I knew before the messages came in that Nelson Mandela had died. Now comes the hard work of trying to keep his legacy alive by working, respectfully and continuously, with the poor and the marginalised.
I feel like a chunk of life has been physically torn from my body. It is an end of an era in my life. Another chapter closes with a thud of finality. A dream yanked from under my feet.
The last time I felt this was the death of my Mother in 1989. Travelling on a restricted passport, valid for 2 weeks, I had travelled to Copenhagen to meet with our fraternal trade union allies. She had been admitted to hospital but she had insisted that I go and do my work and see her when I got back. She had passed away while I was in my meeting.
I had insisted on finishing the meeting and then go back to my room to release the torrent of emotions and tears that had dammed up. In the mix-up over the travel arrangements back I missed her funeral and it took me several years to close that chapter and find peace with her death at the cusp of our victory against Apartheid.
December 6th 2013: I was in the air when the news broke. I was returning from a GAIN board meeting, a public/private global foundation that I chair, fighting malnutrition and hunger facing two billion people in the world. It was an issue close to the heart of Mandela, who famously said, “Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity; it is an act of justice. Like slavery and Apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings.” I see today that face of poverty as a hungry child who is stunted.
When the plane landed in OR Tambo airport in Johannesburg I was anxious. It’s been a hard year of intense travelling and building a campaign against hunger and addressing the cancer in our own society of the failure of governance and leadership. Being a volunteer for good causes in the world leaves little personal time in this environment of raging corruption and human greed rearing its ugly head in the world.
I was looking forward to time with my family, good books, good friends and good wine and food. I yearned to work in the garden, smell the fragrance of the flowers and breathe life again. Johannesburg is the most beautiful, relaxed place in December.
The doors opened. The weather was brisk. I overheard the chatter of the German-speaking passengers talking on their mobile phones. I caught the continuous repetition of Madiba’s name.
Instantly I knew that moment had arrived. A cold shiver ran down my spine. A wave of sadness passed through my body. I descended the stairs, the tears welled up in my eyes. I hoped no-one would talk to me. I sat in the corner of the bus and wiped away the sorrow. I feared to turn on my phone. But I knew I had to. There was a flood of messages.
My son, Kami, thankfully had come to fetch me. He gave me a deep hug. A flood of memories rushed in as I hugged him back, this time the father in me needing the son’s positive energy rather than reassuring him over some of the personal challenges of his life. At that instant he became my pillar of strength and the generations passed each other.
I met his mother and my soul mate, Lucie Page, 23 years ago. Mandela brought us together. She had come to do ten TV documentaries when Mandela was released in 1990.
I remember Mandela visiting us at home when Kami was one year old. It was 6 December 1993. Lucie’s mom was with us. He was a surprise guest for her birthday lunch. Mandela was due to travel to receive his Nobel Prize. Kami regurgitated his lunch and it spilled onto Madiba’s pants. Lucie apologised profusely but Mandela, laughing loudly, said: “Lucie, do not worry. I have spent 27 years in prison. The thing I missed the most was the sounds and laughter of children.” And with that he scooped Kami into his arms, beaming with empathy.
Photo: Madiba lifts Kami, aged two, onto the podium during the launch of Masakhane project, 1994.
Right now, Kami takes charge, carries my bags, and I follow him, shielded by his courage. I avoid the eyes of everyone.
‘Please don’t sympathise with me. I need to be alone. I need to recover my mind and claw back the memories of the past. I must sit for hours quietly in my room, in meditation and reflection,’ I think. The noise in my head subsides. I reconnect with my soul.
I am wiser today. I know I have to deal with the voids in my life. We cling desperately to the memories of Madiba, the leader, the servant of the people, who placed the national interests of his people above his party political and personal interests. In my mind Madiba belongs to the world and particularly the marginalised and oppressed, who I meet in the teeming slums and villages. When his heart stopped, humanity missed a beat.
I live in a bubble today, ear to global conversations on sustainable development. I drown in the cacophony of debates on ending poverty, environmental degradation and conflict that engulf over half of humanity today. Mandela in my mind was a revolutionary, a social justice campaigner who led us to that impossible dream of freedom in our lifetime. It what inspired millions of us; and continues to drive my beliefs today.
We weep for leaders who will embrace social solidarity and human dignity; for the leaders who will hold our dreams, our hopes and our aspirations in their hearts, like Madiba.
To the next generation, I know many of you feel cheated. We have not completed the journey we started. My generation defines young people in terms of deficit: you are seen as uneducated, unemployable, unruly and menacing on the margins. You are characterised by what you are not, not by what you could be.
I am sorry. I feel strangled for words to offer you, for the devastation we have wreaked on your future.
I recall a poem that Kami wrote as an 18 year old: “Rather than search for another Mandela, let us look for the Mandela in each one of us.”
Deep in the informal settlements and rural villages, far from the glittering ballrooms and ivory tower gatherings of the representatives of the poor, is where I find the comfort of real people. There is no double talk here, no grandiose speeches, and no merchants of poverty; just us and the people whose wisdom and durability has ensured that the lifeline is passed from one generation to them next. That is where we will build the new legions of Mandelas today.
There are times in life when one has to pause, take a deep breath and reflect on the meaning of your life. I feel that quiet but deep-seated sense of urgency now. I have learnt that the journey of life has many doubts.
But now my mind is clear. I will support, you, the next generation, to trailblaze a new path. I will insist that you become leaders, not of tomorrow, but of today. And I know deep in your hearts you will be the true cadres of building the future based on ethics, morality and respect for the diversity of our cultures and our planet that Mandela stood for. Frantz Fanon, the radical philosopher who inspired my early ideas, said, “Each generation must discover its mission, fulfil it or betray it, in relative capacity.”
Now I go to pay my respects, in private mainly, to the man who influenced so much of what my life is today. I feel that in the outpouring of grief from ordinary people, if we do not look at the politics in our country, we can be positive about the future.
As Madiba, the herald of a new political discourse etched into the 21st century, forecasted in his own unique way, left us his last commandment: “On my last day I want to know that those who remain behind say that here lies a man who has done his duty for his country and his people.” DM
THE MANDELA IN EACH OF US (Kami Naidoo-Page)
In all of us is a flame; unity in a spark;
In all of us is a shimmering light; hope in the dark;
In all of us is the vibrant bond of humanity;
It navigates our soul as a ferry; asking no levy;
Demanding as its only fee, freedom and integrity;
Because the mark of a leader is greatness in humility.
Call him what you like, Mandela, Madiba or Tata;
Search for him as you like, he is not to be found in one person;
Some values surpass the body, living only through unison;
Do not call for Mandela, rather shout for compassion;
Do not look for Madiba, rather search for love and passion;
Do not listen for Tata, instead focus on the soul of every human;
The rhythm of our hearts beating in every man and woman;
The blood of this nation flowing in each of us.
This is the lesson to be learnt, and the teacher is wise;
Even with brain and brawn, a person is just a person.
However, bring a million together, add that spark of unity;
And you will find that united we stand, but divided we fall;
And even though each individual flame is not so tall;
Together the fire burning in our hearts can illuminate the earth.
Stephen Hawking held a party for time travellers. He sent the invitation out the day after. Nobody attended.