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
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.
Court, the residence of Archbishop Desmond Tutu
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.
that's the African thing to do.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
The best educated
still send their sons back for traditional initiation rituals.
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
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.
Ubuntu is the
African concept of humanity to
others. It means "I am what I am because of who we all
We are, because
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.