EASTERN CAPE, South Africa -- It’s a death in the family. A family of millions who call him” Tata”, Our Father.
There is no person here in South Africa not affected by Mandela’s passing, even those who opposed him. He is the reason we are where we are today. Not that he achieved South Africa’s transition on his own, many South Africans on all levels were an important part of that achievement, from his closest comrades and prison inmates to the village women who defied apartheid laws in daily life. But Mandela was the caretaker of that spirit. He absorbed the responsibility and the pain that came with it. The course that South Africa took could not have happened without him.
We may never be able to find just the right word to define what it was that made him the one to lead the way.
I say, we. I am a permanent resident, an American African - living here for 16 years, knowing South Africa for seven years before that. Drawn to this country for reasons including the spirit of Madiba - his clan name - found on all levels. That his roots, that nurtured him are a two hour drive away and I live immersed in the same rural Xhosa experience with people of equally elegant spirit.
If given the opportunity to live in a country headed by such a man, that embraced such lofty goals of transformation from a desperate dark past, who would say no to that? The wind, bearing the majestic music seemed to come out of nowhere, and hope was the color of the sky no matter what the sun decided to do.
There has been a lot of rain recently. Madiba’s shoes remain empty. Is it because there never will be anyone who can measure up to him, or are we are simply still waiting? Patience has been my greatest challenge here. It’s as foreign to an American as the language that sounds like a typewriter on drugs. Patience is a sign of optimism even when it is the result of oppression. It assumes - it believes - it knows - that sooner or later, the awaited, the object of our prayers, will happen.
Bishops Court, the residence of Archbishop Desmond Tutu
I expect a fist pumping shouting Castro-style revolutionary. Instead, after less than 24 hours of freedom, he sits in a carved wood chair with the colors of the ANC behind him and radiates good cheer as he speaks quietly, politely, but firmly about his intentions for radical change. When a reporter stands to ask a question and gives his name, Mr. Mandela says, “Ah yes, Mr. Jolidon, how are you today?” He has read their stories, he remembers their names. And, if this were not a press conference, he would inquire about their families as well.
Because that's the African thing to do.
He wears a fine blue-grey suit and is poised to take leadership of the most powerful country on the continent, and become a world statesman. His posture is upright. His fingers do not fidget. He is not bowed and he is not bitter. He has learned wisdom. He has known patience.
When the press conference ends and Madiba gets up to leave, the reporters do something I have never seen before or since. They stand up and applaud him. I watch him walk away with Winnie at his side, chatting, and wonder, what would they be talking about?
It is only later that I understand beneath the fine suit was the barefoot boy who enjoyed stick fighting and tended cattle in the hills of knee high grass and bright red soil on the other side of the country, the part the apartheid regime rejected and deemed only good enough for the “natives.” Later on, when he was sent to school, Mandela had found the transition to wearing boots and eating with cutlery awkward, like his awkwardness with girls. His contemplation of the times he avoided conflict in the interest of a greater good, he reports years later, with convincing humility.
He was not a boy who had dreams of greatness as it has been defined by his public life. He embraced his lineage of African royalty and knew he had to fulfill expectations that came with that. That was different from becoming the first black and democratically elected president of South Africa; it was a moral responsibility to his community and his family and his ancestors. Neither apartheid nor power could destroy that commitment.
Those hills and villages of round mud houses with grass roofs remain today, and there are barefoot boys still tending cattle there, almost like a museum of his culture. When that has been paved and exploited for tourism, the thorn tree kraals replaced by garages, one wonders where the secrets behind his greatness will reside.
Madiba’s culture is one in which there are no lines drawn within families; children know aunts and uncles as another set of parents, cousins are brothers and sisters.
“I didn't know who my parents were for a long time, we all sat down at the same bowl together every night,” explained a man of traditional Xhosa roots.
After his release from prison, Madiba chose to return to his childhood home of Qunu, where he had spent the happiest days of his youth. He held family events at the house he built on the Mandela homestead. He asked to be buried there.
During his earlier years as president, when he stayed at Qunu, he would escape security and go to the village high school where he would disrupt classes and sit down with the students and tell them what life in their village was like when he was a boy. He encouraged them to value education. They loved him, running to him, cheering, “Madiba! Madiba!” when they saw him approaching.
Despite his wealth and comfortable circumstances he continued to insist on porridge and amaas (the traditional African drink of soured milk) in the morning.
The South Africa I know remains a land of contrasts, like the deep thunderous purple sky with the glistening golden grass challenging it on the horizon. It’s vast beaches guarded by craggy mountains and flat endless desert with sky like a huge bowl and sunsets that color in every direction. It's donkey carts sharing the road with BMWs, women walking modern city streets with large bundles balanced on their heads, it's a construction crew that communicates in three languages. This is a country that, by having 11 official languages, chooses elegance over practicality, showing equal deference to each culture living within the borders.
The sun shines while it rains. Rainbows are the result.
Modern Africans claim to be moving away from those tribal customs that were the glue to isolated traditional villages, that the practice of barefoot boys tending cattle is something to be eradicated. Perhaps for good reason, when many of those boys tend cattle in lieu of continuing their education. Yet, because the wealth of a man is still determined by the number of cows he owns, there will always be the need for them to be tended.
The payment of lobola, or bride price, is treating women as property and some believe it should also be abolished, yet it remains custom all the way to the top, Mandela paid a large lobola for his wife Graca Machel. Professional negotiators for lobola make large sums for their services. In the past lobola was settled by family members from both sides.
The tradition of multiple wives still prevails in some cultures, President Jacob Zuma, a Zulu, has four wives. Polygamy is accepted by the law if a man can show it is part of his culture.
Young Xhosa men still flock to the bush to be ceremonially circumsized in order to be called a man. More are dying from the experience these days because the circumcision schools have been corrupted by practitioners who do not follow proper procedure.
Many of the new suits who have migrated to the automated square houses behind razor wire walls in the cities load their families into their BMWs and every Christmas they return to the villages and the grannies who raised them, where they renew connection to their traditional roots. Families gather in thorny kraals and slaughter goats as messages to the ancestors, who protect them from hardship as long as they behave. A person who has had bad things happen is assumed to have offended the ancestors. Some still consult traditional healers whose skills include combating evil spirits that create havoc in peoples’ lives, and ensuring the next born will be a son, or one will win the lottery. Others go to witch doctors, because they believe someone, a witch, has cast an evil spell upon them.
The best educated still send their sons back for traditional initiation rituals.
South Africa today is not what any of us who watched for the freedom train expected. It's painful watching the pillaging by government and corporate officials, along with the corruption, or at least tragic inadequacy, of police. I ache when I experience the incompetence, some of it deliberate, of government employees, or the arrogance of teachers and nurses who have lost their reason for doing what they do. I pray Madiba does not know about these things. He had his own brush with this disappointment when he had to cancel the annual childrens’ party he held at his Qunu home every Christmas. It became a mob scene after a few years and the worst offenders were the adults grabbing the gifts that had been intended for the children.
Yet I still see Madiba’s spirit in the faces of my everyday heroes because that's where he started; the elderly African great-grandmother who recently could not tell me for sure, how many children she has raised, including those she raises now, like counting the number of dishes she has washed. It’s the courageous young woman who exposes her HIV status to the world in order to help others avoid contracting it. It’s the man who visits his son in prison every week, hoping his continued love can help him to reject a life of crime. It’s in the everyday people who still live lives of unforgivable hardship who continue to maintain dignity, and amazing generosity.
Madiba’s legacy is peace. Before 1990, peace had become an empty political slogan. When Mandela walked out of prison, shook hands with his jailer and embarked on a course of reconciliation, peace became a reality. The world watched in tearful, hopeful need to believe.
It can be done. Peace happens.
Ubuntu is the African concept of humanity to others. It means "I am what I am because of who we all are."
We are, because he was.
We can be, because he is ancestor to our family.
We can be great, not as a nation, but as a people. Madiba opened that door. He shone the light in that direction, he walked ahead and turned on the sun, over there, like the brilliant light that shoots through the billowing clouds at the end of the day.
It's not Madiba’s shoes that need to be filled, it's his footprints in the red African dust that await the right pair of African feet to continue their journey.
They can be any color because we are a nation of rainbows, even when it rains.
Thank you, Madiba.
Hamba kamnandi. Walk forward well.
ABOUT THE AUTHORSusan Winters Cook is a photojournalist and humanitarian who has lived in the Eastern Cape region of South Africa since 1997. She previously was a staff photographer for the Philadelphia Daily News, where I was her editor when she made several trips to South Africa to chronicle the enormous changes in that country after Nelson Mandela's release from prison.
Cook's profile of a regional African National Congress leader's struggle to survive transitional political violence won the prestigious 1994 Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award. From 1997 to 2003, Cook produced an AIDS education periodical for the province, has produced documentaries for the provincial premier and a documentary about a Cape Town squatter community building its own housing.
Cook is the author of Nozuko' Story: The Story of an African Family.
PHOTOGRAPH BY SUSAN WINTERS COOK