For most of us who were born in the 80’s, it wasn’t really clear what the commotion was about during that time. We knew that we were born in to a system that, essentially, didn’t want us. We knew from a young age that there was this thing called being black and it meant that we were destined for a life of hardship and strife. Being black meant that we weren’t fully human. Our fate was to be servants for white people and we would not amount to much more than gardeners and cleaners, at best or do menial jobs that didn’t require any real skill. We were to grow up in the townships and die there. Everything else belonged to white people.
That is, we were told, unless Mandela is released from a place called Robin Island. Most of us didn’t know who this Mandela was. The media had banned pictures of Mandela so we didn’t even know what he looked like. Yet, we sang his songs. We chanted struggle odes, little fists up in his honour. He was this ‘being’ that was coming to save us. We went sure how he was going to achieve this, but we needed something to believe in, he was it.
I remember in 1990. I was 6yrs old. I was at a neighbour’s house. We were watching tv. I remember seeing stadiums packed to the rafters with what seemed like oceans of people. I didn’t understand English at the time so I didn’t know what the news announcer was saying. All I knew was all the old folk in the hood were losing their minds at what they were seeing on tv. “Mandela is being released”, I remember someone saying. There were too many people in front of the tv, the house was packed, so I didn’t even see much at that time. I remember the joy and the excitement. To me it felt like midnight on 31st of December, except it was during the day. There were people running around everywhere. I really didn’t know it all meant.
1993 came it living in a township became hell. There was this thing called Inkatha. As kids we didn’t really know what this was. All we knew was that every evening a large group of Zulu men wearing red headbands would come from the hostel and march through the hood. They were carrying guns, axes, spears and pangas. They were going to shoot and hack anything they found in their path, especially young boys. I remember my male cousins being hidden inside wardrobes and laundry baskets when Inkatha came. Some were made to wear dresses and passed off as girls. Many people lived in fear. Then there was the AWB and ‘Tenebranch’ – as we called him. A bunch of white people who just wanted black people dead, as far as we could see. It seemed like the country was going to be consumed with violence. The was blood in the streets and bullets in the night. It seemed being black was the worst thing that could happen to anyone. The only light we saw was Mandela being president. This old man who came from jail.
Amongst all this there all these political things happening. I remember CODESA, the dance.
It is 1994 and I am walking my mom to our church. There’s a long line of people there. My mom says she’s going to vote. I remember wearing that white t-shirt with blue doves on it and that song that went, “…let’s show the whole world, we can bring peace in our land”. While at the church I saw some of my friends and I remember us jumping around, drunk from the atmosphere. The first speech I remember Mandela making was his inauguration speech. The sense of pride in the country could be touched with bare hands. He spoke. The violence stopped. Just like that.
I didn’t know much about Nelson Mandela back then. All I knew was that this dude was respected by, seemingly, everyone in the world. An old man with a warm smile and a gentle nature. I didn’t understand how someone so soft could be so powerful. It seemed like no one feared him, many hated him but everyone respected him.
Inevitably, to understand the significance of Nelson Mandela, one had to understand Apartheid. You had to know what black people had been subjected to in order to understand why it was such a miracle that they were talked out of a civil war. We want to celebrate the positives but the reality is that the legend of Mandela was birthed by Apartheid. If you can get to grips with the atrocities of Apartheid then you can understand the magnitude of what Mandela and MANY others had achieved.
Also, we created the legend of Mandela because we needed to. We needed a light. We needed a face. Mandela did not single-handedly eradicate the system of Apartheid. There many men and women who paid the ultimate price. Many of them we will never know. Much of what happened during the transition period is still shrouded in secrecy. Not all the won us our political freedom was above board. Mandela was not a perfect man. Winnie Mandela’s influence on him and in our country can never be measured and will always be debatable. But the two of them were a father and a mother when we so desperately needed them.
It is December 6 2013. Nelson Mandela passed away last night. It seems the very foundation of humanity is shook. As ironic as it may be, I think we actually WANT to mourn. We WANT to feel something, anything, even if it is pain but we want to feel it together. We miss being a country. We miss being a people. We are so tired of the anger and the bs, we miss knowing that we are all in this together.
Like a beloved father who has passed on, his children – even those with bitter feuds – come together to remember that it didn’t always used to be like this.
His death is almost like respite from the heavy load that is our lives today. His passing is reminding us of our humanity, that we are better. That is the magnitude of Tata Nelson Mandela. Our father