I was seven in the summer of 1988, when I went to a Free Mandela rally in London’s Hyde Park with my family. At the time, I didn’t know who he was or why I was there, likely having been lured with the promise of a popsicle. He slipped in and out of my consciousness in the ensuing years: my parents discussing his release from prison over dinner while I played with my food; a seventh-grade social studies class dedicated to South Africa after the monumental 1994 elections; glimpses of him on TV with presidents, in movie avatars played by Morgan Freeman, and even posing happily alongside the Spice Girls.
But this man’s efforts would be turn out to be instrumental in the course of my own life: 25 years later, in 2013, I was fortunate enough to move to the nation he sacrificed so much of himself for.
The night of Madiba’s death, I hit the streets of Cape Town to try to get a sense of what South Africans were feeling for an article I was reporting. Most people welcomed my questions and openly shared their memories from the past and fears about the future — “It’s like when your teacher leaves the classroom, we don’t know what’s going to happen to the country,” one woman said to me— but my last encounter was not so friendly. “An American, wanting to talk about Mandela, right now?” a young, well-dressed Indian guy exclaimed in disgust. “That’s not cool. What’s wrong with you? You can’t do that!”
My initial instinct, admittedly, was to tell him off. I am a recovering New Yorker, after all. But instead, I just apologized for offending him and moved on. People deal with grief in their own ways (his entailed partying at a posh bar, apparently), and perhaps he felt I was an outsider intruding on his nation’s private mourning?
Sure, it might not have been the wisest timing for me to unleash my American accent on the streets of Cape Town. But the exchange shook me up. What right did I, an interloper — and perhaps the worst kind: an American — have to inquire about Mandela, after all?
Since news of his passing broke just after midnight in South Africa, many of my new compatriots were already asleep. So that meant the outpouring of grief, the flowery homages, the tributes and tears, the RIP Mandela memes that instantaneously deluged my Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram feeds were overwhelmingly courtesy of my friends back in the U.S. While I’ve always rolled my eyes at the mass melee of woe one-upmanship that surrounds celebrity deaths, this time felt different. It seemed sincere, heartfelt. The truth is, Mandela was not just South Africa’s icon. He transcended boundaries and belonged to the world — or at least, the world was eager to claim him. His unique reconciliation approach, which led to an almost unprecedented, mostly peaceful transition, is a universal lesson, one that many others across the globe could do well to follow today.
The next day I joined thousands of Capetonians at a service at City Hall, where Mandela had given his first address after being released from prison in 1990, feeling like a bit of an imposter for attempting to share in the nation’s collective grief. Did I really have a right, not only as an American but as someone who barely knew about South Africa before she came for an impromptu visit a year and a half ago, to mourn him? Till now, Mandela had existed on the periphery of my life. I’d visited his cell at Robben Island, and I’d seen South Africans commemorate his birthday every year by dedicating Mandela Day to community service. But I couldn’t begin to fathom the experiences or memories so many South Africans share, or the importance he holds in their lives. “When I came back from exile, I hated white people,” his former bodyguard, Sizwe Abrahams, told me. “Madiba taught me unconditional forgiveness, and compassion for other people.” Case in point: his wife, who was standing a few feet away from us, is a white Dutch woman. “Because of him, today, my children can go to a multiracial school,” he added. “I was always looking for Jesus, and I found in him a man who had the kind of values I was always told as a child about Jesus.”
Many others share Sizwe’s near-spiritual devotion to Mandela. “I’m not religious, but he almost attained a godlike status for me,” said Terry Thorne, who remembers watching Madiba’s speech when he was released from prison, as a six-year-old perched on her dad’s shoulders in the Grand Parade. “He was a figure of morality. With all of the shit going on lately [in South Africa’s political and economic circumstances], I’m sad because he was kind of a father figure — he kept people in check.”
A few days before his death, I watched the new movie Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom with my husband. I’m ashamed to admit that this primer was the most in-depth take on his life I’ve experienced so far. But in what would turn out to be his twilight days, I finally began comprehend the magnitude of what his life and struggles mean to so many millions of people. Everything around me is ultimately the result of his efforts. If it wasn’t for what he and his fellow revolutionaries achieved, my husband’s family would have been leading very different lives today. And if it wasn’t for Madiba, I wouldn’t be here in Cape Town, reaping the benefits of his sacrifices for this beautiful nation.
So yes, I think I do have the right to mourn Mandela as much as anyone else in South Africa. The only thing is, people here aren’t really mourning him in the first place. “In the States, in Europe, people seem sad, they’re crying,” said Terry. “But I don’t think we feel the same as others do. We’re celebrating his life.”
I’m honored to be here to be part of the celebrations. Like everyone else around me, I owe some part of my current existence to him, and I thank him for all he did. Hamba kahle, Madiba.
Exclusive footage of memorial in South Africa: