Madiba's magic face

2009-07-17 15:05
During an ad break ("Medem, this new Dixie Dishwasher! You only pay for the paht that wheks!" "Oh, Estie, I should let you do all the shopping!") the 15-year-old hostess showed us all one small but important photo above her bed. An old photo of a much much younger, plumper Madiba.

"That's illegal," she said, proudly. Of course I was insanely jealous. Getting a real photo of him was nearly impossible then.

The next time I saw Madiba's face was when he was freed three years later, when he finally appeared in real life at the Parade in Cape Town in front of the crowds who'd been climbing lamp posts and cheering for him while Bishop Tutu, grinning with delight despite the taunts of the crowd, tried to hold the fort (some things never change). I remember how on the way there, on DeWaal Drive, everyone was waving ANC flags out the car window and shouting "Viva Mandela!". Me too! (The picture with this article was taken on that day.)

But instead of doing the "rah rah!" Victory speech we all wanted and expected from our newly released future president, Madiba told us there was a long and difficult road ahead, talked about negotiations and multi-party democracy.  It was the speech of the father of the nation, of a diplomat and statesman. At the time, I was disappointed. Now, I say "Thanks, Dad!"

A few years later at varsity, shortly before the 2004 elections, I was involved in a "riot", according to the Daily News, when I joined in the push to get through the security barriers to the ground floor and dance along with Mandela. Remember that word: "Riot"?

I also experienced Mandela's powerful presence at the first 46664 concert when the crowd, who'd been yakking way throughout Bono's speech about condoms went dead silent to hear Madiba tell us how AIDS disease would potentially kill more people than Apartheid did, if we didn't all join the new struggle. When I raised my fist to cheer him I was raising it against Mbeki's policies, just like I did against the Nats in the 80s.

His prescence is powerful. Even my once politically unsavoury aunt changed her political tune after a single chance meeting in an airport cafeteria (back when P.E. was still Verwoerd International). I think he had her at "Hi, do you mind if I sit here?"

Kele Scheppers, a young talented colleague, says she often thinks she may have wasted her potential cleaning, and raising other people's kids instead of becoming a journalist, if it weren't for Madiba's historical role.

She says: "The first time I saw Nelson Mandela was at my grandmother's four-bedroom house in Garankuwa (a township near Pretoria). She was lucky enough to have a TV – even if it was black and white – and our neighbours would come around every evening to watch the news and soapies. I don't remember thinking it was anything particularly important, I must have been six or seven years old, but all the adults (six aunts, an uncle, my parents and my grandparents) had heated debates around apartheid - what it meant to be a black person in that day and if it would ever change - whenever they caught sight of him. What I didn't understand then, and what I'm only coming to realise now is that he very literally transformed the path of my life. I went to private schools and university not because of my parent's wealth but because of this man, whom I've never even met but who has left a legacy which shaped my possibilities. I, in fact we as a people, are proof of the success of his journey toward freedom.

Frankly, my alternative life would have been as a maid to some unknown, more privileged white woman changing her babies' nappies and mopping her floors. I know this because it's exactly the work my grandmother did her whole life. Tell me, how do you say thank you to Nelson Mandela, a man who, with the aid of fearless colleagues and comrades, changed the path of history? And of each of our lives."

I don't know how we thank him. Perhaps by letting him live his last years in a country that resembles the land he dreamed of and fought for, so that he can rest in peace (and occasionally get some rest). We owe it to him, to preserve those values of freedom and tolerance for which he spent more than two thirds of my lifetime in jail. Sure, Madiba may not be radical enough for some, or right wing enough for others, but he represents – for people all over the world – a kind of human goodness that is sadly extremely rare, but happily touches all of us.

Madiba is a president and leader who danced to all our tunes. And that is what makes him so truly revolutionary. He has, as my colleague Geoff Cohen put it, "Strong hands. Stronger than you'd expect." publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

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