“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
– The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
I have always hoped to be home in South Africa when Nelson Mandela passed away; to be a part of history, see and feel his impact one more time in the flesh. Instead I learned about it while passing through security at the Vancouver airport. I have now gotten a glimpse of his legacy in 4 countries in as many days. “Mandela was a great friend of the Kurds” I was told over lunch today in Iraq. It has been very interesting, but simply cannot compare to being home.
I never met the man. I wish I had, but he seemed pretty busy. I read his books, am in love with his country, share a passion for his people and married his doppelganger. He is also responsible for establishing the core conditions of my life – without him I could not live where I live, know who I know and my family would be against the law. That’s a lot. Still, I owe him even more.
I first learned about Mandela from the Cosby Show when Elton and Sandra named their twin babies Nelson and Winnie. The adults in the room let out a knowing “ahhhhh” and I had to ask – who are they? As if being adorable squishy newborns on our favourite tv show wasn’t enough. Nelson was being released from jail after 27 years. For what? For no reason. But why? He was black. I immediately felt concerned for Holly Ball, the only black person in our class. I got sent to sit in the hall for chewing gum; jail seemed like a really cruel punishment when she had done nothing wrong.
This was followed shortly by news reports of death in South Africa. The country was up in smoke and people were dying in numbers, but only black people. Again, it struck me as particularly strange that South Africa had magic bullets that went around white people and only hit black. I think I even felt a sense of relief that – should I or any of my family fall out of the sky and land in South Africa, we would be safe.
I’m certain the adults trying to describe faraway news to a 10 year old never fully understood the affront to my sense of virtue; if they did, they probably thought it was cute and would fade as soon as I saw something shiny. But these things stuck to me – watching people celebrate the release of someone who should have never been jailed in the first place and learning that people sought to kill specific races became some of my earliest indicators that adults were not always righteous and the world not necessarily just.
The seed was planted for an insatiable curiosity about South Africa and, as it turns out, the journey of a lifetime. As a teen I voraciously read anything I could get my hands on. Bryce Courtney’s The Power of One became my Disney fairy tale, Mark Mathabane’s Kaffir Boy turned me inside out and Steve Biko’s I write what I like soared over my head, but I read it anyways. I painted a picture in my head of a breathtakingly beautiful country, oozing with unsung heroes and a collective soul that sounded out like a drum.
When I finally did see the Cape of Good Hope where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Indian (they don’t meet there whatsoever, but let’s not focus on details) I sprinted full speed down the beach in to the waves with all my clothes on. The first time I met a street child, I had look away so he wouldn’t see my tears. I cried again when I encountered my first bold faced racist who called Mandela a terrorist and refused to shake my black friend’s hand. Yet again when I met a former Umkhonto we Sizwe general living homeless in a park. These moments live with me, as do the thousands of highly personal stories of injustice, inspiration, suffering, bravery, discrimination and more I have learned over my 7 years in the country. Not a day goes by that I don’t wrestle with the many layers of complexities in a nation where humanity’s toll is so raw.
There were many things that have driven my sense of wonder about South Africa, but the cost of righteousness and the courage it takes to uphold it has struck me deepest. We talk at length about the 27 years Mandela spent in prison and commend him for emerging with a heart for peace. But he walked into the Treason Trial prepared to die, knowing very well he might. Steve Biko was beaten to death in the back of a police truck, Robert Sobukwe died in prison, Chris Hani was assassinated, Hector Pieterson (age 13) was shot in the back by police. Well beyond these well known icons – countless teenagers left school to fight, parents lost children, fathers disappeared, thousands were buried nameless under rocks. All of them walked into it with eyes wide open.
I like to believe this principle has helped me become a better person. I have yet to give up much, anything I know about suffering is third hand and I have grown increasingly attached to life’s creature comforts. But learning about it opened my eyes to the world and my responsibilities within it, watching it lived out has awakened in me a deep yearning to share the same convictionm and coming of age in South Africa has allowed me to walk in the shadows of people – big and small – that call on me to do exactly that.
South Africa has been everything I ever dreamed it could be and more. Like any great love story it is mired in hard work and harsh realities. Much like Mandela’s legend itself, the fairy tale ending we want does not do justice to the sacrifices it required – they didn’t call it the freedom struggle for nothing. We say the years in prison were worth it, but a generation lost their fathers. We wish freedom was complete when apartheid was lifted, but when you break a society it is just that, broken.
Tata Mandela – thank you for standing for something and for standing so very tall. The choices you made and the sincerity with which you made them freed so many others to do the same. We are humbled by your service and will do our best to uphold a fraction of the same.
Lala Kakuhle, Tata.