Updated 10 December 2013

Hamba kahle, Madiba

We mourn today someone who achieved the near impossible: to have seen the worst that humankind could offer, and not lose faith and hope in humanity, says Susan Erasmus.

My country is in mourning. No one on these shores can say that Nelson Mandela’s life did not touch them in some way. The same has to be said of his death.

He was a strange phenomenon: a political leader who trod through the landmines of one of the dirtiest political landscapes the world has ever seen, and yet managed to become an icon of humanity and forgiveness emerging from the hatred and destruction.

Yet, this icon was a man just like any other. He must have had his grumpy and resentful days. And he had every reason to be resentful. Having just escaped hanging after being found guilty of high treason, he was separated from his family and imprisoned for 27 years in harsh conditions, many of which were spent in the limestone quarries in Robben Island. Enough to make most other people bitter, and bent on revenge.

And yet he emerged from prison with no hatred or bitterness  in his heart. A triumph of humanity if ever there was one.  Few, if any of us, would have been able to do this. I do not think everyone appreciates how different South Africa’s history would have been if he had decided that violence was the only answer.  Our country had been on the brink of civil war for years, our brutal history had polarised us to breaking point and the type of political violence that was rife was reminiscent of a country about to descend into chaos.

And yet he managed to unite the severely divided and helped to achieve a transition to democracy that no one had thought possible in this beautiful and fractured country of ours. No other nation has managed this. South Africa in its history, its people and its leaders really does manage to come up with the worst and with the best.

The world mourns, but Africa mourns in its own special way. Many years ago I was working in Gugulethu at the Uluntu Community Centre. The office next to mine was occupied by St Luke’s Hospice, who did amazing work for those in need of palliative care. The office was also often used for memorial services, so that for several years my working days happened against the lilting and mournful backdrop of the traditional funeral songs  ‘Senzeni  na’ (What have we done?) and ‘Hamba kahle’ (Go well). They are sounding the world over today. And whenever I hear them I am right back in the Uluntu Centre.

I only once met Nelson Mandela. I had no idea he was in the bookshop where I had gone to buy a present for my dying father. My father was always fascinated by words and I was, oddly enough, looking for a book by Simon Winchester called The Meaning of Everything on the history of the Oxford English Dictionary. As I was asking for the book at the counter I looked up, and there was Nelson Mandela doing his Christmas shopping. He walked over to me and shook my hand and chatted for a few seconds. I was blown away. The man had such charisma and sincerity and power. I really did feel that I had been in the presence of someone truly great.

Ironically it is precisely because power in itself held no attraction for Nelson Mandela that he became one of the most powerful men this world has ever seen. One with a delightful chuckle and a great sense of humour. One of those special people who had the ability to bring out the best in those around him. And to make them remember what the things were that mattered and what the right thing was to do – in Qunu and New York and London and Khayelitsha. Few political leaders ever get even close to that.

And we mourn today someone who achieved the near impossible: to have seen the worst that humanity could offer, and not lose faith and hope in humankind.

Hamba kahle. Lala ngoxolo, Madiba.

(Picture: Nelson Mandela from AFP)

Susan Erasmus is a freelance writer for Health24.


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