Letter to my son: Let me cry for Madiba
- Marelise van der Merwe
- 10 Dec 2013 (South Africa)
I write this as we wait for you to come home from your grandmother. We have not seen you since Mandela died, and I am full of apprehension. In conversation your only reaction to the news so far has been a slow ‘Yorrr…’, which is your universal response to anything that you find displeasing, whether it is to hear that you have been grounded for a term with your BlackBerry confiscated (death, catastrophe) or that you have to go and bath (mildly annoying). So I am not really sure how to gauge your reaction. Your headmaster sent an impassioned letter about Madiba to all the learners and parents, full of exclamation marks (many in a row!!!) which I was deeply grateful for; your educators are not letting you get off lightly.
But I worry about what I will say to you when you walk through the door; how I will explain to you the momentousness of what has happened or why I want to insist that you come with me to at least one memorial. This request, I suspect, will also be met with at least one ‘Yorrr’, which saddens me.
I was nine years old when Mandela was released from prison. My whole family gathered in front of my auntie’s television and there was home-baked bread and we wore our Sunday best. There was no ‘yorrr’ from us that day. We were bundled into the car and we went, boy, me in a white dress with little purple flowers and white patent leather shoes with satin bows; the same outfit that I wore to my parents’ wedding - how do you like that, Mr Mandela?
I didn’t really know what was potting at the time but, in the way that one does as a child, I picked up a fair amount by osmosis. I am sure you do as well; in fact, and I suppose this is not to my credit, I think I rely on this a little too heavily. Whatever it was, I knew it was a big deal – a wedding outfit big deal; I knew it in the same way I did when my dad used to pick me up on public holidays and take me with him to the ballot box, sometimes letting me put the X in the right spot with the pencil. I knew was doing something important with that pencil.
When I look at you today, there are so many things I wish I could explain to you. I can tell them to you in words, but you will never be able to understand them on the visceral level that those of us who lived them can do. Your mother told me earlier not to make Mandela a symbol of the whole Struggle, not to forget the many others who sacrificed their lives and not to dismiss how much of the fight was still left to do, and she was, as usual, right. But what I want more than anything is simply to tell you that without those people who gave their lives I would not live in this house with you and your mom. We could be beaten and tortured nobody would ask questions if we died. We would be the forgotten people because of our difference in race and because of who we were, and me a verraaier too. We could have died slowly in small cells, separately, and alone.
You could have been a forgotten child, a lost child. We could not have found you. You are a child, and it is the privilege of a child not to lie awake with the same terrors that parents do (it is a myth that children have the monopoly on night terrors, I am convinced: it is the parents that do, we all do.) I can keep myself awake night after night picturing what could have happened to you, what still could happen to you, in this beautiful but messed up country of ours, because of its past and what remains of the past in its present.
I am terrified for you and your friends, and I can’t say so, because it is my job as your parent to teach you to be courageous, not timid, and to teach you that the world is safe and exciting, not bitter and frightening. But inside I quake for you, and for where we have come from and could still go. I am reminded of the myth cited by Holocaust survivor Ruth Kluger, about the horseman who crossed a lake of ice. He made it across, but when he looked back at where he had come from, he died of fright. That is how I sometimes feel about this country of ours, and even now, where we live. I look back and die of fright.
One of the gifts we want to give you, as your parents, is an unawareness of race, a happiness wherever you are and whoever you are with. But I sometimes wonder. I recall that one day in the car when I was telling you about some of my travels and you innocently asked your mother, “Yorrr, why did we never do cool things like that?” Your mother crossly told you to ask me to tell you, by which she meant: Tell your child about the political system that privileged you, if you want to brag about it. So I did; a very uncomfortable experience. She told me later she had not meant to put me on the spot; she simply felt defensive and as though she had failed as a parent by not being able to give you those experiences. My heart broke a little. In your happy-go-lucky world, there are so many things you don’t know, about how this struggle for freedom still affects your life, and our family, and our conversations, even now.
Your mother was 12 when the first campsites, by law, allowed people of colour inside. Your grandfather was a great camper. He had a massive canvas tent – your mother and I have tried to resurrect it, but it’s beyond us – with several rooms and even a front stoep and windows. Every year he took his wife and the kids camping with a massive trailer and the entire lot of them lived in the bush for a good three weeks, swimming and fishing and living off braai meat. When the news came that the family was allowed to go to formerly white people’s campsites, there was great anticipation amongst the kids. This was going to be a great voyage of discovery. Only as they drove on, eventually deep into the night, each campsite was mysteriously fully booked, even as they could see the empty fields gaping ahead of them. Eventually, close to midnight, they found a kindly soul who let them in. But it was an innocence lost that they could not get back.
It’s an innocence you have, though. And what makes it so innocent is that you don’t know you have it. It’s the kind of non-racialism and blithe attitude of entitlement I’ve only seen in foreigners or the very young. But the rest of us South Africans – it’s too late for us. Your mother and I went camping with a group about two years ago and sure enough, before the first night was out, there was a screaming match between a white faction and a black faction, about music, of all things, but it somehow degenerated into kwaito vs. Nicholis Louw and then, predictably, into black vs. white. You, though, have a friendliness and confidence that I find so beautiful. No scrapping at campsites from you; no concern that you don’t deserve x, y or z. The thing is, that like most great gifts, this one’s greatness lies in that you don’t know it was given to you, or how.
If leaders are the parents of a nation, there is some overlap in our job descriptions. We are supposed to keep you safe in ways you can take for granted. Nelson Mandela and the other Struggle heroes’ great gift to your generation was precisely that: the fact that it's so effective, you don’t even know it’s there. You just take it as a given that you can have, or be, whatever you want. Your best friend is a black kid and it’s not even weird. I don’t think you know how special that is, or how many lives were lost fighting for it.
If you think I’m weird for saying that, throw yourself back to when I was in Standard Two (that’s grade four to you). That’s when we got our first black kid at school. It was weird. To me, then, black people were a different species. I wasn’t raised in a racist home, but the Apartheid system still kept black people far enough away that they were a completely unknown factor, and the media – well, I’ll get to that in a minute.
The new kid had big round eyes and knock-knees and her name was Shine. Our teacher had prepped us heavily and told us to be extra nice to her because she was very special. As kids do, I got to know this new alien by playing Block and Goomee, and she seemed okay. But the first time she fell down in the playground, I was completely thrown to see that her blood was red. It took a long time before the black kids in my school became human to me – other kids, instead of peaceable but undeniably alien playmates.
You see, white kids and kids of colour alike were raised in fear. I won't presume to speak of anyone else's experience here. But by the time I was six, we were living in a State of Emergency. My sister and I used to run down to Wayne’s Bakery downstairs to buy sweets and eclairs. We lived in Mowbray then; a so-called “grey area” which caused great consternation among the rich white parents at my snobby school (we were poor and not terribly classy); the general response was one of pitying disbelief that one could raise children in an area that accommodated the occasional black person. By then there were military tanks on the streets and frightening 3D posters up in Wayne’s, showing models of terrorist weapons and bombs. My sister, who always had a taste for the ghoulish and had the advantage of being able to read, told me in spine-chilling detail what each weapon could do. To this day, when I see an unmarked, unattended plastic bag in a mall toilet, I shudder.
We were taught, by the media and everything else, to fear black people. We were taught that they were vengeful, rage-filled, violent savages who would kill us if they ever had the power. This was not just in South Africa: it was further afield too. My grandfather was a historian and our family albums were dominated by pictures of him documenting the Mau Mau, my grandmother in tow, sedately riding through the streets of Kenya with a massive rifle slung over her arm. I look at you and I cannot imagine filling a child with such thoughts; it is obscene to me.
Mandela might be, as your mother says, a symbol, but he is a powerful one: he became a symbol of peace. He was the antidote to all that poison; the man who slowly but surely, through his kind words, humility and grace, chipped away at those years and years of hate. He became the truer story. And that was a story in which we did not kill. That gave all of us in this generation the chance to raise our children with love.
There are those who say, now, that he sold out. But I see something else alongside. I told my dad, once, that I thought the opposite of love was fear. In that way, I think Nelson Mandela was very, very brave. I also think that in his courage, he has a lot to teach us ordinary people about love, and that is something that we can take with us beyond our political past and into our personal lives, into the future. You don’t need to have lived through Apartheid to understand that.
This is a man whose death is making Constantia housewives hug street people on the Grand Parade and letting these different folks hold each other while they are crying; he's a man who moved a homeless man to put a tin of pilchards on the memorial because it’s the only thing he had to give, and he wanted to pay his respects. That’s the kind of spirit I want to pour into you when I see little hints of snobbery coming out in you from time to time, those slight side-effects of the post-Apartheid good life: I want to point you back in the direction of those who are less fortunate and repeat, There but for the grace of God go I. I want you to grow, my boy, with that love and humility towards all.
Nelson Mandela put some of that love in your life, too, by leading us not into war but into reconciliation. He made it possible for you to be a Born Free, not a civil war baby. Do you have any idea how huge that is? It is your whole life, 180 degrees of difference, right there. You could have been born into food rations and bloodshed. Instead, you are born into BlackBerrys and PlayStations. Next time you go upstairs and play Fifa, I want you to think about that, really think about it.
In my own small life, he became the man who fought for gay rights, so that I could have the right to marry the person who would be my life partner, and parent you. He made our family possible. He also became the man who embodied forgiveness for me, so that, when it came to walking away from early years of life in which I had much to forgive, I had the strength to break the chains and do so. That, too, made me able to be a parent that could love, not just suffer and cause suffering. It has helped me to be good to you. And I hope that one day it will help you to forgive the things that you find you need to forgive in your life.
South Africa is a chronically traumatised nation. Not just through the legacy of Apartheid, but through our ongoing pains of violence, drug abuse, and the losses we suffer every day to HIV/Aids and domestic violence. Your mother and I – in our generation – fought very different demons to those you will face. But make no mistake, your generation will have enough to fight as well – you already do. And I hope, that as you move into a post-Mandela era, you do not forget entirely where we have come from, but abandon what is broken and build on what is good.
I hope that we took enough from this great leader to pass the baton to you when the time comes. That is why I want you to come to a memorial, and not to roll your eyes too much when you see me get emotional about a man I didn’t know.
Because you will need all the love, the fearless love, that the likes of Nelson Mandela could have given you; and I want you to understand as much as you can while you still have the chance. The great man is gone, but – if there is any luck and mercy in this world at all – his spirit is not, and you will get to share in some of that great privilege. DM