I wasn’t going to write about Madiba because, really, it has all been said, and in cleverer, more eloquent ways than I know how, but I was so moved – no, moved doesn’t even describe it – by the feeling at last night’s Mandela memorial at the Green Point Stadium that today I can’t think of anything else. So, I’m going to keep it short and not overly sentimental (if that’s possible for me) and just say this: it is in times of stress that a person’s true character emerges, and over the past week, as we have reeled in shock, felt blown open by grief and mourned, I think, in a more personal capacity than even we expected to do – I mean, it’s not like we actually knew the man – it has been through the pain and the sadness and the uncertainty of not knowing what’s going to happen now that the true character of our country has emerged. And in the wake of this loss, what we really are has been revealed to us in a way that is quite astonishing.
Speaking personally, I have been a little jaded of late. Nkandla and kids not getting text books for a year will do that to you. I love this country more than the sky, but there have been moments when I’ve watched our president in action and thought, yussus, guys. We’re up shit creek without a paddle here. And then Mandela died, and the way this country responded has made me realise how much unbelievable goodwill is out there for the taking; how much love, hope, acceptance and respect exists amongst our people, and how minor and insignificant our differences are. It was when a local radio station played Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika on the morning after we learned of Tata’s death and people, on their commute, pulled their cars over to the side of the road, got out and stood with their hands on their hearts. It was the picture of a young white South African man outside Mandela’s house holding an old black woman in a tight embrace as she wept for our leader. It was the woman in a domestic worker’s uniform and the old lady in a mad fur coat standing side by side on the pavement with their fingers interlaced like old lovers.
It was Helen Zille taking the podium last night and belting out Xhosa struggle songs in the strong, brave, unwavering voice of the warrior that she is; Johnny Clegg delivering an impassioned speech in Zulu before singing the song he wrote for Mandela; the black tenors singing in Afrikaans, and Freshlyground doing a spine-chilling version of Bright Blue’s ‘Weeping.’ But it wasn’t just that. It was the feeling in the air. Sitting in the stadium, I kept looking around and behind me because I was so mesmerized by the sense of love and unity that abounded in that place. Whenever you caught somebody’s eye a smile of solidarity was exchanged. We danced together and we sang together, and I’ve never known such a sense of being one people. Some young black guys laid a South African flag on the floor, and they danced around it, having a celebration of their own. A growing group of toyi-toyiing, flag and poster-wielders danced around the inside of the stadium – first this way, then that way. A white girl holding a huge flag ran to join them lest she miss out on one second of the fun.
A mottled sky began to turn pastel pink, and for about 10 seconds the clouds around the moon made a face. A few evening stars came out, and the air was soft and warm. Our girls started getting sleepy but we didn’t want to leave. There was some kind of magic in the air. As we finally made our way out of the stadium to the sounds of Ladysmith Black Mambazo starting their set I kept looking behind me, wanting to capture it all; wanting to put it in a bottle so that I could have it, always. And I will, in a way. Whatever happens to us in the future, that evening will always be stored somewhere in my heart. Because that – that love – is what South Africa really is.
The song that finally made me do the ugly cry. RIP, our Tata Mandela.