Nelson Mandela: Father to a nation inspiration to the world
In Africa, when a great Chieftain dies, his people smear their windows with ash to keep out the light and warmth of the day.
Pictures are turned to face the wall, radios are silenced and slowly, in harmony, the women begin to wail.
Today, as one, a nation cries for its father.
To the world Nelson Mandela was an icon of peace. The man on the front page of the papers dressed in those cheerfully bright shirts he loved, with his soft pepper-grey hair and gentle smile.
To those of us fortunate enough to meet him, to live under his leadership and see first-hand the changes he brought to a wounded country, he was something greater even than that.
As a child growing up in South Africa I was taught much about the fortitude of President Nelson Mandela.
In school we were told of his fight for freedom, of the 27 years he’d spent imprisoned for his cause, befriending those who’d put him there and never giving up on his dream of a Rainbow Nation – of people of all races living together in peace.
Along with every other pupil in the country I was taken to Robben Island, hair swept wild with sea-spray from the ferry, to sit in the prison cell that had held our leader.
I sat on the cement floor that had been his bed and walked through the prison quarry where each day he had laboured in the blinding, burning light of the limestone.
Surviving on small meals of ground corn and powdered water, the dampness of his cell would bring him tuberculosis, the dust and glare off the limestone would damage his tear ducts, leaving him unable even to cry.
We were taught much of the legend but it meant nothing until I met the man.
It was barely a few years into his presidency, in the early nineties, that Nelson Mandela first smiled at me.
It was a school occasion, we had drawn artwork for him and we took it in turns to line-up and meet him.
I shuffled forward shyly when it came to my name, offered my hand, and he took it warmly yet gently in his with a wide, wide smile.
It was a smile so generous that the corners of his eyes crinkled.
“That’s the most beautiful picture I’ve ever seen,” he said happily.
And in that moment, it felt like I was speaking to my grandfather, to a kind and gentle man I already knew.
He must have met thousands of children over his lifetime and probably told many of them that their pictures were beautiful, yet from then on, for me, he became more than Mandela, President of South Africa – he became ‘Madiba’ – art appreciator, gentleman and inspiration.
As the world looks on as outsiders to the grief of an entire country and the media try to report on the sheer loss of such a man, it may be difficult for many to comprehend how one man can be so beloved by his people, especially at a time when devotion to the world’s politicians and leaders is not so particularly high.
Yet for those who remember a time not so long ago, when the blood of South African children stained the soil, when race turned on race out of fear and ignorance, Nelson Mandela was a symbol of hope – hope and faith that people could be better than they thought they could be.
He was a salve to wounds that apartheid had driven deep into the nation’s psyche and that nation took him into her heart, allowing him to heal her from within.
In Africa, when a great Chieftain dies, his people go into mourning for a year. They don black cloth, refrain from singing or dancing and only allow the days to be used for grieving.
On the day that year of bereavement ends, the black cloth is torn off and burned. Neighbour welcomes neighbour with singing, dancing and the mourners are reborn out of their grief.
In one years time, on the anniversary of this day, there is no doubt that the country Nelson Mandela dedicated his life to will celebrate the man who inspired their journey to freedom and peace.
Today that nation cries but tomorrow the legacy of a great man continues – the legacy of their chieftain, their leader and their father.
“I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can only rest for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not ended.” Nelson Mandela
Siyakukhulula tata, hamba kakuhle. We release you father, go well.