It’s Nelson Mandela’s 95th birthday and his 41st day in hospital. A month ago, it seemed unlikely that Madiba would live until his birthday. But word from his daughter Zindzi is that he has made “dramatic progress” and that when she visited him on Tuesday, “he was watching television with headphones”. RANJENI MUNUSAMY writes to the Father of the Nation on this special occasion.
These have been strange times. We have been having odd weather. We keep waiting for the worst of winter to arrive but it seems like it will come late this year. Out on the streets, in the mountains and valleys of our land, and outside your hospital, it has been cold. But people are there, in all these places because life and love keeps them there.
I hope it is warm where you are and the air is light to help you breathe more easily. We have been having amazing sunsets these past few days; I hope some of the sunlight touches your bed. When you became critically ill, the moon was closer to earth than usual and mesmerisingly beautiful. Well, at first it was. When were told late that night how sick you were, we wondered if it was some sort of cosmic sign that you were about to leave us. Luckily, it was just there to light up the night sky and help us marvel at the beauty of the world we live in.
Tata, we have been very afraid and anxious when you became so sick last month. I know you have prepared us for the inevitable long ago but we are a people defined first by all the time you were away from us and then by your presence that made us great. As much we have gone on for years without seeing or hearing you, we are still your people. Just as you missed us when you were away for so many years, we miss you now and we miss what you made of us when you led us.
What started of as anxiety about your condition has given rise to a new phenomenon over the past few weeks. People have been making a daily pilgrimage to the hospital just to be close to you. Across our country, people have been praying for you and holding gatherings to celebrate your life and legacy. You are more present among us now than perhaps ever before. Your image is evident everywhere around our country, your words quoted and repeated so that we never forget them. Concern for you has transformed into commemorations of what your life represented for South Africa and the world.
It is beautiful. If only you knew how even in your illness, you are uniting this nation and impelling us to be better. Last week, a little boy you have never met shocked those attending his tenth birthday party by saying the following: “Today I am happy, but I am also a little bit sad because Nelson Mandela is in hospital. Last week I read in the newspaper that he never saw a child for 20 years when he was in jail. And because of that he loves children now. His message to us is ‘It always seems impossible until it is done’. I hope to keep on remembering those wise words as I grow older. And I hope you do too.”
This gives us hope that even when days are dark and things are going wrong in our country, your legacy is being passed on to future generations. The torch is being passed onto those who did not get to experience your greatness first hand but have the potential to make our land great again.
We wish you could see what is going on across the world and in our country today to celebrate your birthday, Nelson Mandela International Day. It seems everyone is making a special effort this year, not only because it is such a milestone but because we know how close we came to losing you. As you know, sometimes our country needs to be shaken a little to be its best.
And today, Tata, South Africa is at its best – all in your name.
Public representatives are doing what they should be doing every day, they are out of their fancy cars and offices serving needy communities. Ordinary people too are helping those in need. Children are being taught to serve those less fortunate than them. Everywhere, people are giving a little bit of themselves to improve the lives of others and better our world.
Whether it’s for 67 minutes or a few hours, what is being done in your name today is what the world can be if only we use your life as a guiding light and your words as stepping-stones on our journey.
Of course there are those who abuse your name and your legacy. Like you, there is little we can do to stop it. We can only hope that there is some goodness that was passed on from you genetically or politically to make them cease what they are doing. But Tata, be comforted that history will record the proud legacy of your organisation and your name, even when some of those who carry them now bring them dishonour. Nothing will take away from the greatness of Nelson Mandela and the glorious history of the organisation that brought freedom to South Africa.
We have been blessed these past few weeks to hear from your closest friends and comrades. They have been our eyes because we cannot see you and our storytellers to remind us of historic moments of the past. You were lucky to have each other. They don’t make people like Nelson Mandela, Ahmed Kathrada, Denis Goldberg and George Bizos, and others who have now passed on, anymore – people whose love for other human beings and selflessness never cease with age. We can only marvel and envy your generation of iconic leaders and the loyalty and comradeship you shared.
We hope that those lucky enough to be in your presence and take care of you today will share with you the outpouring of love and good wishes on your birthday. We know Graca will. Today is also your 15th wedding anniversary, so remember to have a special smile for her. It’s what keeps her going, your smiles and little gestures.
Graca has been incredible to watch, Tata. Her strength and devotion to you has been a comfort during these dark days. You have loved many women, some a mad, passionate love, others sweet infatuation. Had destiny and your dedication to the liberation struggle not intervened, you might not have found Graca. You were so lucky you did. Hers is the ultimate love.
Your 95 years of life teach us so much, and this beautiful love story continues to inspire us.
Tata, there are so many times we could have lost you, even when we didn’t know where you were and how you were doing. Yet your fighting spirit triumphed all those times, and has done so for the past 41 days.
Thank you for fighting on to stay among us and breathe the air we do. It continues to make us exceptional, extraordinary, Mandela’s people.
We are because you are. Someday, we might have to be something else, but for now we remain yours.
And so, from all of us, your people, across our land, Happy Birthday Tata. With all our love. DM
Photo: Former President Nelson Mandela smiles as he formally announces his retirement from public life at his foundations offices in Johannesburg, June 1, 2004. The anti-Apartheid icon joked about his keeping a punishing schedule despite having retired from active politics in 1999 when he stepped down as head of state. For those making demands on his time he had a crisp message: “Don’t call me, I’ll call you” he said. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings
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