A week ago today the world reeled from the news that Nelson Mandela had passed away. I was sitting on this very sofa, catching up with social media nonsense when a tweet popped up with the news. Quickly verified by BBC, Al Jazeera, and every other major news player on the globe the news spread instantly. I was suddenly acutely aware that at 10:30pm here in London, I was probably finding out the news ahead of my family in South Africa, who would be in bed asleep, only to find out on the Friday morning. I had no idea how I would feel. Being far away from home both physically (and also emotionally it has to be said), having been in London for 10 years, the news hit me with an immediacy I had not anticipated. In that moment, phone in hand watching the world send tweets and posts and images and platitudes through the ether I was back in Johannesburg, trying to remember the first time I heard his name or saw a picture of his face.
I have often shied away from writing about my childhood in South Africa. I don’t know why. Possibly because there have been so very many coming of age stories based in the New South Africa. We bore the ‘born frees’ senseless with our tales of transition through the 80s and early 90s. They’re often told by children of the struggle movement who, having lived through the oral history of our parents who actually did the work, toyi toying through the streets, and getting arrested, we felt we were close enough to it. And a fair number of these prodigal children are often now living abroad looking back at their ‘pastoral’ youth with great nostalgia and naivety. In the US they call these children the Cold War Kids, so in South Africa being born around State of Emergency being declared – we have a similar backdrop to our ABCs.
But that day last week I was confronted with my 8yr old self, grief stricken by the news of the death of a great man.
I don’t remember exactly when I first learned about this man, Madiba, who was in prison on an island off the coast of Cape Town where we were lucky enough to have idyllic holidays every year with our extended family. Growing up as a white child in South Africa in the 1980s, I have memories of a happy childhood. We lived in a bubble secured by military law, government legislation and an entire infrastructure designed to keep us separate and apart from the reality of the country we were born into regardless, to a certain extent, of our parent’s political leanings. A white washed illusion perpetuated by the Apartheid government, at great expense, the toll for which we will pay for many years to come. As Denis Hirson so beautifully described it, we lived in The House Next Door to Africa. And if you’ll permit me to extend the metaphor, our house happened to have just enough of a back door left open for the 8 year old me to peer through and see that things were perhaps not what they seemed.
My parents were both anti-apartheid supporters and activists, and I knew this as a child as I knew what a feminist was or a catholic or an economist. These were all esoteric terms in my head and I had no deeper understanding of what they actually meant. We had pictures of people like Joe Slovo and Helen Joseph in the study, my mother had a poster that proclaimed ‘A House Does Not Need A WIFE any more than it does a HUSBAND’. There were Johnny Clegg cassette tapes and history books galore.
In the 1980’s my mother worked for an organisation called Sached (South African Committee for Higher Education), a committee that worked to open up distance learning at university to level to all races, after the apartheid government closed university applications to non-whites in the late 50s. So at social gatherings there were interesting people, who wore their hair in brightly beaded braids and wore t-shirts that said things like ‘AMANDLA!’ (Power!), or in my mother’s case ‘WOMANDLA!’ There were often discussions about The Struggle. As kids, we rolled our eyes and went off to watch Thunder Cats and play Dungeons & Dragons. Adults were boring always talking talking.
My first memory of realising that perhaps my parent’s worldview was radically different to that of my peer group was a school concert circa 1988. My mother, as usual, was running very late and barely made the assembly. I was furious that she was late and had made a bit of an entrance with the door slamming to the hall, and everyone looking while she found a seat. I was even more mortified when I realised she was wearing THAT ‘nkosi sikelel iafrika T-shirt, covered in flour (she had been making cheese muffins). But the final straw was watching her SIT DOWN through the entire singing of the national anthem, while all the other parents stood, belting out the words to Die Stem at volume. Looking back I want to high five my brave, stubborn, wonderfully unmanageable mother, but in 1988, I was red faced with the embarrassment of having a mother with ‘politics’.
But it wasn’t until 1989 that it really hit home. On the 1st of May, an anti-apartheid activist by the name of David Webster was assassinated outside his home by the Civil Cooperation Bureau, a covert organisation of the Apartheid government. Being 8 years old I had no memory of meeting him, although I am told I met family at some point. But I do remember, clear as day, my mother unravelling with anger and grief, sobbing in front of the TV the night the news broke, my father speechless at her side. And I was now old enough to figure out that something was well and truly fucked up here in Sunny South Africa.
Alongside the ‘House Husband’ postcard came the back page of the Mail & Guardian featuring an image of David Webster, his back to the camera looking out a window ahead of speaking at an event. Head bowed, alone with the dates 1945 – 1989 in bold below. And perhaps this is why, 25 years later, I went back to that year as the watershed moment, a full year before Mandela was released. Not long after that I learned about what went before; Sharpeville, Biko, the 1976 riots, Sophiatown.
Heading into the 90’s we went through Model C schooling (a brand of government and private school hybridisation that facilitated racial integration), Zulu being introduced as a language option (very badly at first, by teachers who knew less than us, to the hysterical amusement of the new black kids in our classes, hooting with laughter at the ill-timed clicks and awful grammar – school prank gold) and navigating the mind field that was being a young teen in a rapidly changing society. I was 10 when the schools started integrating, and 13 by the time the first general elections rolled around in 1994.I remember being furious we weren’t allowed to vote, but slightly relieved when we saw the queues going round the block. I remember watching with fascination as some of our peer’s parents prepared for civil war, and many left to live in New Zealand, Australia and the UK. We watched Madiba’s inauguration – the dancing and joy – and yet people were leaving, all in the face of amazing optimism it seemed crazy
Kurt Cobain also died that year so between the general elections and the loss of my first true love, it was a pretty epic time. Hormones aside.
By 1995, the year we won the World Cup Rugby and Madiba donned the springbok jersey and danced with the nation, this man had come to symbolise a calming force of nature that could fan flames of national pride across the deeply entrenched racial divides and yet cool tempers when change wasn’t as quickly affected as the people needed and unrest was sparked. By the time I started university in 1999 we were 5 years into democracy with one of the most forward thinking constitutions in the world. And Johannesburg felt like the most cosmopolitan place on the globe, with every possibility in reach. We were starting companies, discovering our own brands of deep house, garage and electro, writing controversial articles, making our new voices heard. The party had just begun.
I was even lucky enough to meet The Man himself while waitressing at the 70th birthday party of yet another anti-apartheid activity, Amina Cachalia. I was so nervous I very nearly spilt spaghetti into his lap. Thankfully I was a better waitress than I thought and I managed to avert disaster, with a quick swivel on my heel. I also got to hear Graca Machel sing happy birthday which is a pretty special gem of a memory too.
So how am I here in London, paying my respects to a man who featured so prominently throughout my life, at Trafalgar Square rather than in Jozi?
If anything the upbringing I was so lucky to have encouraged me to get out of my comfort zone, try new things, go to new places. Not get complacent with my thinking. There is nothing like travelling to make you feel immensely knowledgeable and hugely humbled by your own ignorance. London has done both. I also happened to be in love and that will take you everywhere, although ironically enough that wasn’t to be the love that kept me here. I fell in love with London, and then married a cabbie. What else?
So I paid my respects in two ways. I went to South Africa House and signed the Remembrance book with my London born and bred husband. We queued with a myriad of people from all over London, many of whom had taken time off work to do so, many of whom have never even been to South Africa. It’s been amazing to see how our collective feeling has been truly global and how this one life touched so many people.
And then I went running through my adoptive city with 100 RDC members under the cover of night, the Christmas lights shining, and bridges lit up, all the way from St Pauls past Waterloo Bridge to the Madiba statue on the Southbank. It was so beautiful and I am no longer ashamed to admit I sobbed like that 8 year old all over again.
Rest in peace Tata. You were our inspiration as we grew up from children, taught us patience, courage and forgiveness as unruly teens, and left us as adults with a sense of pride and purpose. Hamba kahle (Go Well)
|100+ Run Dem Crew with the Madiba Statue (photo credit Glenn Hanock)