As the world’s leaders gather for the memorial service at the FNB Stadium in Soweto, I decided to share some thoughts on the death of Nelson Mandela: Madiba to me and my fellow South Africans.
The media have made much of his status as Father of our Nation and it is with that sense of loss that I remember him: his grin, his Madiba shuffle, his raised fist that arrived in protest but will be remembered as a victorious salute, his gentleness that masked a quiet authority. Above all it is the loss of his fierce commitment to a peaceful future that South Africa mourns.
There are many who have caught his passion for forgiveness and finding a new way, who will fan the flame of that legacy – people like my brother who has spent the last few days queuing for hours just to sign the ‘book of condolences’ at the Union Buildings in Pretoria (our parliament) and went on to join the crowds of people gathered at Madiba’s house in Johannesburg to lay some flowers with the thousands of others; rivalling Princess Diana’s collection. My brother speaks about the future of SA with hope, not blindly ignoring the problems and challenges, but with the same unrelenting certainty that was demonstrated by Madiba. It is this legacy of hope and a determined commitment for the Rainbow Nation that Madiba leaves behind him.
Yes, he deciding as a young man that an armed struggle was the only way to convince the Nationalists that their racist policies were wrong. He was even at risk of being called a shrewd operator – we could view his actions as President through cynical eyes (as many of my peer group did) – but the memory that chokes me up most these past few days is the image of Madiba in a Springbok rugby jersey holding the World Cup trophy aloft in 1995. It is incredibly hard to stress how much of an impact that simple choice of clothing had on our young and fearful nation. The sight of a black president in a Springbok Jersey calmed many fearful minds, healed much hurt and offered us all a different way of seeing each other in a country defined by its divisions.
The depth of feeling evident in my friends and family back in SA today betrays the vast difference that this one man has made.
I remember my friends at primary school quoting their parents’ outrage at the supposed leniency shown to Mandela towards the end of his time in prison – “he’s not even in a cell anymore! He is in a house with a TV and a swimming pool!!” I am incredibly grateful to my parents who somehow managed to hold back the tide of racist propaganda that surrounded my brother and I, to enable us to stand proud and excited when Mandela was released a year or so later. None of my peer group from primary school share those views of Madiba anymore – such was the effect of his forgiveness and the impact of his personality. All of my peers have instead a story about how they met him once, or they know someone who met him once – such was the status that this man held. (The closest I get is my brother’s chance meeting of Madiba at a theatre and my parents invite to dinner with FW de Klerk…)
Madiba was the father of our nation. That title hasn’t been disputed by a single South African voice – a fact that says much about how far SA has come.
I join my fellow Safricans in a tearful celebration of this one life that touched so many lives.
The lessons of forgiveness, of humility, of fierce determination to see the wrongs of the world made right will be carried on through the generations as the stories of this great man become stuff of legend.
Hamba kahle, Tata – go well, Father.
Image by Dov Fedler – a view of Robben Island