Dear Mr Mandela
You left us a year ago today, and like the rest of the world I was immensely sad at your passing. I was sad for many reasons, among them that we would only refer to your legacy and history, and as the powerful man who changed the shape of the world I lived in. I was sad because somehow we hoped you would live forever – because you represented hope and at times we look at the shape of our country and struggle to find that smiling face of hope. I was also sad that I never got to meet you. That I wasn’t one of those fortunate souls that got to shake your hand, to hear your instantly recognisable voice in person, and maybe get to share a few words with you. Even if they were just about the weather. I’m sad because I couldn’t thank you in person for changing my life.
You see, I grew up as a child in the apartheid era. I didn’t know what apartheid was but I was aware that something was going on. I remember being stopped by two women (who were a tad intoxicated) as I walked to the shop to fetch bread for the family. I was six years old and walking through the streets by myself; not an uncommon thing in the early 1980s. The two women stopped me and slapped me. They said I was one of ‘them’. I ran off as fast as I could. That was my first experience of knowing that I was part of something that was making other people angry. Black people specifically.
I can vaguely remember benches that said “Whites Only” but I don’t ever recall seeking them out or sitting on them. I just recall being a child in a small suburb that was being raised by Selina. She may not have lived with us, but she was my other mom. I didn’t know that I was part of a cog that was denying her the opportunity I was receiving.
I never went to school with people from other races. In fact I remember when two Chinese children came to our primary school, we were all called into an assembly to be told that they were going to be part of the school, and although they couldn’t speak English, they were white. I had no idea why that mattered, but simply accepted that it did. That was the devastating side of apartheid – we didn’t know why it mattered, but accepted that it did.
My ignorance changed when I went to high school and was taught by an English teacher who had been detained for his anti-apartheid activities and vocal support of the ANC. I started to realise that something more was going on, and that perhaps it wasn’t as peaceful as I assumed. I knew nothing about the violence in the townships, or the horrors going on in our detention cells and the letter bombs being manufactured and sent from Jan Smuts airport. Like a dull ache progresses to a pain more urgent, I slowly became more and more aware that I was living in a country where I was being lied to and sheltered from the atrocities my white counterparts were committing. My elders. My government.
I went to the Market Theatre in 1988 and saw a play that changed my life called ‘Vid Alex’. It was a one man play about a man who recounts what he has had to do to protect his country against the black uprising. He told stories of midnight raids of homes, dragging half-naked men out of their beds to be detained and beaten. He breaks down in tears in the last part of the monologue as he remembers shooting a child, and wondering how he had lost any sense of humanity and mercy. I don’t remember all of it but I remember walking out in shock.
It was just before this time that I first heard your name Mr Mandela. Stevie Wonder had dedicated a song to you and we were no longer allowed to listen to it or own it. Or even see Stevie Wonder on TV. There was outcry when a ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ poster was spotted in one of the children’s rooms in The Cosby Show. Luckily the programme never got banned, but that was usually the government’s knee jerk response. Anything that acknowledged you was usually banned. We were told (I’m not sure by who) that you were a dangerous terrorist that was determined to kill white people and that if you were ever freed, our country would turn into another Zimbabwe – a country run by a government that was giving white people a few days to leave the country before threatening them with violent eviction. We were scared of you Mr Mandela. As a young teenager, I was petrified that you may be freed and hurt us. Imagine my surprise as I began to hear stories about the hurt we were causing you and other black people. I can’t say I did anything about it as a young teenager but I do remember being angered. And imagine my surprise when I saw the smiling man waving alongside Winnie as you walked your first few steps to freedom.
After turning 16 I remember signing petitions against apartheid and forced conscription to the army, and being shouted at by family members when I told them – this meant I could be arrested. That strange military men could rock up at my family’s doorstep and arrest me for treason-like activity. They had my name and address. I could be on some sort of list. I was one of those who then backed down Mr Mandela. I was scared by what my government could do to me. A lot of us were. And perhaps that makes us cowards.
The day you were freed signaled a new start to all of us. We sat in front of our TVs and watched you walk slowly along, waving, triumphantly raising your fist in the air. The violent terrorist of my past emerged as a dignified man, dressed in a suit, with a warm smile for all of us. A smile that never stopped. A smile that won us all over.
Behind that smile was a strong leader that shielded us from so much heart ache. Heart ache for a past that hurt so many, all races, all South Africans, and that could have seen us tear each other apart. We miss having a strong leader Mr Mandela. Perhaps that’s why on a day like today we miss you so much more than we should. We need the hope you gave us, the confidence you inspired, and the desire to see a country united and moving forward with the best interests of all its people at heart. We miss a man with that vision in charge.
Mr Mandela, you changed my world. You changed a country from white to black. You changed a country from war to a semblance of peace. You led me out of a country that had me confused and part of hurt, and made me part of a country that had hope and was a shining example to the rest of the world. You initiated a constitution that removed discrimination, and as a gay man, I benefited from your leadership. I now live in a country where I can be married and have rights others in many other countries are denied.
So today as we remember your legacy, and stand in silence to remember you, I wanted to send you a few words. To show how far we’ve come. And to remember the past you led us out of. I don’t think we always remember where we were, and remember how grateful we must be for where we are.
For your leadership. Your words. Your energy. Your life.