I have read countless blog posts and news articles reminiscing about Nelson Mandela these last few weeks. So many of them begin “I was 9/10/21 etc when Mandela was released from jail”. It is as if we are all compelled to put down our memories of the historical moments involving this man, even those of us (especially us white people) who were completely removed from the strife of Apartheid and what was really going on in the country. Those of us who lived in a safe, ignorant bubble and knew nothing of tanks and police states and, like me, had not even heard the name Mandela.
No matter how tedious and self-indulgent these memories may sound to an outsider, I think we feel compelled to write them because Mandela truly moved so many of us, in a deep and personal way. He inspired many of us to see a rare but remarkable side to human nature, one rarely seen but made manifest by him. And because of that, we want to lock ourselves into this history, so that we never forget what he made us feel and what he did. It as if we are all just grateful that he existed, and are really moved to become better people in the brief moments when we think about him. And then we forget and go on to be mostly mediocre again. Most of us.
So here are my utterly self-indulgent memories of the historical moments surrounding Madiba, that I cling to fiercely in order to remember the rare and remarkable way in which he walked through this world.
I was 9 years old when Mandela was released from prison. There, I said it. I had spent 6 of the first 7 years of my life in Botswana, where black and white kids went to the same schools. When we came back to South Africa, my dad told me in passing that in the past black people would have not been allowed to walk on the same pavement as us and that everything from benches to beaches were segregated. We lived such a sheltered life in our white suburb, I had no idea of the violence our country was experiencing. I had no idea that Apartheid was still going strong.
Mandela’s release did have an impact on me, but not one of any political inspiration or personal reflection. We had gathered on the day of his release at the house of family friends in a kind of getting out of jail lunch party, and we clustered around the tv for what seemed an agonisingly long wait, and for what? To see a man walk out of jail? It befuddled me. Why would the world stop to watch a man walking out of jail? We did not regularly convene to watch people get out of jail, and I was sure it happened every day. I could not understand the fuss at all. I do not remember if we stayed to watch his speech, I doubt it because it was hours later and went on for a long time. My overall impression of Mandela’s speeches was that they were terribly boring. That makes me laugh now, because what he was saying was not boring at all, but he did follow that old-fashioned politician style of speaking forever. I remember feeling challenged by his accent, and proud that I could understand him. I was also not entirely sure that he was a black man – his skin seemed paler than I expected.
I remember at that age joining Brownies and being taught to draw the old South African flag. It seemed an entirely impossible task. I am very relieved that it was replaced and I did not ever have to remember how to draw it.
I also remember the year schools opened to people of all races. I was 10. Things moved quickly once Mandela was out of jail. Not that they changed overnight. But people always wanted to photograph us kids – white and Indian hanging out together – even today kids of different races playing together is a big deal in this country. We just wanted to be left alone, it seemed fake to make a big deal about it. It made something big and self-conscious out of something we were still sounding out ourselves.
I remember the election in 1994. I have written about this before. I was 13. What a disappointing cadre I was. We had been given a week off school, because ever since Mandela put a toe out of prison, certain white people have been convinced that the country will go up in flames at any time. Our school could not just give us a freebie, so they loaded us with work to complete by the end of the week. In my terrible anxiety to get it all done, I remained fairly oblivious to the fact that history was being made, that the majority of South Africans were voting for the very first time in history. My father worked for the IEC and helped people to understand how to vote. I could have gone and watched my parents vote and be part of this historical occasion, but instead I think I remember being involved in trying to construct an insect trap for Biology class. I still regret that. I don’t think I trapped a single insect anyway. I am glad about that.
I do remember Mandela’s inauguration and speech. I think this was the first time I felt any kind of emotion while watching him on TV. It was truly exciting and even I could appreciate that. I could even enjoy most of his incredibly long speech, just because I was happy that he had the opportunity to say it.
I remember learning the new national anthem. I loved it and I still do. Our school took it very seriously and made a big effort to teach us how to sing it correctly, recruiting one of the Zulu girls to make sure our pronunciation was acceptable. It’s funny because I think at that stage none of us knew who we were or what we were, but my school was 100% committed to doing a good job of being whatever it was we suddenly were. I also remember, that our history syllabus was in constant turmoil as it was adjusted and readjusted. Each year, new requirements were brought in, or so it seemed. We were in transition in every way.
I write these memories merely to say that I was there. I was unremarkable. A privileged white girl, so privileged that she had no clue about the reality of her own country. I have nothing to be proud of or to boast about. But I was there. I remember. I will never forget him. He moved something deep within me and I cannot remember when or how I realised that this was not just another boring politician, but when it happened it changed me and now I can never look back on these banal personal memories of our history without intense emotions. I am so grateful to have seen Mandela walk free, even if I did not feel that way at the time.