HAVING been raised in a country to the north that no longer exists, I grew up unaware of Nelson Mandela, the man or the phenomenon.
That changed when I came to university in this country in 1978. It didn’t take long for me to play catch-up. In fact, it was unavoidable, since the journalism faculty was the most politicised on campus. Those were thrilling but scary days of protest against forced removals, banning, detentions and other apartheid events that are as unknown to young people today as Madiba was to me when I first arrived.
North Americans have two defining watershed dates about which they ask that iconic question: “Where were you when … ?”
For them it’s about when JFK was shot and the Twin Towers came down. For me, the question is: “Where were you when Mandela was released from Victor Verster?” Other questions are “… when the ANC was unbanned?” or “… during the first election?”, but the Mandela question is the pivot, just as he is.
Madiba has been a constant presence, a symbol not only of this nation’s struggles, but also of mine. As one of the privileged possessors of the earth, how do I live out a commitment to the underprivileged and dispossessed? Look at Mandela. What does it mean to live an authentic life? Look at Mandela. How do I act with conscience? Look at Mandela. If he could do it, so can I, and so can we. No wonder he has been compared to Jesus Christ, he is certainly as well known. Madiba has been a constant presence even in my travels to far-off places. Few people know anything about this country, but they know about Nelson Mandela. “Sous Africa? Aaah, Nelson Mandela, yes?” Yes indeed. His name has been a point of contact, a touchstone of fellow humanity in places as diverse as Egypt, China and Australia.
I cannot imagine this country without Madiba. He symbolises all the conflicts, struggles, hopes, dreams and personal heartaches of this nation, corporate and individual.
He represents not only all that is best about us and in us, but also all our natural shortcomings. Bereft, what am I going to do without him? What are we going to do without him?