F.W. de Klerk, left, the last president of apartheid-era South Africa, and Nelson Mandela, his successor, wait to speak in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Photographs in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

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Lala Ngoxolo, Tata: A Tribute to Nelson Mandela

“We buried our differences, singing ‘hamba kahle lala kahle go well sleep well.’”
—Ike Mboneni Muila, “After the Myth”


It was late in the afternoon on December 5, 2013, when I got the text that Nelson Mandela, our beloved Tata Madiba, had passed away. Alone in my office in the United States, I opened my computer to CNN and watched President Jacob Zuma announce the news that South Africans had been expecting for some time. With both sadness and gratitude, I silently paid homage to the man who led my country from a blighted past into a promising and hopeful future. Two weeks later, I returned to South Africa, land of my birth, to witness a country in mourning. I found a country whose people alternated between a deeply felt sense of grief for the passing of a man who had sacrificed so much for the peace that South Africa enjoys today and the joyous understanding that Nelson Mandela had finally earned his rest after many years of ill health. South Africans were still mourning, but the sense of optimism that Mandela always gave the country continued to endure and to strengthen his people. His image was everywhere. Posters hung from street poles and tributes adorned many Cape Town buildings. Homemade shrines and floral bouquets brightened the streets of the city as South Africans both mourned and celebrated the life of this remarkable man. Shortly after my arrival in Cape Town, I went to see Long Walk to Freedom, a biopic made from Mandela’s autobiography of the same name. I watched the movie, profoundly moved by the portrayal of Mandela’s struggle. And then, when the credits finished rolling and the cinema lights came on, the audience began to applaud—softly at first and then more intensely as the sound reached a deep and satisfying crescendo. In that small cinema, South Africans celebrated the life and legacy of Madiba and their rousing applause served as an acknowledgment of his sufferings and his triumphs. In the audience’s applause, I sensed the pendulum-like mood of my country, which swung between grateful optimism for the man who had quelled the tide of revolution and had spread a message of peace, and extreme sadness for what was done to the man by those who sought so ardently to maintain white supremacy for all those many years.

When I went to Robben Island for the first time in the early 2000s, long after the last political prisoners had been released, I was struck by the harshness of the place. The city of Cape Town—separated from the island by the treacherous swells of the Atlantic Ocean—seemed almost tantalizing. As was the custom, a former political prisoner was our guide, and the tolerance he preached echoed Mandela’s guiding principles. As I stood in this forsaken spot, the harsh winds buffeting me and stinging my eyes, I remembered the words of my parents, who reminded us, whenever we visited Sea Point during our childhood—that sought-after piece of real estate at the tip of the African continent so easily visible from Robben Island—of the privileged lifestyle we enjoyed while others, such as Mandela (whom they revered) remained incarcerated on Robben Island for daring to confront the white establishment that denied basic human rights to the majority of its citizens. Robben Island stands today as a reminder of the cruelty we are capable of inflicting on others. Mandela spent eighteen years of his life there, and a visit to the island—particularly to his small cell, where he was confined for challenging the status quo—is a sobering experience. Prisoner 466/64 spent years laboring in the hot sun in a rock quarry, ruining his eyesight and impairing his health. Yet he emerged a man of peace from this brutal place, and his resolve to reach out to his enemies is a testament to his dedication to his people and his commitment to his country.

Growing up in South Africa was a dislocating, almost schizophrenic experience. Living in a society that reserved jobs, land, and education for a minority of people, I was deeply struck by the sense of injustice of it all and the unearned privilege enjoyed by so few in the country. For me, it never felt appropriate to be surrounded by privilege simply because I was born with white skin. When the National Party assumed power in 1948, the South African government crafted a series of harsh laws designed to segregate the white minority from people of color and reduce people of color to the status of lesser citizens. Of course, there were those brave souls who defied the government’s edicts and championed for those who were denied access to basic human rights. But for many, the fear of retaliation by the police and the resulting brutality inflicted on those whose stories were somehow able to be heard because they were kept alive in the foreign press, proved to be a crippling force. It was under those conditions that South Africans of all races lived, and we were cut off from interacting with one another because of archaic notions of race and ethnicity. As a university student, I vividly remember visiting a black township just outside of Cape Town. My companion was a medical student, and part of his training involved providing medical services to the people in the townships. Driving from Cape Town, we noticed that the asphalt road soon became a dirt road, where the rocky, unstable terrain threatened to turn into mud whenever it rained. The houses were a series of shacks, each one built out of corrugated cardboard and reinforced with bits of steel salvaged from garbage dumps or from other buildings. The homes were crowded, and they lacked electricity and running water. It was heartbreaking to see such poverty and need, and although the smiles of the people were indeed welcoming, I was filled with a sense of deep shame and profound sorrow for continuing to live in a country whose government discriminated so blatantly against its citizens. I think that day marked the turning point for me as I came to realize that I could no longer live in a society that rejected a majority of its population simply because of the color of their skin.

When Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990, South Africans of all races were unsure what to expect. Some white South Africans feared retaliation from those whom they had suppressed for so long, and many black South Africans were angry at the years of injustice and deprivation. The white South African government had constantly reminded people that Mandela was a “communist” and an agitator, that blood would flow as a result of his release, and that black citizens would seek revenge on their fellow white citizens. Yet those dire predictions never came to pass. I recall my family’s joyful optimism when Mandela was finally released as we recognized his ability to heal the country of the sickness caused by apartheid. Seeing him emerge from Victor Verster Prison, tightly holding the hand of his beloved wife Winnie, was probably one of the most moving occasions of my life. When we first heard his calming voice and finally saw him after twenty-seven years of imprisonment (during which time the authorities released no photographs), we were truly comforted. In his first messages to the country after his release, he preached tolerance and love, reconciliation and forgiveness. As a result of his teachings, our rainbow nation was born, a country that has extended his vision of forgiveness to all South Africans who remain committed to this beautiful land today because of Mandela’s vision and guidance.

In 1994, South Africans of all colors finally were given the right to vote. As a South African living abroad, I was permitted to vote under the watchful eye of international observers. I remember that April morning in Raleigh, North Carolina, when I went to the State Fairgrounds to cast my vote for Mandela and the African National Congress. It was early morning, and I was the first in line to vote. I clearly remember the excitement of the election official who checked my South African passport. Absentee ballot polling happened the day before the voting commenced in South Africa, and I was his first voter. When I told him that I was going to vote for Mandela, he proudly told me that I was quite possibly one of the first people in the world to cast my vote for what would surely be South Africa’s first democratically elected president. Together we hugged, conscious that this was truly a historic moment.

I never had the privilege of meeting Nelson Mandela. Once, in the late 1980s, I saw Winnie Mandela at what is now O.R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg. I was returning to visit my family and was standing in line at a ticket counter, trying to book a flight back to Cape Town. Winnie Mandela was in the line next to me, a regal and beautiful woman. Ringing her, however, were about five soldiers, guns in their hands, silently watching her conduct her business. In spite of this intrusion and in the face of such blatantly overt aggression, Winnie Mandela remained resolute and steadfast. Indeed, Nelson Mandela possessed that same courage and dignity as he faced down his enemies and made peace with them all. He was father to us all in our rainbow nation. His release from a brutal captivity, the tolerance he preached, and his ability to reconcile with those who had imprisoned him and enslaved an entire people gave him a saint-like status. Yet South Africans loved him like a father, a gentle guiding soul who brought our country out of the darkness of oppression into a hopeful future. Rest in peace, Tata Madiba. Your spirit continues to shine, ever brightly, over your land. Lala Ngoxolo, Tata (isiXhosa for “Rest in peace”).