happy birthday, tat’ omkhulu Madiba
It is an amazing thing to live to 90, and as the whole world celebrates with Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, nobody is really surprised. Mandela has been such an enormous gift to the world and to South Africa. He continues to inspire hope and belief in justice against all odds. In many ways I am of a generation of South Africans who experienced him in many different ways, almost all of which invite admiration. But he is human, even if he is mostly a great example of what humans can be. And precisely because he is human, he is no saint and by no means perfect.
When I was a little girl growing up in the Eastern Cape, his name was synonymous with Robben Island, courage and beating apartheid. It was a name that was deliberately spoken defiantly, like Biko’s and like that of his then partner, Winnie Nomzamo. But it was also spoken alongside his comrades who were also symbols, as well as more local activist names. I remember being in high school at Inanda when one Natal (as it then was) paper published a photograph of the imprisoned Mandela whose photograph was not to be published according to the apartheid state. I remember a group of us, young Black women in our teens pouring over it and trying to memorise that face. I cannot recall exactly what year that was, but I went to Inanda from 1985-1987.
I arrived in Cape Town for the first time in my life, to begin university study on the day Nelson Mandela addressed crowds at Grand parade. To say it was a day of delirious happiness would be a gross understatement. It was literally the beginning of a new time – South Africa was becoming a different country from the one I had spent my childhood in. I also remember how the media and several commentators prematurely pronounced that a “new South Africa” had arrived. It had not. 1990 was still apartheid South Africa, but it was a significant stage of the process of its end.
I was proud to use the stickers, posters and pins made for the first democratic election campaign. I was proud to canvass from our base in Community House in Salt river in the lead up to the 1994 elections. And I was again delirious beyond words when I voted on the 27th of April, and shortly thereafter watched my president sworn in. In that year, I was as close to patriotic – althrough not nationalist – as I ever was. Daddy had every book on and/or by Mandela available. The sun bleached sticker with children surrounding him and the words “Nelson Mandela for president” was still on my Dad’s car twelve years later when his soul passed on.
I have loved living in the world where Nelson Mandela is a shining example of intergrity. I was sad and disappointed when he and Winnie Nomzamo split for various reasons too numerous to mention. There have been times when I thought President Nelson Mandela too soft on South African whites, or institutions that thrived under apartheid.
But I have always been glad for his example in the world. Happy Birthday, Madiba, Dlomo, Sophitsho, Vela belungis’ ukuhlala, Mthembu.