The announcement came, and we were prepared. But ‘prepared’ is not the same as ‘ready’. Grief came, as it does, in its full force and with no mercy.
When the announcement finally came we were prepared for it. President Zuma confirmed what we knew. We had been talking around the table over dinner and had noticed on the news that there was activity around the house in Houghton. An hour later, we gathered around the TV screen and listened to the announcement. After President Zuma had spoken, and as the national anthem played, we sang along.
It suddenly seemed important to identify with Nkosi Sikelele iAfrika. Fists raised, we were suddenly patriotic. We were suddenly aware of how lucky we had been to have known both the tastes of struggle and it’s sweet, sweet fruits.
In a formerly white suburb, on an unusually chilly December night, we raised our glasses, toasted to having been Mandela’s children. We were aware that it was in large measure because of his stubborn determination to stand his ground that history had bent in our direction.
We didn’t cry much – we had long prepared ourselves for this day. But we were nostalgic and restless and full of an aching knowing that was hard to describe.
We flicked the channel from SABC to CNN and watched President Obama give his speech. We sighed at the possibilities that Obama had once presented us. We recognised that he was no Madiba, that he wasn’t the heir he had once appeared to be. But were moved nonetheless by his words, by his thoughtfulness and seriousness and Presidentialness. We were grateful that someone could fill that role.
Obama’s quiet grace, from so far away, reminded us of the glaring gap between who Madiba was and who Jacob Zuma is. The comparisons tumbled easily off our lips. We laugh-cried. As is often the case in death, we cried as much for ourselves as we did for the loss of Madiba. We cried, feeling somehow the inevitable unmooring of something that may never be fixed.
His death makes it impossible to ignore the seeping into our body politic of something distinctly sour.
We jumped up and began to toyi-toyi. We laughed and whistled and swapped stories – not just of Madiba, but of Thabo. We spoke a lot about Thabo. We missed him. We tallied twenty years worth of wins and losses. We marked our progress, as if to say, ‘This moment is ours as much as it is yours, Tata. If we do not measure ourselves now, then when will we do it?’
We bristled with betrayal. It was impossible not to think of the house on the hill, of the shameful events of a few days earlier. We danced and whistled again. We swallowed our rage for a while at least.
The last stanza of my favourite poem asks a simple question. Written in the darkest days of Apartheid, it asks, ‘Who will join this standing up?’ It answers its own question beautifully by refusing to name exceptional men like Nelson Mandela. It simply says what Madiba tried so very hard to teach us, a lesson that we may yet learn. It says, with quiet instruction, that ‘we are the ones we have been waiting for.’
Go well, Tata.
And who will join this standing up?
and the ones who stood without sweet company
will sing and sing
back into the mountains and
even under the sea.
We are the ones we have been waiting for
– From ‘Poem for South African Women’, June Jordan, 1978. DM
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