going to see his like again.

December 11, 2013

I first saw him twenty three years ago.

We sat around the television. My parents were transfixed, stunned, beaming.

‘It’s happened,’ breathed my father.

I stared at the old man smiling benignly, while the crowds went wild. We had moved all the way back to South Africa for this tired guy in a suit? I was not impressed.

It began happening around 1988. Mandela was now under cottage arrest and my father started speaking about changes.

‘Big changes.’ He said.

My parents were third generation South African and South Africa for my father was, and would always be, home. The eleven years in Atlanta and becoming US citizens hadn’t swayed him. My father was convinced that changes were going to happen soon. It was clear he was aching to come back.  He had missed South Africa, had never stopped missing it, the skies, the sun, the feeling of space, the life. He wanted to go home.

My mother was far less eager but would acquiesce. My sister was four. Her priorities involved wearing her red wellington boots to school every day and defending and explaining her actions with the word ‘cubby.’

I hated South Africa. We visited every summer, only it was winter there. Winter in Johannesburg, in my grandparent’s huge old brown house, where once, a massive gray ox tongue was served up on a silver platter. Winter, with its icy blue skies and pale yellow grasses and no other kids my age around.  The boredom and the feeling of something wrong, something stifled. Even with the huge gardens, loving family and occasional safaris and trips to the sea, I hated it.

‘I’m so glad we’re back,’ I told my mother as we walked off the plane and into the damp heat of an Atlanta summer.

A few months I was told we would be immigrating.

‘It will be wonderful,’ said my mother. ‘We’ll have our own swimming pool, our own tennis court!’ These did sound wonderful. If only I had remembered that I couldn’t play tennis and could barely swim.

So I took all twenty-two books of the Baby Sitters Club series I had, an album my classmates had made, and several packets of Jolly Ranchers and we moved.

it was even worse than I had feared.

So what of the sunshine, the magnificent spaces, and the exciting political climate when the country lacked the basic necessities such as Heinz ketchup, the M&M’s and Nickelodeon?!

I wore a school uniform. I was in hell.

In a way, it wasn’t surprising we had moved back. I had come from a fairly active politically liberal family. My great great aunt Helen Suzman had been the sole dissenting MP against apartheid in parliament for thirteen years. She had regularly visited Mandela in Robben Island, and was nominated twice for the Nobel Peace Prize. She was a huge source of pride and while it was all very well to be related to an incredible, courageous ‘fighting-for-a-free-and-fair-democracy’ great great aunt it didn’t help much when you haven’t hit puberty, let alone a single field hockey ball belted in your direction, when your clothes were stuffed down the toilet and you were bullied for having an accent, for being weird and wearing the massive baby blue framed glasses your mother had let you choose.

Back in 1990 I stared at the old man on television as he moved with quiet dignity through the crowd. Here was a man who had never given up, who had endured twenty-seven years of captivity and who would unite our country and steer us peacefully through turbulent time away from the threat of civil war into a new promising future.

‘You ruined my life,’ I thought.

The years passed without Halloween, The Fourth of July or McDonald’s. I changed schools, grew taller, made friends who were equally hopeless at sports and developed a passion for granadillas.

In 1994 I stood in line the first free election. I wasn’t old enough to vote yet, but I wanted to be a part of it. The sun shone down on all of us. It was a day of joy, when waiting had never felt so good.  People bought new suits and dresses for the express purpose to cast their vote, a right that many countries took for granted. The lines stretched and stretched around the blocks as people stood for hours but all  I remembered is how everyone smiled that day.

A year passed and then one day I met him.

It was at the funeral of the famous politician and friend Joe Slovo.

‘I met Mandela,’’ I would say to people. ‘I met him and I shook his hand.’

‘Really?’ they asked, ‘what was he like?’

He was like no one I had encountered before. He walked into the room. The energy changed. People fell silent. Everyone rose. They stood up, stopped talking. Then he was before me. He shook my hand, looked into my eyes and moved on. It was brief but there it was. I had shaken the President’s hand.

Now as I read how Netanyahu snubs the memorial claiming expense, or listen to Jon Stuart make fun of the people who freaked out about Obama shaking hands with Castro and taking a selfie, or learn how Rick Santorum is trying to turn this into a further debate about Obamacare, it all seems petty and small.

This is what I think.

He was a great man. He proved to us that sometimes justice and peace can triumph.

We thank you. We’ll miss you. May our words and actions honor your memory.

Viva Madiba Viva.


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