Nelson Mandela championed our fight for freedom and justice, he transformed our country with his vision and his humanity and he inspired a global awareness of human rights. Our world was better, brighter, and more wondrous when he was in it. My world was simply more beautiful when he was in it.
The black suit said it all.
Of course it was obvious what had happened – the late night activity at Madiba’s Houghton home, the special address to the nation by the president across television and radio channels, the pall in the air.
We had been prepped long ago that that’s how the feared announcement would finally be made. And there it was, unfolding second by second.
Still. Maybe President Jacob Zuma would say he wanted us to pray for him because his condition had deteriorated again. Maybe Zuma would even use that awful “critical but stable” term again. Perhaps the tweet saying there was “a scare with his respiratory equipment” was true and Zuma was just keeping us updated. Maybe they needed to take him back to hospital. Maybe something else horrible happened that had nothing to do with Madiba. Maybe.
It is amazing how denial is an easy refuge to avoid the prospect of unimaginable pain.
Then the president appeared in that suit, the colour of death.
In an excruciating moment, the world changed. Zuma told his fellow South Africans that Nelson Mandela had “departed”.
One piercing word. Departed. He had gone away. He had left us.
He left me.
I don’t know why Tata chose me. I don’t know why I was allowed into his space. I don’t know why he told me the things he did, some of his views and private thoughts to haunt me forever.
That look in his eye, the finger curled over his top lip, the loaded pause – you just knew when he was about to say something heavy. As a journalist, it was tantalising and tormenting. As a human being, my heart bled.
But sometimes he was funny and quirky, and occasionally insistent. Back then, he wanted me to change jobs and got me into an awkward situation when he tried to arrange it. He wanted me to excel and to stand out, and sometimes I tripped and fell trying to do so.
He wanted me to find great love. Not the intense passionate love I wanted but the exceptional love he himself had searched for throughout his life.
He was a deep and complicated man. His life as a political animal defined him, yet it was his compassion and profound love for others which made him the greatest person of our time. Perhaps it was all his years of being away from ordinary people that gave him the special ability to connect with those he encountered.
I felt connected to him even when I was not with him. And when I couldn’t see him anymore, I could still feel his presence and hear him. I longed to talk to him, aching to tell him the things that had happened, the terrible mistakes I had made, my sorrows, my triumphs.
On his birthday this year, he was gravely ill in hospital and I wrote him a letter to tell him how his country and his people were celebrating his life. I knew he would never get to read it but it was part of my drawn-out, torturous effort to stay connected and yet make peace with the fact that he was slipping away.
The last time I saw Tata was at an ANC rally in Pretoria to honour him and bid him farewell after his retirement from public life. I stood in the throng of journalists in front of the stage watching his face. The excitement when children came up on stage to sing, the air of concentration when important people were speaking, the delight when he glanced around the stadium as people chanted his name or sang songs in his honour. And occasionally, that heart-breaking blank stare that became prevalent in the pictures and footage taken in the epilogue of his life.
When the rally ended, he was taken around the stadium in a golf cart to wave to the crowds. Eventually the golf cart, surrounded by a phalanx of security personnel, manoeuvred through the crowd towards the waiting convoy. I was pushed along by the crowd and somehow ended up standing opposite his car. Tata struggled as he was helped out of the cart to the car. The screams of the crowd was deafening as people tried to surge forward. Security was anxious to leave.
Then, as his head was dipping down to climb in, he glanced over the roof of the car and saw me. He stopped. The face beamed and his hand came up to wave.
I tried to say something but was overcome with tears. With a flash of that winning smile, he was gone. I knew then I would never see him again.
Nelson Mandela championed our fight for freedom and justice, he transformed our country with his vision and his humanity and he inspired a global awareness of human rights. Our world was better, brighter, and more wondrous when he was in it.
It was difficult not to be enamoured by him, and the world’s most powerful, most beautiful and most famous fell under his spell. But he also gave a little bit of himself to ordinary people like me, for reasons none of us will ever understand. Like many people whose lives were touched by the great man, I treasured the privilege of having been allowed in his presence.
With the privilege came the agony of not being able to let go and sorrow when the candle finally went out.
And because our words and tributes will always be inadequate for so great a loss, we can rely on a wordsmith of yesteryear to say express what we cannot.
I carry your heart with me
by E. E. Cummings
i carry your heart with me (i carry it in
my heart) i am never without it (anywhere
i go you go, my dear; and whatever is done
by only me is your doing, my darling)
no fate (for you are my fate, my sweet) i want
no world (for beautiful you are my world, my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you
here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life; which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart
i carry your heart (i carry it in my heart) DM
Ranjeni Munusamy is a survivor of the Salem witch trials and has the scars to show it. She has a substantial collection of tattered t-shirts from having “been there and done it” – from government, the Zuma trials, spin-doctoring and upsetting the applecart in South African newsrooms. Following a rather unexciting exorcism ceremony, she traded her femme-fatale gear for a Macbook and a packet of Liquorice Allsorts. Her graduation Cum Laude from the School of Hard Knocks means she knows a thing or two about telling the South African story.
"The surest defence against Evil is extreme individualism, originality of thinking, whimsicality, even—if you will—eccentricity." ~ Joseph Brodsky