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.

Profoundly Uninteresting People

“All I have to do is cover your big mouth and you’ll be dead, but that would be too easy and too boring”

This is an angry post. I may regret it later. But if this blog is about ordinary people, I guess I cannot pretend they are all awesome. Some really suck.

I’m preaching to the choir. If you’re reading this, we are probably like-minded and I am spewing the obvious. I apologize in advance if it is boring. But I have lost my groove. Recently, some of the nasty forces I have always known as general have become acute and personal.

I am handling it with the elegance of a donkey. My frustration is palpable. I am awkward and annoying. I have lost my sense of humour even in the most benign situations. Over a recent weekend, I watched a friend back away from all conversations I was party to. I don’t even blame him.

The time will come for me to articulate the details. In the interim, last week’s events have got me all wound up.

As everyone knows, the Boston Marathon got bombed. The guys that did it suck.  That much we agree on. Then we splinter.


Hey Mom! I learned a new term today!

Immediately, the internet lit up with intolerance. Not surprisingly, Muslims were targeted. One man punched a Syrian woman walking her baby in a stroller and yelled ‘Fuck you Muslims’ in her face. In the interest of national security, of course.


Hasn’t been a country since 1993

Far better people have spoken to the far-reaching impact of the nastiness that follows tragedies. I count myself among the many holding my breath and hoping it does not lead to worse foreign policy, decreased civil liberties or more excuses for bigotry.

I posted a disturbing article about a young Saudi victim injured in the blast and subsequently detained for no reason besides ethnicity. My friend Mike Coffey re-posted it. To date, it has received 90 comments. Despite myself, I chimed in.

A summary:

CoffeyArticle: Several cases of racial profiling happened following the bombing, hopefully we don’t use this tragedy to further institutionalize racism as we have in the past.

Dude: Whatever works. It’s not like an old white granny did it.

Chorus of people: Whoa Dude. Here’s a bunch of facts that show 44 out of the 62 mass murderers in America over the last few years have been white males.

Dude: You are a bunch of pretentious jerks with all your fancy facts. I don’t have white privilege. I served in Afghanistan and they killed my friend. Screw you all for calling me racist, I’m entitled to my opinion.

Me: Dude, racial profiling and racism boil down to far more than opinions. The impact is far-reaching and pervasive.

Dude: I’m a fucking paratrooper.

I finally had the sense to exit the conversation when he started arguing Chechen is an ethnicity.

Here’s how great it is to be white, I could get in a time machine and go to any time and it would be f***** awesome when I get there. I can go to any time and know when I get there they will have a table waiting for me.

“It is great to be white, I could get in a time machine and go to any time and it would be f*** awesome. When I get there. they will be like, ‘welcome sir we have a table waiting for you’  – Louis CK.

The next day, I listened to my facialist bemoan her existence while painting on a serum. Her poor white civil servant husband is routinely overlooked for promotions that go instead to unskilled darkies. Her poor white son makes a measly salary as an IT Consultant because, well, he is white. Her poor white daughter has been mugged at the hands of the black mob.  They shall have no choice but to leave their spacious beachside bungalow with maid and gardener eventually, there is just no place for them here anymore.

The same day, the Employment Equity Commission released its report showing whites constitute 73% of top management positions in the private and public sector. Blacks occupy 12%. At 34%, the gender gap soars above the global average of 18%. No offence lady, but if your son isn’t going anywhere in IT it ain’t because he is a white male.

A few things to get off my chest:

  • Opinions are awesome and everyone is certainly entitled to them. You can love death metal, believe in reincarnation and be all for big government. But if they promote ignorance or come at the expense of other people, they have crossed the line. Whether Muslim terrorists or Black criminals, the moment you separate yourself and decide someone else’s rights or needs are any different from your own, it begins translating into reality and impacting real people. And you suck.
  • Facts. If you are not interested in them, do not like to read or current affairs aren’t your thing then shut your mouth. It you fall within 9% of South Africa’s population that gets 73% of the best jobs but maintain you are marginalized or insist Islam condones terrorism, you are a dangerous idiot. For the record, “knowing someone who…..” does not a statistic make. If you need one, they are out there in droves. Pick up a book.
  • Check yourself. If you only share your views with a certain ‘type’ of person and deliberately not the poorest, darkest, gayest, oldest, most disabled woman you know, they probably ain’t right.
  • Oppression persists less because of people who wake up in the morning and say “how can I keep X people down” than because of people who fail to see it for what it is.  Sure, there are white supremacists and radicals of the like, their greatest service to their respective causes is letting the rest of us off the hook by setting the bar so very low. Oppression is not a yes/no or good guy/bad guy question, it is an institution. Pay attention.
  • Pity. It is not the same as equality or respect.  Put it away.
  • No this is not in the past. We do not live in a colourblind, post-racial society. Ignoring the issues do not make them go away, it denies people’s experiences as well as the root causes.
  • Privilege exists. If you’re white, you have it. If you’re male, you have it.  The list goes on and we all fit somewhere along a spectrum. Privilege does not make you a bad person, ignoring it does. Claiming victim does not absolve you of your responsibilities to give a shit, it just makes you a prick.
  • Check your spelling. The correlation between ignorance and terrible writing is pretty damn high.

And now I am done with this conversation.  If you have something to kick it up a notch and will make me better or smarter, by all means. Otherwise, I made a resolute promise a long time ago to never move backwards. I am done being muted by ignorance.  There is too much work to be done and too many smart people to learn from.

coffey and iNow let’s talk quickly about ordinary people:

I met Mike Coffey poolside in California. My sister was diving for USC and competing at Stanford. She was not at the top of her game and threatened me within an inch of my life if I came to watch. Thus, she was super happy when I showed up and Aresenio Hall’ed her back 2.5. The water carries sound perfectly. The other spectator in the stands turned around immediately. “So, you’re a diving fan?”

"Wait, I think someone dropped a rope"

“What’s this? I think someone dropped a rope”

He was the strength and conditioning coach for Stanford Athletics and it turned into a 4 hour conversation over chopped salads. Years later he came to Montreal to support a SHLF fundraiser and became the only man to ever crip walk in a Canadian winter. Proving that good things come when you least expect, 8 years later he is back in Florida and we’re still friends.

As an educated black man living in the South, this is a storm he weathers daily. When I asked him how he deals, I felt his shrug through my computer “You would be surprised how many people think like that.” So big ups a huge hug to Coffey for being a seriously cool guy and for handling himself so much better than I. The world needs more people like you.