I sat on a beach on the morning that they announced the death of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela. I sat in quiet and morbid melancholy. I felt a hurt in my soul. I couldn’t shake it and I was at a loss to explain it. In front of me the Indian Ocean roared in tumultuous splendour while my children frolicked unburdened by the things of the world, their voices as pleasant as wind chimes on the sub-tropical, salt tinged ocean breeze. I thought about my country, my heartland and I pondered the meaning of this loss. I looked around me seeking someone to share my sadness, to talk to a while and to ease my troubled mind. A lone Zulu man with his fishing rod appeared in my peripheral vision as he picked his way gingerly over the rocks. We saw each other at a distance and I raised my hand to acknowledge him and he did the same as he passed by and disappeared forever from view around the next headland. I found the moment poignant and wondered if he knew Madiba was gone, if it meant anything to him, if he was grateful for the freedom we now shared as two men of different race on the same beach somewhere in coastal Kwazulu Natal. I had sought a form of acknowledgment and connection as I dealt with my pain and I will never forget him raising his hand, like a quiet benediction, on that day…that Mandela Day.
I have had this piece in my heart and my head since that day but I knew it would not emerge while our nation was in mourning. I immersed myself then, as many of my countrymen did, in the act of saying goodbye. I read the platitudes and outpourings of grief that came as a deluge from all corners of the planet. I was touched by Obama’s words and those of Bono and a thousand other dignitaries. I was moved by the show of solidarity shown by South Africans from all walks of life, united by their shared grief at the loss of the father of our nation. I took umbrage at the few who chose to defile his memory by criticizing him…Mandela…the man who gave us peace. He was not a saint or an angel…he was an extraordinary man and he showed us that love and compassion are indeed mightier than the sword! I watched on television the queues of thousands who went to view his body lying in state in Pretoria and I longed to be there. I mourned as we all did and I felt a terrifying void develop in my world. Not because of any political concern but rather, perhaps, the loss of a tenuous connection to the halcyon days of the mid 90’s…the time I first realized as a white South African that unity was possible, urgently vital even and how Madiba had showed us the way.
I drove back to the Limpopo valley on the day they buried Mandela and I listened to a local radio station pay homage to this man whom I had never met. My children were with me, asleep in the car as I drove. There were some stirring speeches of farewell at Mandela’s graveside and I remember my throat closing with a surge of grief while listening. The DJ then played a song called “Weeping” by South African band Bright Blue and I felt my emotional levee break. I stopped the car in the purple shadows of the Soutpansberg ramparts and wept like a child on the roadside. I felt shamed by this and was relieved that my children had not witnessed it. I wept for a man I had never been anywhere near but who had been so quintessential in shaping my nation, my world. He had touched my life and I had never said thank you to him.
I live in a wild part of Africa and I revel in the majesty of this ancient and wild continent. I am privileged to be here raising a family surrounded by this evocative beauty. There is a man who led a movement that helped shape the South Africa we know today…free of apartheid and fear, a man who chose to forgive and by doing so, released not only the oppressed but the oppressor as well. There will never be another Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela!
Hamba gahle Tata Madiba! Go in peace! I trust your herds of cattle will find sweet grass out there…beyond the veil.