Mourning a Man Who is Not Mine to Grieve: Africa’s Mandela

Though his death was no surprise, I was surprised by how much it hurt to read this morning. My heart has been tumbling over itself with emotion. I learned the news from my nephew in America. Here in South Africa I woke with Kurt around 4:45. The first thing I do each morning is check my smartphone for email, not news. I want love and connection to begin my day, and usually there is at least one email from a friend or family member back in the states. The most recent email popped up first, with my nephew telling me how sad he was to hear about Nelson Mandela. We emailed a couple more times. We both cried. Then he went to sleep for the night and I went to the gym to start my morning.

I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.

It won’t be the last time I cry about it, and I won’t be the only one. Mourning Mandela will happen around the world. There are few times in our lives that a person we have never met can give so much light, and energy and peace that we feel it around the globe. He was that person. A friend posted on Facebook that she couldn’t wait to read what it’s like for me [to be in the capitol of South Africa] during this time after Mandela’s death. She didn’t mean anything by it. I know many friends in the states are marveling that I am here for this moment.

Education is the most powerful weapon we can use to change the world.

It is an otherwise ordinary morning. It’s easy to feel an atmosphere of mourning out here, but I think the truth is more complicated. The truth may better be stated that I am projecting my own feelings of gloom onto those around me; that I see the grey skies and cold air as a reflection of what I imagine to be an appropriate metaphor for this loss. I have been out running my usual errands, interacting with the people I see every day (security at the estate, car guards, servers, beggars, cashiers, our housekeeper.) I have talked with a few of them about Mandela. “That is life” said a security guard who helps me with my Zulu. His eyes and his voice carried sadness, but not the crippling cloak of silent mourning , “He was a good man, but everyone lives. Everyone dies. That is life.” He waved me through, as I was holding up the line leaving for morning commutes. “Siyabonga” we both said, simultaneously, and I continued on my way.

As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.

“Shame” said Selinah, our Tswana housekeeper, when I returned from the gym and brought up Mandela. She was sad but would not have considered calling off today. “He was a good man. I hope we can go to funeral. You have ironing today?”  She saw that I wanted to talk more, or to understand more, or that I couldn’t understand why she wasn’t gripped with a shroud of depression, and she came over and gave me a hug. “Everything okay, Maria.” Her English is broken, but she is fluent in Afrikaans and Tswana. My own learning of Tswana is stunted, childlike. I never correct her that my name is Marla. I don’t know fully why. Something about the way she says “Maria” with such affection, comforts me.

I dream of an Africa which is in peace with itself.

I felt ashamed that she should be comforting me. This wasn’t about me. He wasn’t my leader, or my family, but I couldn’t stop wanting to collectively grieve with those I thought should be grieving. But maybe, I realized, they had already grieved as he has been struggling for so long, that maybe they already made peace and were ready to have this beautiful funeral and celebrate a man who chose forgiveness instead of revenge, who gave them hope and light and happiness.

It is music and dancing that make me at peace with the world.

Mandela was “tata”: father. He was family to a nation and inspiration to a world. But I couldn’t stop thinking the world should stop at any moment. I came to my favorite coffee shop between running errands: American ’80s music is playing on the speakers; and everyone around me is in daily conversations unrelated to Mandela; my barrista is wearing a Santa hat with the words “Merry Christmas” written across the front. He saw me typing and came to put an arm around my shoulder. “You are sad for Mandela?” Apparently my heart is on my sleeve, on my face, oozing from me like a bleeding scab I can’t stop picking. “Yes.” I replied, “Aren’t you?” He said he was, but like the security guard at the gate, he talked about life and the goodness of Mandela, and how lucky we were to have lived during a time with such a man as him. “I hope I can go to his funeral.” He said, “but I don’t mind working now until that day.”

Live life as though nobody is watching, and express yourself as though everyone is listening.

I joined some South African friends as I drank my cappuccino, and the conversation turned to something said at a recent book club gathering. After I said I had purchased The Long Walk to Freedom and it was suggested we read it for the next meeting, a woman there had emphatically proclaimed: “Nelson Mandela is a terrorist!” There was no love, or kindness, or peace, or forgiveness in her voice. For her, his legacy would always be one of violence, with no concern for the cause, and certainly no regard for his life (post-Robben island penance).

When a man is denied the right to live the life he believes in, he has no choice but to become an outlaw.

I wondered how many others refuse to allow him his post-Apartheid legacy. It didn’t take me long to find a slew of hateful posts and tweets, and I turned my computer off for a little while. I know that the grave-dancers are the minority, but it is amazing how powerful hate can be, and how sadly ironic to have contempt for a man who became the epitome of love and forgiveness.

People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite… Man’s goodness is a flame that can be hidden but never extinguished.

But I cannot call him “tata” as much as I want to. That nickname belongs to his family, belongs to this nation where I live, where I am a foreigner watching history from the margins. And as they teach me how to celebrate Mandela by working, by letting life move forward, I know that his true legacy has taken root in everyone who really loved him.

Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.

I don’t know what these next days will bring, and whether there may be those who use his death to propagate violence or further some political agenda, but I choose to believe that the majority of hard-working South Africans embrace the love and compassion of Mandela, and aspire to show the world that they are continuing his journey for him. Love, Marla

Mourning death of Nelson Mandela best Mandela quotes…I can only rest for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not ended.

5 Comments on “Mourning a Man Who is Not Mine to Grieve: Africa’s Mandela

  1. It’s so very sad. He was an amazing and trail-blazing man, and even if you don’t share that opinion, it would be hard to fight the fact that his life story is almost unreal, let alone shocking and emotional, for good or for ill. Watching all of the newscasts unfold on television, it brings back memories of how the U.S. reacted when Lady Diana died.

  2. Thank you for the South African perspective. I too feel sad, although I can celebrate his life and what he has brought to so many of us across the world. A thought provoking blog.

  3. Very well written. You put into words exactly how I am feeling. I feel the need to talk about it, but I don’t get the feeling anyone else does!

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