Mandela turns 100

I wrote the below piece in the same year Nelson Mandela died. It seemed appropriate to me to finally share it today, when Tata would have been 100 years old. I hope you enjoy it.

The wild skies above me

I feel very keenly the brokenness of my country. I see it all around me, twenty years after freedom. I see children with no future, children begging at robots, children whose education has been stolen from them by the corrupt officials once known as freedom fighters.

The year Nelson Mandela died, my Nanna died as well. Preceding him in his death she collapsed in the night from an undiagnosed tumour on her brain, with no one to help but my invalid grandfather. “She tenderly touched my face as the ambulance took her away,” he would later say through his tears, crumpled up in a cheap wheelchair.

“Everyone is equal now,” says a young white male leader in my church. “I don’t think “they” would be comfortable coming to our church and singing in our language. We can’t relate to each other. They must rather go to their church in the township, and we will partner with them in that way.”

“Everyone is equal” is a term used by comfortable white people who have never stepped foot in a township, who have never felt the brokenness and the reality of the hardships South Africans face daily.

Nelson Mandela once said that he was born free, free to run through the lush grass of his Eastern Cape homestead, free to ride the cattle he tended. He said that it was only as he grew older, and as people started telling him what life was like for black people in South Africa, that he became aware that his freedom would be something he would have to fight for.

I was born free, I will always be free, and have had the incredible privilege of a quality education denied to so many. But as I have grown older, people have told me, people have shown me that the notion of freedom is still a distant concept to almost all of my fellow countrymen.

I was six in 1994. My parents dropped me at my Nanna’s house so that they could go and vote. Sitting on my Grans brown couch, my mom held me close to say goodbye. “Who will you vote for?” I asked her, a tiny little thing with a blonde bob-haircut and gappy teeth. “I can’t tell you, it’s supposed to be a secret,” she replied.

At six year’s old living on the East Rand, I did not understand that my country had achieved the most unbelievable feat: we came out of almost a century of racial oppression into a peaceful and democratic society. At six years old, when my mom wouldn’t let me out in the street to ride my bike, never mind just out into the yard, I did not know it was because of the palpable tension in the air, because of the violence spreading like wildfire through the hostels of the mines under the guiding hand of the Third Force. In that moment on the couch in Nanna’s lounge I remember leaning into my mom’s ear and whispering my own secret vote: “Well if I could vote, I would vote for Nelson Mandela.”

I stand now, twenty years later, under Table Mountain in Cape Town. The winter wind, ever unforgiving, blows fierce and cold, and I lean further into my jacket, wrap my arms around myself. I’m at the Waterfront, in front of me are twenty dark-skinned men, on their backs printed fleece tops read “Khayelitsha men’s choir” and they sing. Oh! They sing a beautiful song, that haunting, tugging African song, words that I don’t understand but words that make me feel homesick, word’s that make me think of Roy Campbell’s Zulu warrior, the slow somnambulist, lying beneath the grass of a distant hill, at peace with his ancestors.

Am I at peace with my Shades? My Nanna now watching over me, and the husband she left behind to languish in dementia and the memory of her.

I toss some coins into their money box and head to my car. Grown men, singing for their supper in the new South Africa. When they have split their earnings, they will catch a taxi ride home in the crammed mini-busses that cart people around the city to the most dangerous township in Cape Town. They will go to a shack, a shelter with a tinned roof, four tinned walls, and no foundation. And then the winter rain will come and flood their house, seeping through the mattress, making dry clothes wet and cold. And when they close their eyes against the sound of the rain beating on that tin, will they say, “I am free”?


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