“Mandela is dead”, these are the words that came out of my mouth the moment Radio 702 presenter Gushwell Brooks informed listeners that Jacob Zuma had an announcement of national importance to make.
My sensible and realistic nature overtook me; the man was 95 after all. He had lived a full life, so to me his death was really not tragic — it was merely a life that had gone full circle. But then it started, the endless broadcasts and recordings began. People shared their “Mandela moments” with us all, including those who created, sustained and benefitted from apartheid. We listened as they praised his great strength, with no mention of the need to not create and sustain systems that require such strength from any human being. Others still shared “proud” moments of taking his photo oblivious to the fact that they only had access to him and those “moments’ by virtue of their skin colour and not bothered about the circumstances that led to those moments.
Those who had allowed and sometimes even encouraged their sons to join the army were now mourning the loss of Mandela. And we were also subjected to footage showing those who were opposed or defied sanctions against old South Africa tell us how they “obviously didn’t support apartheid”. The list of mourners is endless really.
To make matters worse, I heard an English journo, telling black people to also remember and acknowledge the role played by FW de Klerk in ending apartheid. To even suggest that was such an insult. Like many others, De Klerk’s actions were not driven by recognition that blacks too are human beings, but rather by how financially unsustainable apartheid had become. Resistance within the country, coupled with external solidarity and sanctions had forced his hand.
The tributes continued. Some shared Mandela’s life, completely omitting certain integral parts of it. He was in his own words, “a loyal and disciplined member of the African National Congress”, something which seemed to be an inconvenient feature of his story — judging by how some told his story without mentioning the ANC.
This was followed by an aggressive marketing of the “rainbow nation”. Certain radio stations ensured we knew that Mandela’s home was filled with “mourners of every race” and other media outlets chose to show us images of white and black mourners in perfect harmony. What this doesn’t tell us however is that there are still “huge disparities in the living conditions of black and white children” or that many whites are earning four times more than blacks – among other racial disparities.
This was followed by the official memorial service which took place at FNB. A memorial service I neither attended nor watched. It was attended by Jimmy Carter, whose presidency found and left Mandela in prison and others whose countries did not support the liberation struggle.
I was deeply troubled by how so many of the obituaries and tributes we were bombarded with lacked any meaningful sincerity. Some of those who praised his stance on reconciliation had never done anything meaningful to make it a reality and ensure redress. The reality is that apartheid still exists, despite the removal of the “slegs vir blankes” signs of the past, the experiences of the landless, poor black people evidences this.
In my quest to disband the grey, troubled clouds that had followed me since his death I attended the “Mandela Memorial Show” hosted by the City of Tshwane. A young person told me about how even in death Mandela continues to open up a lot of doors for him — despite having been born and raised in Tshwane, it was his first time at the State Theatre.
Due to rushed and poor organising, it was awhile before we entered. Amid the confusion, many shared what they were doing the day Mandela was released. Others also remembered the horror of the past — losing various family members. Another man told me about how he had been in Cape Town at the time of Mandela’s release, surrounded by the hoots of cars and people in the streets singing. It was the same man who would sit beside me once we had entered, a man who looked up with tears running down his eyes as “My Black President” was performed.
Their memories brought back my own. I remembered the day I got in trouble for asking someone I deeply loved about the marks on her legs. Only to discover how the white children where her mother worked had set their dogs on her. I knew such had happened, but to hear her describe it and see the pain in her eyes hit me deeply. I also remembered the stories my mother would tell me, like how “Big” John Tate had taken down Kallie Knoetze in 1979 to the delight of Bophuthatswana’s black population and showing me where they used to hold their meetings back in the days. Her scraped knees also crossed my mind, as well as the smell of teargas.
And then I heard the singing. “Heita … ta …. ta … ta”, came from somewhere and I smiled, remembering that I am of a great line of African men and women who gave up so much of their lives to resist. Irrespective of the appropriation of Mandela, irrespective of who was now being put at the centre of his story — like many others, Mandela had made many great personal sacrifices to advance the struggle of our people and became not only the first black president of the country — but also the first LEGITIMATE one too, something that has been overlooked in many tributes I have read and heard.
Robala ka kgotso senatla, these mere words can never adequately express my experience of the last week — but had to be shared. Now that you have been laid to rest, I sincerely hope that an opportunity to re-imagine and re-create our society will soon be coming.