Being South African – What I Remember.

[This is a current events post related to the death of Nelson Mandela. I mean it as a personal tribute, not a political statement. Please don’t trash me with comments.]

I’ve been crying this morning, watching a clip of a flashmob tribute to Madiba. This makes no sense to me. But today I am a jumbled mess of emotions – remembering the country I grew up in, the miracle we saw, the men that made it possible and the brave choices that they made. Today, I am a little homesick for the magic of that time.

It’s strange, being here in England, watching the coverage, seeing people trying to score points for their own agenda’s. Saying “Mandela was a terrorist” or “Mandela was a hero”. The truth – Mandela was a man, a terrorist, a hero. Yes, he embraced a violent path. But for a purpose. It’s not for me to say whether that was right or not. It doesn’t matter now. We’ve had our miracle, we moved on.

This is what I remember.

I grew up as a white girl in apartheid South Africa. We had the house, the food, the servants, the car. The fear. Like a little worm crawling around the back of your brain, always the fear. I remember P W Botha sticking his pork sausage finger out of the television to declare a state of emergency. He told us to fear the blacks, but he was more than a little scary too. I remember the police knocking on our door looking for the gardener, and him jumping over the back wall because he didn’t have his pass with him. I remember when de Klerk came to power and unbanned the ANC and let Mandela out of prison. There was a different kind of fear then.

People say that he had no choice, that apartheid had to come to an end. Those people weren’t there. It could’ve gone on for another 20 years. It was a bit like being stuck in an abusive relationship – you don’t get out because you don’t know if you can. Sure the country was held together by brute force and tyranny, but it was a system that worked, after a fashion. All those international protests? The first time I’m seeing images of them is now. It was a tightly censored country, and it didn’t need to change. Not then.

And it was messy. Very messy.

I remember the violence, the crime rate shooting up. You could almost smell the blood in the air waiting to be spilled. The stutters in the negotiation process. And always, always, the fear. But it was a hopeful sort of fear. The kind that said, there is no way we can have this miracle, we don’t deserve it. It wasn’t until later that I realised that being a black South African meant more than not having nice amenities and not being allowed to vote. And Mandela knew the inequality, and chose to forgive. And told everybody else to forgive too. And they did.

I remember the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which only worked because the whole country knew this was our one and only chance for a miracle. Mandela used forgiveness as a weapon, driving his country into the future, giving us a chance.

I remember the elections in ’94, because I was still too young to vote, although many of my friends weren’t. I remember feverish panic as parties threatened to boycott the elections, the supermarket shelves bare of bottled water and tinned goods because, well, people do stupid things when they’re scared. The fear. Tinged with disbelief that we weren’t actually going to pull this off. And the giddy elation when the country didn’t go into meltdown.

But that is not what makes Mandela great, that is not why I cry, why my heart broke just a little at the news of his death.

He pulled the country together. He used whatever was to hand to preach the message of unity, he made a rainbow nation. Yes, the crime sky-rocketed, and unemployment was awful, and so much of the country was still broken, but we had something new. We had hope. We had a nation where people were turning themselves inside out to overcome decades of prejudice. We had a new flag, a new anthem, a new future.

That is why I cry.


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