I felt profoundly saddened, in a way that I’ve never felt for the passing of a public figure before. Thoughts of bed and hot water bottles were cast aside. Standing by the kettle, I no longer felt the stinging cold of the kitchen floor on my bare feet; my mind was elsewhere.I was suddenly in Soweto standing in front of the house he and Winnie lived in before he went to prison, as a fresh faced, idealistic 24 yr old whilst travelling around Southern Africa in 1995 (check out that hair – hilarious!).
Next, I was sitting on the London Underground reading his autobiography, the Long Walk to Freedom, as I commuted to work as a secretarial temp to raise the cash for said trip (a must read if you want to know about the Struggle); then standing under the merciless sun on Robben Island staring at the prison he was held in for 27 years, a visit that lasted all of about 27 minutes. The view of Table Mountain was breathtaking, but I realised he would have rarely even seen it; and lastly, I was in Brixton community hall in 1996 going mental with hundreds of others when he appeared on the balcony during his first visit to the UK after he was released from prison. And yes, I bought the t-shirt. I still have it.
I fell in love with South Africa when I visited. Aside from its stunning beauty and incredible varied landscape, its people, superb music, its art and its dance (Africans from other countries tell me South Africans are the best dancers) I couldn’t get over the moral and intellectual integrity of the newly returning exiles at that time. Flocking back from Sweden, America, Australia, you name it, everywhere. The hope was intoxicating and tangible. Sadly, it’s been tainted by corruption, tribalism and crime.
The end of an era. The loss of a generation’s hero. The passing of a dying breed all went through my mind as I stood there staring at my fluffy hot water bottle, my cold feet suddenly bemoaning the lack of slippers.
It sounds so corny, so trite, yet it’s true so it must be said.
Yes, of course he was no perfect human being – read his book or talk to the critics of his Presidency of South Africa and you’ll realise how. And of course, there were many, many courageous, humble, self-less men and women who were part of the ‘team’ that brought South Africa it’s freedom – Desmond Tutu, Steve Biko, Walter Sisulu, Ahmed Kathadra to name but a few. But what has marked him out was his character: his breath-taking magnanimity and humility mixed with political shrewdness. A rare alloy that only the likes of Aung San Suu Kyi and the Dalai Lama possess.
Interestingly, Mandela didn’t seem to grasp that himself. When David Dimbleby interviewed him in 2002 for a BBC programme on his life, he asked him what lessons he would like to be drawn from his life in the future, when people study him. He replied that he would not like it to be based on his personal character or achievements as his achievements, “if any”, were only achieved collectively. True, fighting apartheid, one of the greatest achievements of the 20th century, was a massive collective effort. But it was his character that made him stand out.
And so I would have to disagree with you, Mandela (at risk of all of you who know me hooting with laughter!)
It seems that everyone who met him felt blessed by him, felt his generosity of spirit. A bit like Princess Diana, in some ways (although I wouldn’t place her on the same grid as Mandela).
But we’re not, of course, mourning the loss of a personality. No, we’re mourning the loss of a person who has inspired so many to work for their dreams, for justice, for whatever they deem to be right. With dignity. With grace. That’s what is so stunning about the man. This is the loss of a hero in the real sense of the word.
And we’re mourning the loss of a dying breed of men and women who are no strangers to sacrifice and hardship, who show dignity in the face of political and, lets face it, media brutality, and whose currency is hard work and bravery rather than credit cards.
I know there are countless others out there who feel the same. But I had to write something about this extraordinary figurehead of an extraordinary movement whose lifetime we’ve had the incredible privilege to share.
RIP Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela 1918-2013.