Remembering Nelson Mandela
It is so incongruous that it seems unreal, yet perhaps this is the miracle, this quiet moment of reflection in the business of the peaceful everyday that impacts upon us all.
I am five years old and my parents are shouting and dad has tears running down his face, the first time I have seen him cry - come, come and watch the TV! (this is unusual because normally we're not allowed, our parents tell us it is full of propaganda, a word we don't yet understand). I and my twin brother rush into the room and we see a man raise his fist in the air and we are told that this is the man who will heal our country, give us a future that is free of prison and exile and fear. It is an early, visceral memory.
It is the beginning of the 90s and I begin school, and it is a liberal school that has always been multiracial, but still majority white, and the police come and make us practice bomb drills and our parents are furious but still a little on edge. Even today I know exactly what position to assume if I am gunned when in a bus, and I remember the shapes of plastic model landmines and how many seconds a grenade will take to explode - how easy it is to teach children to be afraid.
Many families are packing their lives and moving to New Zealand, and for nearly two decades it will not occur to me that anyone other than racist white people would choose to live in that gentle country that today I so admire. I wish to be black, because I can already see what it means to have this skin in this place, and spend hours fantasizing about the patterns I would braid in my hair if only it would stay, instead of slipping out immediately, stubbornly downwards.
And then it election day and there is weeping and dancing and my father and my grandfather explain the holocaust that brought Oupa here, explain what it meant to come to a country that was at war with itself, explain what it meant to have love limited in every way whether in Germany or in South Africa, and everybody, everybody, is going to vote and I think with pride that one day I will do this too.
For Christmas I am given the abridged edition of Long Walk to Freedom and I read it and read it and read it again, and then I visit Oupa and make my way through his shelf of once-banned literature (no more abridged editions, please!) and read everything I can find on the holocaust and on apartheid. Biko affirms my hunch that black is indeed most beautiful. By the age of 10 I have cried myself to sleep on countless nights at the horror of humanity, and I say to my parents I want nothing to do with death - I will become a vegetarian.
At 19, I vote, and I am filled with pride.
At 23 I vote again, this time anxiously - who to choose is not so clear, I spend a sleepless night raging between loyalty and fury. The idealism and pragmatism of my age come together and I wish for the moral clarity of childhood. By now I work with refugees and want an open country, a country that gives as much as it had to take to keep the struggle going, that reaches out as much now as it did then, but this time to bring in, not to get out, to change visibly, not invisibly, to lead with love.
At 24 I leave the country to further my studies, and almost immediately the bite of being away begins. I miss home constantly, but I comfort myself that there is much of this to one day bring back. Twelve countries later I am living in Angola, discussing the possibility of lecturing at the University of Katyavala Bwila in Benguela - city with the name of the ocean current that defined my childhood, a current that connects the world at a different angle to the anglophone dream of railways, but no less profoundly. In a quiet moment of an ordinary day I turn on the staff computer and realize the world has changed. Not so dramatically for me - this man is no less present today than yesterday - but the symbols have shifted irrevocably and I have to reorientate my world.
Tears roll unexpectedly down my cheeks and my Angolan and Cuban colleagues are startled, sad. We sit under a photograph of Eduardo Dos Santos in a monumental frame and we speak a little about how this man, Mandela, represented everything we hope and dream and sometimes cannot attain, the best in us all, the worst overcome. This is not how I imagined the end of his time, far away from home in a language I have come to recently, inflected with Cuban Spanish, but everybody is affected and speaking is important. Students hug me, colleagues send messages, people are patient with me while I stare at screens and say 'well no, I didn't know him, but it's still hard, I feel the sadness of the country' and they hug me again and say 'we understand'.
It is hard to be far away from home today, this week, yet whatever light has been released into the world, it reaches me here, it reaches us all, and I am grateful and comforted and never more proud whilst at the same time, never more aching.
In a gleaming new supermarket in a country once wracked by unthinkable violence, a tribute has been set up to Mandela, and I watch from a distance the steady stream of people who pause in their shopping, page through books, speak to one another, hug each other. It is so incongruous that it seems unreal, yet perhaps this is the miracle, this quiet moment of reflection in the business of the peaceful everyday that impacts upon us all. A supermarket built after decades of war, the freedom to buy and sell and then to pause in peace, to read, to reflect - to offer back something.
For all of this I am thankful, inspired in every interaction with every person. In becoming larger-than-life, despite the weight it put upon the shoulders of a mortal, so clearly human man, the possibilities to recognize and care for one another have been exponentially expanded, in this case, such that it envelops us all, in care for one another, in love.