Remembering Nelson Mandela

Written on 16 January 2014.

As a girl growing up in the 1990s in Kenya, I became aware of Nelson Mandela and the pro-independence struggle he inspired in South Africa through words like “Soweto”, the fashionable “Mandela hairstyle,” and the catchy “township” music by artists Yvonne Chaka Chaka and Hugh Masekela. Childhood innocence and geographical distance from the political mayhem then unfolding in South Africa ensured that we enjoyed these artistic and cultural imports unencumbered by the ideological battles that inspired them.

But eventually I grew up and moved to South Africa to pursue my studies and career. My arrival coincided with South Africa’s far-reaching post-apartheid “transformation,” and looking back, I realise the great fortune I had to witness the first shoots of a new democratic South Africa sprouting. In addition to the fundamental political and economic changes to take place in South Africa, socially and culturally important transformations were also underway.

When I arrived in South Africa, I was struck by how wealthy and “developed” it was, but also how divided. The country’s immense wealth seemed to be concentrated in the hands of the minority white community. Even more troubling was the fact that South Africans of different races worked, lived, and socialised differently, rarely mixing across race groups. Both of these “socially constructed” realities were of course the legacy of the perverse apartheid system.

I now look back with an appreciative sense of awe that I experienced the birthing of a new “Rainbow Nation”. A new, non-racial South Africa seemed to emerge right in front of me. Of course this transformation was not simple and is far from complete, but the new democratic system, emphasising social cohesion, equality, and inclusion will undoubtedly be celebrated as one of Nelson Mandela’s greatest achievements.

Mandela also promoted a spirit of open dialogue and conversation among South Africans, long accustomed to viewing each other with fear, hatred, and suspicion. Mandela demonstrated to South Africans, and to the broader global community, that even the sharpest of hatchets can be buried, and the bitterest of enemies reconciled. Mandela embodied the famous saying “If you want to make peace, you don’t talk to your friends; you talk to your enemies.” Most South Africans genuinely marvel at how a man so abused by the apartheid system could endure and ultimately overcome such extreme suffering. Most South Africans now say “I will think better, do better and be better if only in honour of Mandela’s memory and legacy.”

As South Africans contemplate a future without Mandela, some are gripped with anxiety about the country's socio-economic and political prospects. In many respects, Mandela was regarded as a messianic figure, endowed with a divine ability to keep South Africa united. With his demise, many South Africans wonder "What next for South Africa?" "Will South Africa implode with Mandela's death?" "Can a future generation of leaders continue his legacy?"

It would be helpful and instructive to remember that South Africa has been down this road before. At the fall of apartheid in 1994, some observers and commentators predicted an apocalyptic blood bath, but such predictions were never realized. In 1999, when Mandela stepped down from the Presidency and handed over power to Thabo Mbeki, similar fears were expressed. South Africa, once again, showed resilience and maturity and remained united. Some will dismiss talk of regression and disintegration as misguided cynicism; they will point to the fact that South Africa has maintained its success over the past few years despite the fact that Tata Mandela had fully withdrawn from a public role. 

While it is true that South Africa is unlikely to implode on account of Mandela’s death, the country still faces many challenges, including income inequality, deeply entrenched poverty, a dysfunctional educational system, high crime rates, and dramatically high rates of HIV/AIDS. Against this backdrop, it’s clear that Mandela's Long Walk to Freedom has not yet reached its final destination.

Mandela was the first one to acknowledge this, writing in his now famous autobiography: “I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can only rest for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not ended.”

The greatest way for successive generations of South Africans to honour and cherish Mandela's memory is to strive to continue and perfect Mandela's Long Walk to Freedom. “Hamba Kahle Tata Mandela,” Go well, Tata Mandela!


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