Ordinarily, I should not have much to say about Mandela’s passing: I was void when he came to prominence, a fingerling when he walked to freedom, a fry when he became president, a fry still when he completed his one and only term in office, plus, apart from my skin, I am far from being South African. I did not know that South Africa won the Rugby World Cup in 1995, then, because of course, football was the only sport that mattered, and I was only but larva learning to take in the world. I must have learnt that later in my sponge-like aggregation of trivia; that knowledge was branded into my memory with the movie Invictus. But I do remember seeing him in the crowd at the Africa Cup of Nations in 1996, in which, if my memory serves me right (no, I do not want to google this), South Africa ran out 4-nil winners over Burkina Faso or so, with Benny McCarthy getting a goal or two. Mandela wore a Bafana jersey, salt and pepper hair, a scraggy face, some crinkles and that electric eternal smile. There were also the occasional Mandela songs, like the fascinating swinging rhythm of the “Free Nelson Mandela now!” refrain playing in my head as I write this. But somewhere in the atmosphere of my childhood it hung, unobtrusive as the sky, that Nelson Mandela is a great man.
A few years later in secondary school, I read Long Walk to Freedom. A new supply of books had just arrived at the school library and naturally, my voracious appetite for books meant that I eventually got to it, an appetite that eventually saw me made Library Prefect. I remember this book sitting next to a biography of Stalin, The Iron Man, which I struggled in vain to read, perhaps because of what I had learnt of him, and that American conditioning, by American thrillers, that nothing but cold murderous bastards could come out of Russia. I have forgotten most of the things I read in Long Walk to Freedom, because I must have read it for the same reason I had read most of the “interesting” books of the Bible, or most books I read at the time: that instant entertainment in stories. But I remember some accounts of his boyhood, especially the run-up to the initiation ceremony. It was also in Long Walk to Freedom I first encountered the name Rolihlahla.
Then in my third year at university, I lay on my side, on my bed and watched Invictus. I cried, which was a rude slap to my male ego. The last time I cried was as a result of my mother’s not sparing the rod. Her beatings weren’t vicious at all – and they were done with what she called the Iseketu plant – but I cried nonetheless, curious, because I had teachers in secondary school and primary school skilled at brutal caning whose atoris and pankeres I bested with stubborn aplomb.
I cried as a result of knowledge. Well, not knowledge per se; I still do not understand the act. How is a man subjected to the cruelty of political imprisonment capable of such Messianic acts? How well can I forgive people who hurt some trivial sensibilities of mine for a few hours? Can I forgive a people who consciously locked me away for 27 years because of my agitations to be treated as human too? The enormity of the answers or non-answers, the incomprehensibility of it all, humbled me, immensely, like my mother’s caning. In my mother’s case, the question was: how could she cane me – regardless of that I deserved it – if she loved me? And then I began to cry, a soundless tribute not to the man really, but to the deed. How much different was Mandela’s post-jail deeds from “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”? How much?
“The soul of Africa has departed, and there is nothing miraculous left in the world,” was all Wole Soyinka offered the morning after, Soyinka who isn’t known for his economy with words. Was he contemplating the same matters as I? Again, how did Mandela forgive and forge ahead? How did Jesus walk on water? Miracles indeed. And as I tweeted, the first question my father asked me the morning after was: isn’t he the Jesus of our time? My father is a Muslim.
Reading Desmond Tutu’s tribute to Mandela gave me some insight into the why and maybe not the how of Mandela. The Mandela before the Sharpeville massacre, with his belief in Gandhi’s activist methods, and the Mandela that was sentenced to life imprisonment at 44 can be summarised in Keorapetse Kgositsile’s “Mandela’s Sermon”.
Blessed are the dehumanized
For they have nothing to lose
But their patience.
False gods killed the poet in me. Now
I dig graves
With artistic precision.
Making good art requires devotion, most times punishing. Mandela devoted the same passion to armed struggle he had devoted to patience, hoping to outlast evil, unarmed struggle. “He had an incredible empathy,” Desmond Tutu wrote, and yes, that empathy was the poet killed in Mandela. It was the resultant fiery Mandela, who had recently gone abroad to receive military training, who went to prison. As hindsight tells us and Desmond Tutu reminds us, Mandela needed prison to become the man we all revere today. Hear Desmond Tutu:
People say, look at what he achieved in his years in government – what a waste those 27 years in prison were. I maintain his prison term was necessary because he went to jail, he was angry. He was relatively young and had experienced a miscarriage of justice; he wasn’t a statesperson ready to be forgiving: he was commander-in-chief of the armed wing of the party, which was prepared to use violence.
The time in jail was quite crucial. Of course, suffering embitters some people, but it ennobles others. […] People could never say to him: “You talk glibly of forgiveness. You haven’t suffered. What do you know?” Twenty-seven years gave him the authority to say, let us try to forgive.
Earlier in the year, when premature news first spread of Mandela’s death, I knew I was going to cry upon his eventual passing. I just knew. I even began an article then, which I cannot now find, which is good, because I’m sure it had a different bent although the subject of tears definitely came up.
I had just terminated a call to a friend and began chatting with another on the Blackberry Messenger when the latter’s “Personal Message” caught my eye. “R.I.P Mandela,” it began. Was it another hoax? I quickly rushed off to Twitter. It was true: all the trusty news outlets were agog with the event, and a million celebrities were tweeting tributes, including apparently, a slightly confused Paris Hilton. I had thought the occasion of his death would come to me in form of a great interruption; the sudden flash of a “breaking news” graphic interrupting my favourite show, and in my more grandiose contemplations, earth tremors, an invisible hand, perhaps of God himself, scribbling the news across a star-lit sky, or perhaps the clouds and the sun showering the earth simultaneously, as they say of lion births. Something out of the ordinary. Anything awe-inspiring. Something, anything befitting the occasion. But no, I had to learn of it through the insignificance of a “personal message” in the ugly interface of the Blackberry Messenger. I couldn’t possibly cry, could I now?
Perhaps if I watched Invictus again, perhaps then I would be sufficiently touched. I’ve wondered how I’ll take the event of my parents’ demise, should I outlast them, as I and they hope. Would I be stoic and philosophical? But, as the magnitude of the occasion dawned I began to feel a familiar welling, which cleared soon enough. Then I began to contemplate the questions again: How did he forgive them? How? Why did he not choose bitterness, which must have been the easiest summonable emotion? Why did suffering ennoble him, rather than embitter him? How many of his example can I point to?
I went in search of Invictus, Willian Ernest Henley’s poem.
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
My lower lip tilted forward, my face constricting. The words of the poem swam. Several blinks materialized, to ride to the rescue of my ego. Alas, Salahadin had breached the gates of Jerusalem, the dam had burst, things fell apart. Had she been home, my mother would have chuckled at what she assures me are my trademark sobs. If this was anything to go by, I’d better prepare the kerchiefs for when my folks go home, which I hope will not be for a long, long time.
Nothing miraculous is left in the world, truly, for in a world where we seek heroes to foist upon them our hopes and frailties, the final miracle has ridden into the ages.