My Madiba Story

photo taken on the 14th of December by Julie Patrick
photo taken on the 14th of December by Julie Patrick

As a TCK, raised by a mother who believes there’s a book that can help you do anything (and has therefore read the massive TCK Bible written by David Pollock), I can tell you the words, “What do we need to do to have some closure here?” are a familiar refrain in our house. Everything from a family walk after my big sister left for college so we could get used to our “new family constellation,” to bucket lists she ferociously made sure we finished before we left SA for college (including appearing uninvited on the doorstep of a house I always wanted to see–yeah my mom rocks!) to requests for a eulogy when our family car of over 10 years was stolen, my mother has vigilantly made sure that her offspring were well equipped to say goodbye and be emotionally balanced in the ever-changing world of our third-culture life.

So of course, when Tata Nelson Mandela finally passed away this December, which ushered in the long week of mourning, I kept feeling like I needed to do something to get some closure. To say goodbye.

I never met Mandela. I was never even at an event when he was present. I was born in 1990,  the year Mandela was let out of prison. My parents were in the Transkei, the then “homeland” that amaXhosa were told was their “real” country, since South Africa didn’t see them as citizens. It was also the homeland of Mandela. My parents didn’t even have a TV, so they couldn’t watch Mandela’s release like the rest of the world, but they heard it on the radio. Shortly after that, my mother was in St. Mary’s maternity home in Mthatha, while my Dad looked after my sister and still tried to help with church planting until the day I was born. They lived right in the middle of it– they’d hear gunfire sometimes at night. When I was just 7 months old there was a failed military coup in Mthatha. Not far from the airport where Mandela’s body was flown in today and laid to rest. I was so close to it all– but so unaware.

I was born in April, so I celebrated my 4th birthday just days before the first democratic elections. We have a home video of me and our church friend Kwanda’s joint birthday party in a public park. We were now living in KwaZulu-Natal. My parents were learning Zulu, and attending a Zulu church. There’s nothing on that tape to hint that many whites were leaving the country, or living in fear, believing that the upcoming elections would go horribly wrong. Again, I was so close to it all– but I was excited about my pretty dress and the flowers I had picked and had no clue that history was being made around me.

We learned about Mandela in history class. His famous Rivonia Trial speech and the line “It is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” We watched old news clips of Tutu preaching to the masses, of Mandela casting the first vote. We learned about CODESSA 1 and 2 and Mandela’s superior negotiating skills. We watched documentaries on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It was history. It didn’t really hit us that our parents, our parents friends, our grandparents must have lived through this all. No one I knew ever talked about it. Maybe because I never asked.

The first time someone told me that Mandela was a terrorist for using sabatoge and leading the armed struggle was in America. We were on furlough visiting some supporter’s house, and she said, ‘But isn’t Mandela a terrorist?’ And I said “Patrick Henry was a terrorist!” (I think that was the year that Mom supplemented our homeschooling with some US history. I got to memorize the “Give me Liberty or Give me Death” speech. And actually, maybe my sister said it, but we were all thinking it). At the time I couldn’t understand how any Christian in America could have voted to succeed from England on moral grounds, and the thought that someone could think Mandela- who was actually fighting for the real freedom of oppressed people– was anything other than a freedom fighter and a saint baffled me.

There were other awkward questions from supporters– usually the older ones– who asked us how things were now that “blacks were running the country.” Things like that really irked me. It irked me that people who didn’t know anything about what our country had gone through would make these arrogant blanket statements about it. The irony is that the only things I knew were from history class. The only names I knew were ones that I had memorized for tests.

It wasn’t until I got to college that I started to learn more for myself. I wrote my freshman expository writing paper on “Was use of violence in the struggle to end apartheid justifiable?” I don’t remember which way I ended up arguing, but I do remember my teacher told me it couldn’t be a “real” argumentative essay because as Christians we all are for non-violence. I think maybe she was Mennonite.

Then there was that time in sociology class that we watched a cheesy movie-version of Antjie Krog’s book “Country of my Skull.” I ended up leaving the class early and in tears, not because I was so touched by the stories of forgiveness, but because of the way everyone talked about the movie afterwards. Like it was just a movie.  I had lived in the scenery shown, I knew all the words to the songs that were sung– it was again that feeling that someone else is telling my story– our story— and picking it apart with their noses in the air, analyzing it like any other thing, but they’re not doing it right. They think their objectivity makes them better, but really, they just don’t know what they’re talking about.

So I ended up coming to know our story, the South African story, for myself on the other side of the ocean through literature. I read Antjie Krog’s Country of my Skull. Then I read everything else she wrote in English. I’d read her poems in Afrikaans class, but the only piece of  English African literature that we read my entire high school career was Things Fall Apart. I ended up writing my college senior English paper on Country of My Skull. I read Riaan Malan, I read Paton, I read Coetzee, I read Nadine Gordimer. They were teaching me my history from the inside. It was through Krog that I got a glimpse of what Mandela meant for white South Africans. I grew up going to Zulu church, feeling like South Africa was my own– I didn’t realize the fear and pain and shame most white South African’s had lived with. As an Afrikaans lady said on our news the other day with tears pouring down her face as she wrote a message for Madiba, “He let me be a South African. He let me be an Afrikaaner, gave me a place in my country.” I read Bram Fischer’s biography this year, the Afrikaner who defended Madiba at his trial.

I attended a literary festival last year where I got to hear Miriam Tlali, the first black woman to be published in a novel in English, talk about what that meant for her and her family. I even heard Ahmed Kathrada speak about what it was like living on Robben Island with Mandela. I was in awe to be in the same room as someone who had lived with Mandela. There were only about 30 of us in attendance. If I had guts I could have shaken his hand. It wasn’t until this year when I finally sat down to read Long Walk to Freedom that the bells started ringing and I was like, “What– that was Ahmed Kathadra, like the Ahmed Kathadra, like the one who was way up in the ANC and part of the struggle from the beginning–and I was so oblivious.” His name had never stuck out in my history text book. But his face is in the new Mandela movie. And Kathadra was one of the speakers at the funeral this Sunday.

I have a sense of loss at Madiba’s death. But it’s a selfish sadness. I’m sad that it’s only now that I’m becoming acquainted with the rich details and stories and history of my country, and right as I’m waking up, he’s fallen asleep. We just missed each other. Just like when he was released. Or when South Africa voted. I’m close. Just not quite there.

I saw the Mandela movie the day after we got news he’d passed away. I didn’t enjoy it. Not because it wasn’t a good movie. It has stunning South African scenery, the accents are way better than Invictus (although Winnie’s “Amandla!” is a bit weak), and they do an amazing job of squishing an epic long book into a 2 hour movie. But it just felt flat. Maybe because my expectations were too high. Maybe because I was hoping that this movie would be it– would be the closure I needed. But maybe it was that once again, I was too close to appreciate it. It wasn’t until  I was across the ocean that I could really see the swirling events that made up our history with more clarity. Sitting here in a dark movie theater, I can’t notice how this story is South African. I only notice the bad accents and the strange choice of music. Maybe thousands of miles away I would have watched it and felt like I was home.

I don’t know what mourning Madiba looked like across the world. I know that here it looked pretty disorganized, and confusing, and political. Madiba didn’t die in some abstract place where the world could arrive on time to politely mourn. The history books might tell it that way. But Madiba died in the middle of a rage against our president who’s spending money on big houses. He died in the middle of the rainy season. He died and no one really knew who was in charge or when the funeral was. Everyone wanted to mourn, to be together, but we didn’t really know where or when or how. And then the president of the US gave a great speech, but now suddenly the whole funeral is about him and how his life was put at risk by a schizophrenic sign-language “interpreter”. And again I have a feeling that we’re all so close that we’re missing it, and that once again people on the other side of the ocean are picking apart our story on their own terms with their objective noses in the air. I hoped that the closure moment would be the memorial. It wasn’t.

It’s like the school hall in Edendale. It’s the last place that Mandela spoke in public before he was captured. The “All In Africa Conference” was held in the hall where my parents show up each week for church. Except it’s not that glamorous. It’s a small concrete school hall in a run-down school. It’s kind of dingy. Officials thought there’d be tons of people flocking to it the day after he died. There was a police barricade that everyone had to pass to get into church. There was the mayor. And that was it. No one came.

I thought the moment would be today.  We went to watch the funeral at the Mandela Capture Site. It’s a stunning landmark at the site where Mandela was pulled over and taken into custody, just a few minutes outside Pietermaritzburg. The huge sculpture at the site is one of my favorite memorials. At first it just looks like a lot of random black metal poles. Like the bars of a prison.  You start at the top of a slight hill, and then walk down a long path. The “Long Walk to Freedom.” It’s not until you get to the bottom that the whole sculpture comes into perspective and you can see the profile of Mandela.

We arrived at the site after church. The huge screen they’d set up to show the funeral wasn’t working. Again, no spine-tingling, weepy rainbow nation moments. Just tech guys trying to get signal.  But there were people here, and they were all here for Madiba. There were old women dressed in their traditional Xhosa and Zulu dress. There were young Zulu guys wearing Springbok rugby jerseys. There were South Africans of Indian decent, old and young. There was one Indian family standing by the museum taking turns holding up a huge home-made banner reading, “Iron Bars do not a prison make.” There were young white people like me, and old white grandmothers with walking sticks. There were children. The screen wasn’t working, but someone started singing “Nkosi Sikelele”. I want to say everyone joined in, but in reality only a few did. Most went to check out the museum while waiting for the news feed to start working again.

We walked down to the sculpture. There were a lot of people on that walk to freedom today. Many carrying flowers, or messages, or candles. There were piles of flowers at the front and the back of the sculpture and across the road. There were even roses stuck into the holes in the steel bars of the sculpture. When you looked at Madiba’s profile, you saw people of every color and race intermingled with those black metal bars. The museum had already filled up a whole book with messages from people in just a few days. I flipped through while waiting in line to sign the new one. A few stuck out to me:

“Allah, thank you for giving us Madiba. Carry him to paradise.”

“I met you when I was six. You shook my hand and asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I said I didn’t know. You said maybe I should be president.” — (signed with an English surname)

“God, thank you for borrowing us Madiba for a time.”

And then a picture. It’s a squiggly drawing of a girl crying. No name.

She’s probably four years old.

Maybe one day her children will come home from history class and say, “Where were you when Madiba died? Did you go to the funeral?”

And she’ll say, “I don’t really remember it. I know we went to some memorial. And I drew a picture in a book. And my parents were sad and irritated about something that happened on TV at the funeral. But then we stopped by Howick afterwards and got some ice-creams.”

Rest in Peace Madiba.

Thank you for what you’ve done for this country, for the foundation you laid for a society where freedom is so normal we forget what it took to get here.

3 thoughts on “My Madiba Story

  1. Well written with a profound conclusion. I agree with the simple prayer: “Allah, thank you for giving us Madiba. Carry him to paradise.”


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