A sad farewell
June 12, 2013 § 9 Comments
I like to tell my family that I met Nelson Mandela once, and he said he was pleased to see me. And while that’s not untrue, it’s not the whole truth. Yes, he shook my hand, and said he was pleased to see me, but he did the same for all the other people who attended the launch of the Illustrated Long Walk to Freedom. I still have my copy and I cherish the tears in the loose cover, gained in the scuffle to touch the edge of his cloak.
And now, all these years later, he lies, frail, and probably at death’s door while the world waits to see if this will be the final hospital visit he makes.
There’s a lot been said about him out there in the past while, some of it negative, much of it laced with sadness at what is almost the end of a great life here on earth.
And while I know, intellectually, that he’s old and frail and probably more than ready to go, I confess my heart is heavy, because for me he is the quintessential symbol of the miracle that South Africa is, despite all her many flaws.
I grew up in a typical middle-class white household in the ‘70s and ‘80s. I was well-versed in the ways of apartheid and remember all its symbols well – the battered enamel crockery and mismatched cutlery that lived in the cupboard under the sink for the exclusive use of the ‘girl’ and the ‘garden boy’. The outside toilet that was slightly dark and a bit cold. And the three gentle, gracious women who helped my mother to raise me.
There was Susan, who carried me on her back while she cleaned the house, always singing as she worked. Then came Grace, who doted on the three of us as often as she admonished us sternly for any bad manners or behaviour. We worshipped her. And finally, there was Winifred, who clucked around us and became fairly messianic about high blood pressure and high cholesterol after she was diagnosed with both.
I’m ashamed to say I don’t know their real names, only the school names they were given to make life ‘easier’ for we whites who were too lazy, too superior to learn to say Lindiwe or Nokuthula or Nozibele.
I don’t recall the ideologies of apartheid being taught to me in some concerted way. Instead they were implicit in the way we lived. It seemed normal, natural back then, as much as it shames and horrifies me today. (And please don’t vilify my parents – I think the propaganda we whites were fed was far more systematic and all-pervasive than even we realised at the time.)
At the same time, however, my mother, my sister and I were very involved in Girl Guides, which was a completely non-racial organisation. I spent many weekends on very happy camps with girls of every hue and culture from all over South Africa where we were completely integrated. And I can remember thinking that they really weren’t so different from me at all, but not quite making the connection I needed to make.
When I arrived at Rhodes University in 1987 as a sheltered, idealistic 17-year-old, it was under strict instructions from my parents: get involved in politics, and your studies are over. I was always a compliant kind of person, so I complied. I honestly had never heard of Nelson Mandela or Oliver Tambo or Walter Sisulu or Steve Biko.
But while I might not have been marching or protesting on campus, I was learning, even if the lessons came much later. I didn’t think of myself as racist, but in retrospect, there’s no doubt I was. I recall a poem I wrote in my first year that fills me with shame because it was so ignorant. Suffice to say it showed just how deeply ingrained my racism was. By the time I left four years later, thankfully, I had come to my senses.
And the then the event I never thought I would witness in my lifetime happened. Nelson Mandela was released from prison and after all the negotiations of CODESA and everything that went with it, apartheid was dismantled, at least in theory. And I honestly and truly believe now, as I did then, that it was a miracle.
I’m not naïve enough to think Mr Mandela wrought all of that alone, nor that what we have ended up with is perfect in any way. The concept of a Rainbow Nation has come under fire, but I still like the idea that we might achieve that someday. Perhaps I’m idealistic, but I can hope. The birth pangs of our new country continue, often painfully, and I suspect they will continue for some time to come. We are not yet fully born.
But Mr Mandela – in all his imperfections – through all of the ups and downs of ushering in this new era, certainly became the symbol of what could be achieved through forgiveness and the willingness to talk to each other. Criticise him all you like, but he was a great statesman and a true mensch, who made someone like me feel that I was welcome in the land of my birth, in a country I love fiercely for all of her foibles.
Did he ‘sell-out’ to accommodate white fears? I don’t know – I’m not politically astute enough to judge that objectively. But I do know that he has always seemed to carry himself with dignity, humility, kindness and humour.
I do think he is what we needed, exactly when we needed it. And I also think, as with anyone who’s at death’s door, that we should try to remember the good they have done. Because none of us is perfect, and I’m not sure I would have behaved as he did if you threw me into prison for 27 years for no good reason.
And so, Mr Mandela, I just wanted to say thank you. I, for one, am deeply grateful to you and all of those who helped you to banish apartheid from the statute books. I know we still have a long way to go in practical terms; apartheid is still with us in so many ways. I hope we will continue your legacy and build the great nation we have the potential to be.
And I hope you know just how very pleased I was on that day, both to see you, and to shake your hand. Enkosi kakhulu. Hamba kakuhle.