Mum, who is that man on TV?
It’s Nelson Mandela.
Why is everyone making such a fuss? What does it mean?
Oh, just that black people can now go to the same beaches as us.
I was 10 years old, and this conversation was taking place in our living room near Cape Town, where Nelson Mandela was taking his first steps as a free man after more than 27 years of incarceration. It was the first time in my life that I’d heard his name.
Up to this point the history lessons we were taught in my Afrikaans state school omitted references to apartheid, the struggle or even general history that, according to my teachers, had no bearing on white Christian kids. For the purposes of history lessons, South Africa had no history prior to the events of 1652, when the Dutch settled in Cape Town. This approach continued after Mandela’s release and even beyond the first democratic elections four years later, so when I left school at the end of 1997 I’d been taught hardly anything about South Africa’s “real” and most recent history.
Despite this, in the years after 1990, I’d come to understand that it wasn’t just Nelson Mandela’s life that changed on that sunny February day, but the lives of every single South African. Madiba’s release was the culmination of events that changed the course of South Africa forever, and it was the first step to building a fledgling democracy that even today is still far from stable or mature.
The way in which the country responded to being turned on its axis in the early 1990s is nothing short of a miracle. The feared bloodshed never happened – but it could all have been so different.
I’ve been to Robben Island and I’ve seen Madiba’s grey, tiny cell. I saw what he ate (very little), where he was made to work (hard) and how he was treated (disgracefully). It defies comprehension that anyone could be subjected to such treatment – completely unfairly to boot – day in, day out for 27 years and, this is the clincher; walk free without a drop of resentment. What’s more remarkable is that not only was hatred absent, but love was present.
One of my fondest memories of Madiba was when he donned a Springbok jersey during the 1995 World Cup to present the trophy to our captain Francois Pienaar. I’ll never forget his face. Here he was standing at the heart of everything that was sacred to his former adversaries and his demeanour and words radiated sincere pride and shared passion. To him, these were his people, not his former foes. It’s a thing of such beauty, that for the everyday person (me) it’s almost incomprehensible.
In South Africa today there are still many people who do not see Mandela as our country’s saviour. They still see him as a black terrorist and they may even rejoice at his death. These people are in the minority. When I look at my Facebook wall, I see daily tributes to this great leader of our country, quotes attributed to him and goodwill wishes for him and his family. These messages come from a range of people of all ages – some who had not even been born in 1990 and others who had supported the apartheid regime at the time.
This is what Nelson Mandela did. He had the choice to divide and conquer – which would have been the easy choice, as he had the support of the vast majority of South Africans, or to unify and build a new South Africa which we all could be proud of. This work continues today and for some it seems a tougher job than ever – quite possibly because we are yet to see a politician of Madiba’s calibre enter the arena. But as the man himself said: “It always seems impossible until it is done.”