Monday, 9 December 2013

How we remember Mandela

It had been on everyone's mind for while. We'd all had a big scare a few months ago when he spent weeks critically ill in hospital. Finally on Thursday evening, December 5th December, Nelson Mandela, commonly referred to here in South Africa as 'the Father of the nation', died at the age of 95.

People always like to tell the story of where they were when big historical moments happen. I vaguely remember the fall of the Berlin Wall. My Dad was watching people singing and hugging, chugging sledgehammers and helping each other clamber across a graffitied wall on TV. And he was crying. I was still only 8 years old and was confused and fascinated. 'Dad. Why are they crying? Why are you crying?!'. 'Because they are happy. Look at these people, this happiness! This is a wonderful moment. You must remember this.' He was at pains to make sure I remembered that moment, and I still vaguely do, although it actually took me many, many years before I truly understood what it had meant. I remember well when Lady Di died. My radio alarm clock was playing the news. I was sure I had dreamt it. Britain changed that day. Not because of the person that was gone, but because of the way we reacted. It was pure public grief and collective mourning. We didn't used to do that kind of thing in Britain. Now we do. And I'll always remember seeing 9/11 happen in front of my eyes. I had a week left before I went for my first year of university. I was still at home already getting into the student lifestyle - watching the lunchtime episode of the soap opera Neighbours. I stayed up past midnight and cried gutting tears of despair and shock before I fell asleep and then got up to glue myself to the news for another day. It was unbelievable. But we all watched it happen, live on TV.

As for this (much more expected) moment, I was at home brushing my teeth. It was almost midnight when President Zuma went on the air to address the nation. The only reason I didn't just finish brushing my teeth and go to bed was that my husband (a news wire journalist) had just said to me; 'I will not be surprised if we wake up tomorrow and Mandela has died...'. He said he was getting a lot of messages on his phone about family members arriving at the Mandela house in Johannesburg. Something was up. I immediately turned to Twitter and literally within half a minute there it was, the President had appeared on TV and was telling us of Mandela's death. This is how far we have come with technology. Things can be confirmed within seconds and news spreads faster than lightning through the chatter of online social networks. We stayed up until 3am watching the news and fell asleep for four hours before my husband rushed off to work. On our way to his office (I was stark awake and wanted breakfast, I'd get to my own job afterwards) the radio announced the news. Most South Africans had long been asleep when Zuma went on TV and this was the first they had heard of it. They played beautiful old South African songs including a 1980s anti-apartheid classic Asmibonanga. I couldn't help but shed some tears.

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I have mentioned many dramatic and traumatic events which most believed they would never see. This is not one of them. Nelson Mandela was a 95 year old man. Quite frankly for anyone, that is grand age; nevermind somebody who lived a life such as he did. However, the way that the nation would feel, the emotions that the average South African would grapple with and how they would choose to react, I think was still something that many in this country were unsure of. Just as after a very long life, you lose a beloved grandparent - that elder of the family who holds everyone together - you never can quite know how you will feel when they finally pass on. Sometimes when people consistently fight on through old age, for the younger it can feel as if they will always be amongst us. Alas, deep down we all know the day will come. This week, for South Africa, it was Tata Madiba's day to finally pass away and leave us to be with his ancestors.

The places of remembrance

The people of Johannesburg quickly chose their own places to pay their respects. Nelson Mandela Square in the country's richest business district Sandton quickly became a place for people to lay flowers and sign a book of condolence. People arrived in the street in front of his home in the leafy suburb of Houghton to sing and lay flowers literally minutes after the announcement. Ever since, all kinds of people, but especially families, have been arriving at the street of Mandela's home to pay their respects and celebrate his life. Vilakazi, the street in Soweto where he once lived in the days before he was a prisoner on Robben Island, filled with people within hours of the announcement and they are still there now. And at various other places across the city, impromptu memorials kept appearing. We went to Liliesleaf in Rivonia (where Mandela and his comrades laid the plans for an armed struggle against apartheid which landed them in prison for life). Local school children sang songs and people laid flowers, whilst excitedly sharing their memories of 'that time Mr Mandela shook my hand' (there's not one person I know who has met Mandela and was not almost immediately charmed).

At no point did we see people crying. In fact it was the reverse. People were smiling, shaking hands, singing and dancing! The overwhelming feeling over these last days (for me) has been that South Africans have been given a moment to reflect on and appreciate what they now have, as a result of the work and struggle of people like Nelson Mandela. Mandela's death is a positive moment of celebration for this country, to have had such a wonderful leader and to have achieved such hard-fought freedom. This is now a democratic and free country with the most progressive constitution on the planet. All people, in principle, have equal rights. The government is directly accountable to all the people and the people have the right to protest, to complain and to speak their mind, no matter their opinions. I cannot begin to explain quite how phenomenal the South African constitution is. Mr Mandela did not achieve this alone, but with grace, charisma, wisdom and integrity he helped to make that dream a reality.

I want to be clear here - I love  this country. This is an incredible place with some amazing people. But in no way am I trying to say that South Africa is a perfect. South Africa is a country with many deep and difficult problems. There is a vast and crushing disparity between the rich and the poor. The (predominantly black) poor are deeply disenfranchised and live on the peripheries of society in some of the worst conditions you will find anywhere on our earth. There is corruption. Real corruption of the kind that makes those who hoped for a better country wonder if they really got one. There is crime - but please, this is not Gotham City! - but yes, there is still crime, it is not as bad as it once was, but it does not go away.

And, there is the tragedy of xenophobia. The many who continue to arrive here from war-torn and despot countries such as Zimbabwe and Congo with dreams of a better life and opportunities to put food on the table, face real and often violent xenophobia. They talk of hopeless lives back home, but also talk of the fear of revealing their identity to South Africans, the fear of violence and the longing for the possibility to return home - if only to escape the discrimination of those here that they thought of as fellow, sympathetic black Africans.

The Day of Prayers and Reflection

On Sunday we went in search of a church to visit for the 'Day of prayers and reflection'. We were hunting for somewhere where we would find young people and possibly those from other parts of the continent. After a roundabout tour of Braamfontein (the student neighbourhood next to the university) we were eventually drawn in by some loud spiritual music to what seemed to be an old shop in the shadow of the Nelson Mandela Bridge. I have to admit, there were a lot of strange things going on during the service. I'm not a religious person anyway but I've been to church a fair few times (my husband's a Christian) and this wasn't anything like going with my Grandma to the local church of England! To sum it up, it was a kind of a cross between intense bible study and very emotional motivational speaking.

Turns out (we only understood this much later), this was a local branch of a well-known Nigerian evangelical church which is led by a charismatic pastor with his own TV channel. There were moments of quite claustrophobic spiritual euphoria (mass shaking hands and bodies, rapid muttering of prayers, shouts of 'PrAise de Lord!' and general loud preaching about the 'Grace of God') but mostly the service was all about how can you take what Jesus said and learn from it to make yourself a better person in this world. Everyone had their own bible and highlighters with them and were making notes. For me, this was a long service, but it was also a valuable and totally unique cultural experience. On any other day I would probably have never gone in there!

In respect of the 'Day of prayers and reflection' the Pastor, had asked the youngest members of the congregation to speak about Nelson Mandela and his ideals (rather than tailoring his sermon to a Mandela story). The eldest of them, a very beautiful and vibrant student, passionately spoke directly to her peers, listing their responsibilities to themselves and each other. The overriding message was education (both gospel and formal academic). The Pastor picked up on this and until the end (almost three hours!) the theme of the service was education (academic, moral and of course mostly gospel/spiritual).

Learning from the legacy

Which leads me to the end of my thoughts on the last few days. We keep talking here in South Africa about 'what can we learn from Madiba's legacy?'. Considering he has been around a while you would think people have learned a lot already. But, in the wake of his death everyone is now questioning themselves anew; 'What is this modern South Africa? How did we get here? Where are we going? Do the people in power do anything to make this place what I want it to be? What do I want it to be?!'.

For me the legacy, the questions, and the future, all lie in education. I am an outsider, and I have been living here for less than a year, but I have seen and heard already enough to know that state education in this country does not live up to the standards that it should. Many working-class South Africans with decent wages would still rather live in a slum so that they can save their extra money to put their child through private education, when state education is universal. This should not be. Education is a right in this country, but decent education is not. It should not be that almost the only way to reach the professional classes is through paying for a private education. The ability to shape this country should be more accessible to all.

Nelson Mandela helped to create a country where race was no longer a determining factor in the fate and dignity of a human being. He helped build a proud nation made up of people of many races and religions who could forgive the indignities and cruelties they paid to one another. He did not so much as see a child for 27 years whilst he was in prison and yet upon his release and throughout his final years the people he had the most time for where children. The minister or the child - he would greet the child first.

The children of this world are those responsible for building the better world of the future which we dream of. The decent education of all children is how we make a legacy.   

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