Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela – Ordinary Guy.

"I was not a messiah, but an ordinary man who had become a leader because of extraordinary circumstances."

“I was not a messiah, but an ordinary man who had become a leader because of extraordinary circumstances.”

“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.

Mpho happy-horz

No but seriously, I married his doppleganger

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.


Tshepo and family returned to SA in 1994 after 10 years exiled in Canada.

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.

Kornelia's parents could not marry in SA. Family was born in Lesotho after Dad fled there in objection to apartheid.

Kornelia’s parents could not marry in SA. Her and siblings were born in Lesotho. Dad fled there in objection to apartheid.

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.


Mama used to sit in anti-apartheid rallies. She was put in jail and whipped by police.

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.

My girl on the cover of Forbes in a country where black girls were once miseducated in accordance to their opportunities in life.

Rapelang on the cover of Forbes in a country where black girls were once mis-educated in accordance to their opportunities in life.

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.

Marrying a proud Pondo of the Qhinebe clan in the Transkei dressed in traditional Xhosa wear. Once illegal.

Isinqandamathe sam (he who catches my drool)

“It isn’t the mountains ahead that wear you out, it’s the pebble in your shoe.” – Muhammad Ali

Mpho happyName : Mpho Mbiyozo
Occupation: my husband, but since that doesn’t pay nearly what it should, loose forward Southern Kings Rugby
Hometown: Lusikisiki
Age: Dirty Thirty
Education: BA Media + History, U of Cape Town
Hobbies: Sports, Top Gear, surfing, beer, meat, maskandi music and our chubby little daughter.

I married up. Apparently marrying up has been a well known strategy for women throughout civilization. I didn’t know as much until I just googled it, but it seems to have worked out for me nonetheless.

mpho wedding

It was a good day.

I have always been drawn to people who overcome. It is not requisite – you can be born with a silver spoon up your arse and be inspiring. But there is something magnetic about people who have walked a longer journey to get to the same place. Their character is practically guaranteed; I want that on my side.

Mpho was born in Lusikisiki to a single mother who never had the privilege of education. He had far out-stripped his initial prospects by the time he was 15. He is the beneficiary of her inexhaustible spirit and the generosity of some truly remarkable people. He graduated from one of the top high schools, represented South Africa 33 times as a Springbok Seven, won the World Series, captained his team at the World Cup and is currently the only black Super Rugby player in the country with a University degree. He has no living direct blood relatives and has buried his mother, father and brother long before their time. He is patient, affable, handsome and unassumingly wise. He accepts people for who they are, is slow to judge and quick to forgive.  I feel much better going the distance with him around.

Mzwandile Stick also left the 7s to help build the Kings. He retired last month.

Mzwandile Stick also left the 7s to help build the Kings. He captained the team for 1 year and retired last month.

We moved to Port Elizabeth 2 years ago. After 10 years in Cape Town, Mpho had reached the top of his rugby career given the available options. The opportunity arose for him to play in PE. It was a risk as the team was not at the top level,  but they enticed him with an opportunity to share in building it up.  Most black rugby players come from this region. With a sub-par professional union, they have not had the development structures necessary to maximize their potential. Accordingly, top talent gets poached by other unions and many more players exit long before their time due to lack of options.

Now I'm just bragging

Now I’m just bragging

I supported the decision whole-heartily. PE was always going to be a downgrade from Cape Town but it presented a unique opportunity. There are many problems in the world, yet it is tough to make a meaningful difference. When someone presents a vehicle to make an impact while doing what you love, you take it.

Ten days ago, the Southern Kings reached a critical milestone toward their vision when they played their first ever Super Rugby game. Despite much controversy, the team has reached the highest league in the world. Not only that, they made history as the first ever team to win their debut match.

We watched from the stands.

mpho an portugal

In Portugal at the tip of the continent

Mpho has always worked hard, but for the past 4 months he has gone above and beyond. He told me awhile back that playing Super Rugby is his dream. In the same breath he admitted he was scared it might never happen. He eats poached salmon and quinoa, has beaten all his fitness scores, maintained his goal weight and goes to sleep at 9pm reading his play book. He captained the team in 2 pre-season games, was lead tackler in one and named Player of the Camp. He has made several tv appearances and been one of the public faces of the team.

After the game, I could not sleep. I have never wanted anything so badly for anyone. I could give a crap about the shiny lights, but there is something so very powerful about chasing a dream. I want him to meet his full potential, believe in himself and apply it to the rest of life.

mpho and boys

Bunch of clowns. The good kind.

Mpho will tell you it is the nature of the game. How you handle being benched defines you as a player – it takes a far better person to stay positive and focused than it does to get frustrated. Not only does he have the courage to set a brazen goal, but he comes from a long suffering people that certainly have patience. He will continue to work on what he can control and contribute no matter what. Things will come right.

It is super humbling. Especially because I am on the other side of him losing my shit.

In a sport loaded down by statistics, here are a few that I had to do by hand with a calculator. In opening week of Super Rugby in South Africa:

  • 110 players dressed
  • 10 were black/ 7 starters
  • 15 coloured/9 starters
  • Out of 52 million South Africans, 4.5 million are white (8.9%), 4.6 million coloured (8.9%) and 41 million black (79.2%)
  • It looked the same in week 2 and will again in week 3.
  • “Invictus” happened 18 years ago.

This is a seriously unpopular topic. I can feel people getting uncomfortable through my keyboard.  I won’t be surprised if someone brings up the number of white soccer players or asks why we cannot just put race behind us. I have answers for that. I am, however, sensitive about making excuses for my husband. I know nothing about rugby and have no objectivity. Sport is harsh – for every champion there are many more who just aren’t good enough. Mpho could be terrible for all I know. So could the other 30 odd black players watching from the sidelines.

Mama KaMpho - Noxolo

Mama KaMpho – Noxolo

There are 6 million South Africans living in shacks, all black. My black nanny gets paid as much in a day as I do in 30 minutes and I pay double the asking wage. She uses it to care for her elderly father,  2 children, schizophrenic brother and her dead sister’s 2 orphans. This week, my black friend got stopped in her driveway for ‘suspicious’ behavior and had to prove she lives there; a white neighbor called the cops on her and her 9 year old son when they entered the complex. Mpho has been held to the ground with a gun at his back by a white police after using a pay phone and been called a ‘dirty kaffir’ out a car window. I had to stop seeing my white manicurist after she complained about black people crowding her at the mall. My white friend refused to hire black employees  because she “didn’t want clients to have to hear another useless black voice”.

Do the math. This is South Africa; whether we like it or not, race matters. If you wish it away not only do you choose ignorance, you deny a constructive conversation about how to create change. If you pretend it is in the past or not applicable in your backyard, you fear what it says about you.  And if you tokenize someone, you break their soul.  If that is your goal, only God can help you.

Mpho and Dad

With my Dad.

In 2005 I went to to a rugby capping ceremony. Capping involves inducting players onto a professional team after a qualifying number of games. It was delightful; 10 players were capped, 2 of them black. At the end, the captain approached them to thank them for a great season:

“Two years ago, I thought if a black person touched me it would rub off on me,” he said proudly, “now, I’m happy to call you my teammates.”
I almost choked on my drink. They were un-phased; they are used to it. They shrugged and said “he still thinks all the other black people will rub off on him, we’re just the exception” and then partied into the night.

mpho with khaya

I love my husband and admire him more than I can ever express. He inspires and humbles me every single day. If things will indeed come right, it will be because of his wisdom and patience.  He will teach our daughter integrity and fortitude and she will learn quickly that her father has courage her mother does not. But, as incredible as it is to walk next to someone willing to double the distance, it sucks to have to do it and I am deeply sorry people get used to it.