Recently, I was given a rare opportunity to visit the warden’s house in the compound of Victor Verster prison (otherwise known as Drakenstein Correctional Centre), where Nelson Mandela had been held for the last 14 months of his 27-year incarceration, before taking his final steps on the long walk to freedom beyond the confines of walls, fences and razor wire.
The experience was immensely poignant and thought-provoking – not only with regard to the legacy Mandela’s life had bestowed upon the nation of South Africa, but also on a personal, reflective level.
On the day Madiba died, over three years ago, like so many other people, I experienced an immeasurable sense of loss.
Walking to the Parliament building to pay my respects, everything felt dysphoric, empty and hollow on the streets of Cape Town, and while a deep reverence remained, an aspect of the Mandela name seemed to have been reduced to a kind of populist souvenir featured on mugs, trinkets and T-shirts.
I wondered which direction South Africa would take, sensing forebodingly that the notion of the “Rainbow Nation” might have evaporated at the precise moment Madiba took his last breath.
As I walked through the rooms of the house where Madiba once lived and breathed, I realised that I’ve been grieving the loss of the aspirational dream, as much as the presence of the man himself.
I want the ideal of the Rainbow Nation to reappear again, but it’s hard to conjure it up like a magic trick.
Sometimes I struggle with a sense of despair over this. Shakespeare must truly have been the mouthpiece of a Mephistophelean god.
Back in the late ‘60s, as a somewhat naive teenage girl living in the north-east of Scotland, I had an awareness about a system called “apartheid” which was taking place in another country, thousands of miles away from the cold climes of Aberdeen.
Despite the somewhat limited knowledge I had about the situation, I vowed that I would never set foot in a place where people were divided and discriminated against by their race, or the colour of their skin.
Racism was as repugnant to me then as it is now. I still cannot understand why people of different faiths, or even shared faiths, continue to make distinctions according to race or skin colour.
Looking back to when the apartheid system was finally done away with in South Africa, there was a palpable sense of celebratory exhilaration around the world. We could barely imagine that such a transformation was actually possible, but daring to imagine and believe had played a huge part in making it happen.
For so many representatives of all shades and colours of humanity, we fervently hoped that the “race” issue might finally be resolved at last. The “Rainbow Nation” slogan became incredibly resonant for millions of people in so many different ways. It contained a broad range of hopes and dreams within its colour palette.
Above all, we hoped that the young generation of “Born Frees” would inherit a vibrant country where the gap of disparity between extreme wealth and extreme poverty, distinguished by circumstances of skin colour, would become more proportionate at the very least.
South Africa could become an exemplary beacon – where transformative change had secured a country where prejudice would be replaced by racial equality, freedom, mutual appreciation and respect.
The “Truth and Reconciliation” process had been unspeakably painful for everyone who gave testimony of their darkest experiences, but while it was bold and innovative, of itself it simply wasn’t sufficient to create a sustainable foundation to ensure that children born after 1994 would not be handed a flawed and toxic inheritance.
Now in 2017, over two decades down the line, polarising attitudes of xenophobia appear to be playing out, not only in South Africa, but across the world.
Racial, religious and national tensions run so high that I wonder whether we’ve relapsed back to a version of decades past, rather than evolving towards equanimity, tolerance and peaceful coexistence.
But they say there’s always hope – obscure, elusive hope that catches your soul and pulls you forward.
So now I challenge myself to dare to hope again, despite the current chapter of tottering social and political uncertainty amid broad-based corruption, violence and madness.
Hope against despair is the ultimate directive Mandela lived by and stood for, and it resonates with me still.
But where do you find it these days? DM