I wish I could call this a tribute, but I don’t think I have the words to do this great man justice. Instead, I’ll share my thoughts today (random as they may be) and hope they add up to something worth reading.
See I’m South African, born at the tail-end of the Apartheid regime. In fact, the reason why my birthday is on December 28 is that my mom had me born by c-section so my dad could see me before being posted to border patrol.
Those were war years. I wasn’t even two when he was released. Oddly though, I remember seeing on the t.v. as this man left prison. I noted how everyone on t.v. was happy to see him free, but no one in my family was. So I asked what was going on and the answer I got was something like: “My child, it’s the end of our nation.”
Of course, it meant nothing to me then, because I was too small to understand what a country was. But I remembered thinking he had a nice smile, so I noticed when he was on t.v.
Every time he came on, my family (as I now imagine many Afrikaans families did) greeted his words with distrust. See, that war had set white people in general and the Afrikaners in particular on opposite ends of conflict. Madiba and his contemporaries were fighting for freedom. We… I honestly am very careful to say what we fought for. It’s not really discussed.
The sense I have (and I could be wrong) is that the government was fighting for continued suppression, since complete freedom for all races would (and did) mean loss of power. But the white people on the ground level were fighting for survival.
Why this is is another history lesson in itself. But in short, our ancestors had fought for a place in Africa. If we’d failed, we would have been annihilated. In fact, some of us did fail through history, and most of those did die. It was a fact so long-standing that no white person could imagine that the war could end peacefully for us unless we won.
The day Nelson Mandela was released, we’d lost for all intents and purposes.
People expected “The Night of the Long Knives”, like another Kristallnacht. We’d suppressed and the government had institutionalized so many wrongs that almost all white South Africans expected bloody reprisals, and for South Africa to be turned into something similar to the rest of Africa.
What we didn’t hold reckoning with was that Nelson Mandela was a much better man than any of us had thought. Instead of revenge, he preached reunification. Instead of reprisals, he preached unity. And that coming from someone who’d been sent to jail for fighting for something that was, in retrospect, the right thing.
He won our trust, starting with that day he walked out onto the rugby field before the World Cup Finals in 1995, wearing a beloved Springbok jersey.
And in many ways, he’d steered this country free of disaster so that we could recover and move on. “Us” became something inclusive, something the whole country could belong to.
For that, I am immensely thankful.
Madiba, your strength, forgiving nature and love for humanity inspired more than just a nation. It changed the world. Rest now, Tata Madiba. Your life was and will be a standard the rest of us should and will try to emulate. You deserve it more than anyone else I know of.