Wednesday, July 18, 2007

For 27 years the name Nelson Rolihlala Mandela held mystical sway over South Africa's population. For some he was considered a dangerous criminal - to the rest of us he represented everything we hoped for. A terrible burden, really, to carry the weight of a nation's expectations.

As a maximum security prisoner on Robben Island, Mandela could not be quoted in the press. No photographs of him were allowed. We all knew what he'd looked like as a young lawyer before his imprisonment, but several decades meant it was unclear what he actually looked like. Myths and legends abounded. There were claims that people had seen him, including at least one account of him picnicing by the side of the road in the Cape - fanciful nonsense. Or was it? Years later prison officials confirmed that there were occasional excursions to the mainland (mostly to meet with the then state president), so it is possible that someone did actually see him.

The announcement of Mandela's impending release caused shockwaves across the country even though we'd been hoping for it with the release of several other high profile political prisoners in the months before. In the township where I lived, celebrating teenagers ran up and down the street for hours hitting the iron and steel poles of traffic lights and fences with a dull reverberation. The occasional firework soared upwards.

The day of his release we gathered across the road in our neighbour's lace curtained front room (we didn't have a televison) and watched him walk to freedom. Still tall, still recognizable (quite similar to artists' impressions actually), so gracious.

A few months later I helped cook his lunch the day he came to speak at a rally celebrating his release - 80 000 jubilant people turned out to hear him speak. I remember watching from the stands with friends. Present were many Umkhonto we Sizwe fighters (the military wing of the African National Congress) formerly undercover or on the run and now, only months later, out in the open. A surreal experience.

We have a long way to go yet in South Africa. Like anywhere else in the world, the rich are getting richer and the poor poorer. But Mandela provided strong and steadfast leadership at a crucial point in our history and I will always be grateful for that. Halala Madiba! Happy Birthday to the father of the nation - 89 years old today.


Anonymous David said...

Happy Birthday, big guy*.

Save me some cake.

*No, seriously, he's HUGE.

5:59 pm  
Blogger Charlotte said...

Happy Birthday to Madiba. Like the "Where were you when JFK was shot?" question, I will never forget where I was when I watched Mandela's release from prison. Having grown up under a Nationalist government, I felt it was some kind of miracle.

8:17 pm  
Blogger equiano said...

David: Tall. And very imposing.

Welcome Charlotte! Extraordinary, isn't it, how we all remember so clearly.

6:19 pm  

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