On February 1st, 1990 I slid into my seat in English class and saw something which was to mark the beginning of my political consciousness. With the sharp tip of their compass, someone had etched their pointed remark into the wooden desk: “FREE MANDELA – 2 FEB ’90”
I went home and asked my Mom about it. She filled me in: remember that time when there were election posters and we asked her who she voted for and she said she had spoiled her vote? Well, that was why. And remember how we went to a private school so there would be kids of all races in our class, and sometimes we had bomb drills and learned about hand grenades because our multi-racial school was often threatened? Well, that was why. There was a resistance to the Way Things Were, she explained, and Nelson Mandela was the head of that resistance. He had been in jail for 27 years, and there were rumors that his release was imminent.
Things were changing. The writing was on the desk, after all.
The following day I watched goggle-eyed and newly-born as FW de Klerk announced that Mandela was to be released. 9 days later we watched again as he walked out of prison: with wonder, joy and a little apprehension as to what that would mean.
And so it came about that we witnessed the change of South Africa from Apartheid into the New South Africa, with Madiba (as we came to call him) at the helm. We celebrated the first free and fair elections 4 years later, in my first year at university. I had the privilege of taking Constitutional Law during the very year that the interim Constitution, and the new Final constitution, were being hammered out. I celebrated when Mandela appeared at the Rugby World Cup (the first hosted in South Africa after years of sanctions), wearing Pienaar’s No 6 jersey – a symbol of peace and oneness to white South Africans if ever there was one.
Through it all, Madiba’s dignified, peace-making, authoritative, conciliatory voice set the tone. There was no one in whose hands and under whose leadership South Africa could have have fared better. I loved him.
Even after he stepped down from power, his influence was still felt. What would Madiba do? What would he say? Eyes continued to look to him for a measured and wise response as bewildering things happened in South African politics. As the years have gone by he has become older. frailer. And increasingly the Future Without Mandela has loomed before us.
Today Madiba lies on his death bed. Soon he will take his last breath and close his eyes to this life, only to open them and meet God. I do not know where he stands with God or what he has believed about Jesus, but this much I do know:
In 1 Timothy 2 we are told to pray for all those in authority, so that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, says Paul. I take it to mean that we are to pray for stable and just governors, under whose leadership quiet and fruitful living can take place.
In these last hours of Madiba’s life on this earth, I am thankful that he was just that kind of leader: one who led in such a way that South Africa was peaceful and quiet in a time when it could have been tumultuous and bloody. This was good, and pleased God our Savior.
Good bye, Tata, and thank you.
Update: After several months in a coma, Nelson Mandela passed away on December 5th, 2013, my 37th birthday. He will be deeply grieved and forever loved.