An old friend and colleague from South Africa sent me a link, this morning, to a commemorative page put out by the Nelson Mandela Foundation, where she had worked for a time. I wrote back to say how much I wished I could be there, to share in the tears and laughter and the celebration.
For it is no fun shedding tears alone, as I have been doing, here in Toronto, since last night’s announcement; no fun standing by myself in the kitchen, far from home, fist raised in the struggle salute, as a snippet of the National Anthem – Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika, Lord Bless Africa – is played on CBC radio. You need fellow South Africans to laugh and cry with, to share stories, emotions, thoughts, connections and recollections. It is a moment of singular solidarity, and you need to be on South African soil, to experience it – to be part of it.
Along with tens of thousands of ordinary South Africans, black and white, English and Afrikaans, of every language and colour – you will understand why, as a white South African of a particular age and generation, I need to spell this out – I was in the square in front of City Hall in Cape Town, with my wife and my three small children, on the day that Nelson Mandela was released from Victor Verster Prison. We waited for hours in the hot sun, as the crowd grew, and grew increasingly restive, until the press of people and the children’s exhaustion drove us home before the almost mythical figure’s arrival. In the event we probably had a better view, on television that evening, than we would have had down in that swarming square: and who will ever forget that moment when the tall, austere, grey-haired figure stepped out onto the balcony, and spoke in public for the first time in 27 years, to the people (I have a large, limited edition, hand-tinted photo of that moment, waiting for me in storage: it hung, back home, in our living room)?
Barely a week before, I had huddled with friends and colleagues around the TV at the Observatory offices of the anti-apartheid NGO I had been working at, since 1985 – through two States of Emergency, the education crisis, the campaign to make the townships ungovernable, the birth of the United Democratic Front, the rise of the black trade unions – and listened in disbelief, in wild joy and incredulity, as first Nelson Mandela and the ANC, and then the PAC and the South African Communist Party and all the other organisations and liberation heroes – were unbanned, set free, and the walls of apartheid, like the walls of Jericho, began crumbling right there, in front of our eyes.
I had always known apartheid would not last – it would, in the end, be defeated, swept from the crematorium, scattered like dust, like ashes, washed out of our soil by the wind and the rain and the tears of the generations. But how it would end, and when, I did not know – who could know, indeed? Yet there, on that day, on that balcony downtown at City Hall, was the voice and the man – the physical embodiment – of apartheid’s failure, and freedom’s triumph.
I wept then, as I weep now: not just for the man, but for what he represents. For all of us.
Four years later I was in State College, Pennsylvania, again watching on TV, this time as Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as South Africa’s first democratically elected President. I listened to his words, of course, and absorbed what I could of the scene, laid out like a tableaux on the grand steps of the Union Buildings – the sun blazing overhead in a blue sky, the crowds massed on the green lawns below, the world’s dignitaries, come to bear witness to an historic moment. But what moved me the most, as a white South African, was the sight of the white Afrikaner generals, in their military uniforms, paying allegiance to their black leader; that, and the airforce fly-past, the planes dipping their wings in salute to Mandela, reduced me to tears.
Not so long ago, these same generals were waging war in Namibia and Angola, ordering troops into our townships; these planes were bombing ‘our’ enemies.
Roll forward almost twenty years, and here I am in Toronto, listening to the radio, scouring the internet, watching on TV – moved to the core of my being, by Mandela’s passing. It is not just a death, it is the end of an age, of an era: it is a tragic reminder of so much suffering, such a monstrous burden of injustice and oppression; a reminder of lives lost and wasted; a reminder, too, of courage, nobility, and determination. It is a reminder of all we, as individuals and as a nation, have fought for, and hoped for – of how far short we have fallen, of what we need to be and could be; of how much further we have to go, and must go.
I like the fact that Mandela was not perfect – I prefer Mandela the man, flawed, obstinate, steely, compassionate – to Mandela the icon. I resist the mythologizing, both of the man, and his Party – the ANC, which seeks to claim the sole mantle of liberation, yet has become instead a cloak for so much sleaze and corruption – and of The Struggle. Like all struggles, the South African struggle for liberation was shot through with contradiction and ambiguity, with crimes on all sides, cowardice and betrayal riding side by side with courage and conviction. For the system of oppression to work, there must be collaborators as well as resisters; for peace and democracy to prevail, there must compromise, as well as principle. In the end what remains is the great moral principle, of freedom and democracy. But that principle, that goal, we have learned, rests upon a far messier reality.
We do not all become good, by fighting for the good; we do not all become free, by fighting for freedom. All the more reason, to continue the struggle.
Farewell, Madiba. We thank you. We honour you.