It was telling, I think, that as the world’s media descended onto South Africa and scrambled for information about Nelson Mandela, South Africans waited more calmly than many imagined we would for the inevitable announcement.
When it finally came, a great sadness settled over the country, but it was not the overwhelming grief and anguish that comes when the death is too soon or unexpected or accompanied by a sense of futility of a life cut abruptly short. It was, rather, the more temperate sorrow of an inevitable parting. We knew for a long time that this moment was drawing near.
As the world continues to idolize him and by doing so, perhaps diminish him a little, South Africans will see him as much more than a symbol of unity or a superhero who fought all manner of evil to triumph. We remember his acerbic comment that he was only a saint if a saint was a sinner who kept trying, and we will try to critically examine his life, his successes and his failures.
In his most famous speech, made as an accused in the Rivonia treason trial, Madiba (his clan name) spoke of the ideals to which he had committed his life. He addressed a court that held the power of life and death over him, laying bear his willingness to die for “a democratic and free society in which all people live together in harmony and with equal opportunities.”
Although South Africa made the transition from apartheid state to democracy, it remains one of the most unequal and divided societies in the world. Twenty-three years after the end of apartheid, South Africa is plagued with high levels of corruption and nepotism, unresolved racial tension, high levels of violent crime, and deep and seemingly intractable poverty. At times, we seem very far from the country that Madiba wanted us to be.
But we are also not the country that many believed that we would become after his release in 1990. It seemed impossible as he walked out of prison into a warm Cape Town afternoon that day in February, that South Africa would not descend into bloodshed and chaos. Indeed, for many, many months after his release, we teetered on a knife edge before we did indeed make a relatively peaceful transition to democracy and Madiba was inaugurated as the first president of a non-racial South Africa.
Perhaps his greatest legacy was his willingness and ability to reach across the many fault lines in South Africa society. Madiba had a rare gift for reconciliation, an almost preternatural ability to identify moments that could bind a divided and damaged country into a nation, coupled with a talent for showmanship. Few South Africans, black or white, will forget the moment, now immortalized in a Hollywood film, when he strode onto a Pretoria rugby field clad in the green Springbok jersey that had symbolized white privilege for many black South Africans. He took tea with Betsie Verwoerd, the widow of the architect of grand apartheid Hendrik Verwoerd, and included members of the National Party in his cabinet of national unity.
For many blacks, this focus on reconciliation and forgiveness was understandably frustrating; many will argue that he effectively allowed whites to maintain their economically privileged position, helping to further entrench inequality. Others point to his initial failure to respond to the AIDS crisis as a serious mistake.
I was a law student at Wits University in Johannesburg when Mandela was released and I joined a crowd of students to walk the short distance from campus into Hillbrow, at that time one of the few unsegregated places in South Africa, to mingle with the ecstatic crowds as they celebrated his long walk to freedom. It was a matchless moment, a night that is crystal clear in my memory: two decades later, I can still clearly see the elation of the taxi driver who stopped his mini-bus in the middle of the street, tears pouring down his face, to grab a poster of Mandela’s long-unseen face. I also remember the warmth with which we, privileged white students, were invited to join a party that lasted long into that night. I think it is those moments, which seemed almost miraculous, that will sustain us and remind us what Madiba means to us.
Hamba gahle (go in peace), Madiba.
Liesl Gerntholtz, a South African lawyer and human rights activist, is women’s rights director at Human Rights