds to be joined in the company of this great man. I was elated. Here was the man who had fought the oppression of his people, and had quoted at his trial, “I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for, and to see realised. But my Lord, if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” This man had the potential to incite the most terrible revenge attack on his oppressors; instead he chose peace.
I was lucky enough to be a student at Wits University the following year when Mr Mandela came to address the students. I realised that I was in the presence of greatness. I felt in awe. And that is pretty much how I have felt every time I have heard this man speak or even just see his image.
In fact, I’m often reduced to tears when I see the footage of many of Mandela’s speeches – particularly his inauguration speech in May 1994. I cried when I saw him pass by in a car (windows blackened!) at my workplace and I cried when I drove past him exiting a building in Cape Town. I cry when I see the image of him holding up the Rugby World Cup, and the video footage of that iconic figure holding Winnie Mandela’s hand, African power salute with the other as they walked out of the Victor Verster prison that day, is the end of me. I admit to being a cry baby, but these are all tears of gratitude. Mandela really eased our transition from Apartheid to Democracy in a most peaceful manner. We owe him so much.
But now we’ve reached the end of his life. I feel so sad. I’ve felt sad since I heard he was taken to hospital 20 days ago, and sadder still every time there is an update about his worsening condition. I have felt incredibly angry at the rumour mongering and speculation that has followed, both in the press and amongst ordinary citizens. I can’t stand the sensationalisation of what really should be a dignified, private family affair. The racist, ignorant tweets of Nick Griffin of Britain’s BNP infuriated me so much I wanted to scream and say rude things about him. But I didn’t think Mandela would approve of such behaviour. And he’s a better recipient of my energy than Nick Griffin.
I am well aware that Madiba is an important global figure – a former president and one of the 25 most influential people on the planet in the last century. But I respect Mandela’s request a few years ago, when he retired officially from public office, that he’s given 67 years of his life to our country, and now is the time for us to let him rest. The best way to honour his contribution to peace in our land is to offer service to the people of our land. Every 18th July, on Mandela Day, my children and I gather up as many friends as we can and do a clean up in our area – picking up litter in the local park or making and distributing sandwiches to the homeless people who populate the pavements of Melville.
We, the public, do not need to know who is coming to and going from the hospital – these sorts of details in the media have just lead to the most awful speculation. I snapped angrily at a know-it-all today who told me that she knows somebody who knows somebody who works at the hospital where Madiba is being treated, and she knows for a fact that he has been dead since Tuesday. I told her off with surprising calm and thought of so many cutting come-backs on my way home when I heard Makiziwe Mandela, Madiba’s eldest daughter, interviewed and saying that her father wasn’t in great shape, but he was still responding to touch and trying to open his eyes. Ha! I thought. And later still, a statement from the presidency to say that Mandela’s health had improved slightly.
Now, I’m a great fan of conspiracy theories, but I cannot entertain the thought that they’re keeping Mandela alive until Obama’s visit is over, or until Obama has visited him, or until his birthday next month, or until the elections next year, or that they’ve actually been keeping him alive for two years for political reasons. I agree with Makiziwe when she says that these stories are crass. It is so totally unnecessary. I’m tired of people finding their validation in being the first to know (and never admitting when they were wrong). I’m tired of the fear mongering and the rumours.
I want us all to calm it down. I don’t pray for Madiba to recover – I think that is wishful thinking and we have to admit that the man is 94 years old and he hasn’t been well. I want to pay last respects to the man who walked out of prison (for committing crimes against the Apartheid state – i.e. fighting for freedom for all) and stated, “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.” He taught us that if we were going to succeed in any way as a country, we had to put the past behind us and embrace each other. He called for peace and taught South Africans how to love each other. The man behind those noble sentiments deserves to rest in his end days, without prying eyes and speculation.
I stopped by the Mandela home in Houghton with my daughters this afternoon to show my children where the great man lived, and to leave some flowers and love outside. I was touched by the messages and flowers. The media were hovering at a respectful distance (apparently moved to the end of the block by the metro police earlier) and taking the occasional picture or footage of well wishers. But generally the mood there was respectful and dignified. This is as it should be. Tonight there are night vigils at the hospital in Pretoria and in Vilikazi Street, Soweto where Mandela has a house, where hundreds of well wishers are singing praise songs and lighting candles. I’m not as annoyed as some people are that ANC members are wearing ANC T-shirts at these venues while they show their support for Madiba. He is, after all, a fundamental member of the ANC, which has always been a kind of cultural and spiritual home for Mandela. I’ve been remarkably impressed by the way the Presidency has managed all the news around Mandela’s health.
It is hard to let go of an icon, a noble man, a Nobel man, a lover of music and dancing, a tata with a wicked sense of humour, a freedom fighter, a dignified statesman, the father of our young democracy. But it’s also right to let him go. He has lived a full life, and has changed the world, particularly South Africa. I am honoured to have lived at the same time as Nelson Mandela. I am honoured to have shared a city with such a mensch. I wish him well on his journey and I send him with Peace, Love, Light and Dignity. Thank you, Tata Mandela.
(These photographs are not my own. I borrowed some from a google images search, and the others were from my friend Gillian Gouw’s cellphone outside the Mandela home in Houghton today. Thanks Gill!)