In 1991, I came to a hateful, racist country that was on the verge of revival. Coming from Zimbabwe, I was shocked to see no black, Indian or coloured children in my class. “Where are they… the children of colour?” I asked my teacher one day. She looked at me confused. “Didn’t your parents tell you? We are separated here. We are different.”
Different? My black friends in Zimbabwe all spoke English. They taught me the beauty of an African sunset, those were the only colours that mattered.
I spoke fluent Shona. I could sing the national anthem, which has the exact same tune to the South African one, Nkosi Sikelel ‘iAfrika. The television spoke of a civil war rising between the ANC (African National Congress) and the IFP (Inkatha Freedom Party).
My parents were glued every night to the screen: “Maybe it’s time we go back?” “But we just got here.” Chris Hani’s gruesome assassination in his driveway rocked the country the most. He was the Communist Party leader and yet, being so popular, there was hint he had a good chance at winning the next elections.
The unrest and murders were documented by the Bang Bang Club in photojournalism that shocked the world. The ANC’s leader, Nelson Mandela (a Xhosa), was set free. For years, the country had labelled him “a terrorist.” Today, he is known as our most cherished “freedom fighter.” He was even condemned by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, who later visited him as our leader.
I was only eight years old when Nelson Mandela took the oath in April 1994, next to FW De Klerk, to rebuild our country and her people. Yet, I remember it like yesterday. A man of peace stood before us. He was imprisoned for 27 years for treason. He was only allowed to send one letter every six months and get a visitor for only 30 minutes once a year.
It takes a lot to stand against your oppressors, learn their language and finally lead them. It takes a Godly man. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize alongside De Klerk.
My dad took us to the Union Buildings the week after our first democratic elections. There was still confetti all over the lawns. Our new flag was flown proudly above the arches.
“Do you know what this man and flag mean for all of us?” Dad asked us.
“It means we are all free. We are free to vote. We are free to take the same bus. We are free to go to the same schools.”
The rainbow flag fascinated me the most: the red for our blood-shed, the white for our peace, the yellow for our riches, the blue for our two oceans, the black for our tribes. The green “Y” shows two parts becoming one. Eleven languages were a result of our separation known as “homelands.” I even remember taking my domestic worker regularly to check her pass, a few years before. “I am different to you,” she showed me. “I have to be in bed at a certain time, I cannot go to certain places.” She had eyes, ears, a nose and curly hair like me and I also had to be in bed by a certain time, it was hard for a young child to understand.
Little by little, my father’s prophecy came true. Black, coloured, Indian children trickled one by one into my school. The children played with each other’s hair the most, it was fascinating to finally meet them. Nelson Mandela’s real first name is “Rolihlahla” meaning ‘pulling the branch of a tree’ and that’s exactly what he stood for. He took a poisoned tree of South Africa and gave her new branches: the branches of courage, forgiveness, patience and peace.
People were worried the TRC (Truth and Reconciliation Commission) trials would open old wounds. And, while they did, our new country (thanks to Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu) bled less in her quest for peace. Most perpetrators were given amnesty or asylum elsewhere.
Nelson Mandela saw the one thing that united us all: sport. While the black people of South Africa loved football (or soccer, as we call it), the whites preferred rugby. As documented by the Hollywood movie Invictus, Nelson Mandela stood at the Rugby World Cup in 1995, shaking hands with our Springboks. They sang the new national anthem proudly that day, after much practice, and took the cup home for us. That golden cup represented a golden era for South Africa that would forever be known as the “Madiba years.” Father of our nation aka Tata Madiba, for his clan name. He was our oldest elected president at 75. But, he’s not only “father of the nation,” he’s keeper of peace and guardian of our rainbow nation.
Today, I am struck with the realisation it’s time to let him go. Yet, like so many other South Africans, I am unable to free the man that set us free. South Africa stands uncertain: what will happen to the ANC? To our peace?
My only wish is that his last memory of us will be positive. Despite our xenophobia, crime and incessant complaining, that we can rise above and meet his ideals again: a country bound by love and forgiveness. You divide a nation by fear and hatred. Those who fear and hate, they flee. He gave us courage and taught us forgiveness. The problem with every rainbow, is that it slowly fades, but its beauty lives on. Mandela painted that rainbow for us.
In 2004, with his help, we were given the chance to host the 2010 FIFA World Cup. It was the biggest challenge to ever face South Africa; our stadiums were small or worn down. But, somehow, his smiling face grabbing onto that trophy motivated us.
In 2006, I interviewed eight 8-year olds for a newspaper article about what they would give him for his 88th birthday. Their answers were beautiful: “eternal life,” “immortality,” “freedom” and “happiness.”
Today, I am teaching four and five year olds what he means to us. These freedom babies have still a lot to learn about his legacy. Their messages on their art for his hospital wall reveal, however, that they finally comprehend what he stands for:
“He is the grandfather I always wish I had.”
“Our country will be so sad without him.”
“He was the best president we ever had.”
“Mandela means freedom for us all.”
“It’s thanks to him, I can go to school with everyone.”
It’s the biggest full moon of the year. In a way, she consoles us: “Don’t worry, South Africa. Rest assured, his light will shine on.”