It’s a rainy night in Johannesburg and I have just returned from wishing Madiba farewell. I was one among hundreds – undaunted by the steadily falling rain – to visit his Houghton home this evening. Against a backdrop of spontaneous African singing, all ages, stages and shades of the Rainbow Nation milled about, lighting candles and adding to the massed banks of flowers. Both in life and death, his ability to unify the people of this country remains unequalled.
We are a country in limbo. Everything has been put on hold while we come to grips with what we’ve lost, while simultaneously remembering all we gained in the precious years we had with Mandela at the helm. All thoughts of the iniquity of E-tolling have been banished for now; all indignation over Nkandla has been set aside; instead we are united by both our bereavement and the recognition of the great privilege that sets us apart from the rest of the world: We are Mandela’s people and we have a duty to carry his legacy forward.
It is not possible to turn on a tv or radio without finding coverage of some aspect of his life, his death and the procedures that are being set in place for his memorial service tomorrow, lying in state and finally his funeral next Sunday. He is quoted on every page of every newspaper, his image is everywhere and everyone who ever had the privilege of meeting him is finding an opportunity to tell their individual story.
This little blog cannot compete with world headlines, so, as an ordinary person who still clearly remembers the days when he was imprisoned on Robben Island and for whom the day of his release and his first public appearance in Cape Town, is still a vivid memory, I can write only about the gift he quite unwittingly bestowed on me in 1994.
I saw him only once in person. I was working at the St John’s College Rugby Festival when a little rumour rippled through the crowd. Madiba was coming to open the Festival. He had a grandson at the school so the rumour was a possibility. The atmosphere was charged; anticipation had us all on high alert and just when it seemed it was only that, a rumour, a few official-looking cars turned into the gates and drove across the field. A stampede ensued. Ascribing to the school of thought that one should run only if pursued, this was an unusual action for me but run I did, along with several other middle-aged mothers, hordes of schoolboys and staff. The small platform was surrounded in minutes and there he was. Calm and unruffled, he spoke briefly and then managed to shake each and every outstretched hand with infinite patience before being ushered off to another of the endless engagements he no doubt had that day. We were all struck by his height, his magnetism, his dignity and his humility and I doubt anyone there that day has ever forgotten their brief encounter with the legendary Madiba Magic.
Having often heard about his charismatic ‘presence’, I have always been grateful that I had that one opportunity to see him in person. But the impact he had on my life was far further reaching than that. Had I ever had the opportunity to talk to him, even for a minute, I would have known exactly what to say. I wanted, quite simply, to thank him for allowing me to feel proud of my country.
In the 1970ties, after completing high school in South Africa, I spent a year as a foreign exchange student in the US. It was a fascinating experience for me, not least of all because I was in Alabama, the heart of the Deep South, and although in theory it was an integrated society, in practice, other than for the fact that I was finally a student at a multi-racial school, it was a lot like home. Except for one thing. What struck me very forcefully about American teenagers was their patriotism; their unbridled and obvious pride in being American. They sang their national anthem with gusto, hands over their hearts, in every morning assembly. They flew the Stars and Stripes. In fact, many homes flew the national flag just as a matter of course. Parades seemed to be the order of the day; drum majorettes at football games proudly sported the national colours. They all just loved being American.
This was something of a revelation to me. I was not proud to be South African in the 1970ties and I was not proud of South Africa. I was ashamed of and embarrassed by our government. While it wasn’t difficult to explain the concept of apartheid in the South, it was often awkward in other parts of the country and the more I had to talk about it, the more difficult it became. And then in English class, the setwork chosen for the first semester was Alan Paton’s ‘Cry the Beloved Country’. Ironically, the book was banned in South Africa, another concept quite difficult to explain. Some years later, on a return visit, the teacher of that class approached me and apologised, saying it must have been unsettling for me to be analysing that book at that time. Fortunately though, because their lives were so straightforward in the States then, my classmates were largely unconcerned with politics of any sort and were – to my mind – enviably free of guilt or any real adult concerns at all. They focused rather on the next football game, their sororities and fraternities, the prom and their college applications.
I became good friends with a Swedish foreign exchange student while in Alabama and about three years later, went to visit her in Sweden. Unlike the folk in the Deep South, the Swedes were acutely aware and highly disapproving of the policies of the South African government of the time and I was made to feel thoroughly unwelcome at immigration. It was my first visit to Europe and for the first time I found myself hoping to be mistaken for an American or Australian. Anything but South African. Travelling through Denmark on a transit visa was a very uncomfortable experience and having Danish ancestry, I remember feeling that the Danes’ undisguised animosity was particularly unjust.
Then at last, about fourteen years later, I stood in a slow, peaceful, meandering queue to cast my first vote in a democratic South Africa before waiting, with nationwide bated breath for the results and the possible negative repercussions those results might bring. And nothing happened; nothing to be afraid of and best of all, nothing to be ashamed of. We all rose to the occasion and behaved as we believed Mandela expected us to. Not long afterwards, with a gradually dawning sense of pride, I watched the presidential inauguration at the Union Buildings and realised, at long last, that I could be proud of South Africa and proud to be South African. It was the most liberating gift ever and unless you’ve gone without it, you can probably never fully appreciate the impact it has.
Now, with the reflection that has come with Mandela’s death, we hope that our current and future leaders will have been reminded of what he stood for and what life was like for us while he was president. But no matter who our president might be now or going forward, and no matter what odd policies they might espouse, I realise that having been for just 19 years, one of Mandela’s people, I will always be proud to be South African and for that I will be forever grateful. I will never again wish, even for a moment, that I might be mistaken for an American or an Australian. Those who were here in April 1994, whether old enough to vote or not, were part of a new democracy born – miraculously – in peace. That experience set us apart and no matter where in the world we might find ourselves, I suspect that at heart we will always be South African and always very proud to be so.