Total Pageviews

Saturday, 7 December 2013

Farewell, Madiba. The giant is sleeping.

I went through the South African schooling system during the last years of Apartheid. It was a strange time. On the one hand, there was a subtle relaxation of the enforcement of some of the worst official behaviour. On the other hand, the casual brutality became more marked; I remember seeing a white security guard at a small shopping centre walk up behind a black man and rabbit-punch him in the back of the neck, then walk off, laughing.
I went over to help him up, and the look in his eyes was a combination of dazed, bitter helplessness and pure rage. He flinched away from me, and the friend I was with dragged me away.

In some respects I was the anomaly in school; the middle-class little white girl who wouldn't shut up about the unfairness of the Apartheid regime. I'm not entirely sure it was political awareness at this point; more that I hated bullies and the system made no sense. It was like deciding that if you had blonde hair and blue eyes, you could not use the same toilet, bus, school or movie theatre seat I was in, because I had brown hair and eyes and didn't want you in my vicinity. It felt like a temper tantrum enforced by a giant, spoilt and terrified child, and I never understood why people accepted it. Or maybe I was just perverse; I've never been one to follow the mainstream. Tell me I must believe something, and something tends to kick in and go, "Oh, really? Watch me."

It's surprisingly easy to brain-wash a population. You start with making laws, and you throw anyone who dares to disagree with them in prison. Or you kill them, either in an official hanging, or through an arranged accident. Or they fall out of windows on the top floor of the police station. You control the television, the newspapers and the radio. Then you move onto the schooling system. You ensure that only the official version of local history is taught, and you emphasise your bravery and nobility and love of country, and you point out the brutality and savagery of your opponents. You teach them that Mandela is a terrorist, and is on a small prison island for the good of the country.
In 1987, the history class I was in covered the Great Trek in some detail. The text book went to great lengths to explain the treachery and murderous reactions of the native tribes encountered, with an air of righteous indignation. Unfortunately, the wheels of the regime in that particular class encountered me, and  I stood up and pointed out that maybe the tribes involved were entitled to defend themselves against an unwanted invader. My family background is Scottish. I grew up on stories of unjust invasion and terror inflicted by military right; I tended to sympathise quite firmly with the tribes involved.
There were a number of gasps of horror from my classmates. My teacher stared at me - and then let us go early to break.
I got home to find my parents waiting for me. The school had phoned them. My dad sat me down and explained that I needed to be careful. He told me that if the school reported me to the authorities, he and my mother would be in a great deal of trouble, and could be arrested and charged, because nobody would believe that my opinions were my own. I was just a fourteen year old kid.
I don't think I stood up in that class again, and even after I changed schools at the end of the year, I never mentioned my beliefs to an authority figure again. My parents were a lot more important than running my mouth off - but that response from the school was all I needed to set those beliefs in stone.  The system was wrong.

I dug up everything I could find on Mandela. The official party line painted him as a very dangerous man, the equivalent of a rabid wolf. The armed wing of the ANC was planting bombs and blowing up shoppers; the news used to identify those killed and wounded by name if they were white, and by number and gender if they were not.
There were a number of people who believed Mandela should have been hanged after his trial; I think the main reason he wasn't is because the regime feared creating a martyr. Instead, they created a living focal point for change.
There was no internet, and the media was heavily censored. Eventually, though, I got hold of a couple of books and pamphlets that painted a very different story of the man working in the quarry while the rest of us went about our daily lives.

In 1989 I started working part-time at my local supermarket. That security guard was still there, and just as heavy-handed with non-white customers. He carried a pistol and a club, and although I never saw him use the gun, I have no doubt he wanted to. He hated and feared non-whites with a passion, and because of that he enjoyed humiliating and hurting them. In a normal society, he would have been locked up as dangerous. In this one, they armed him and let him have fun. For me, he was a symptom of everything that had poisoned the country. For him, I imagine he saw me as a dangerous reactive.
The two of us hated each other on sight.

The day they released Mandela, every paper in the country carried his photograph on the front page. I remember tapping the picture on the Sunday Times and smiling. The guard snarled at me.
"Things are changing," I said. "One day we'll have a black president, and then what good will your fists do?" It felt like a bell, chiming in my head.
"Never happen," he sneered. But his eyes looked terrified.

In the run-up to the 1994 elections, white South Africa shared that fear. There were runs on supermarkets and gun-shops as people stocked-up, expecting trouble. And to be perfectly honest, there was reason to fear. Mandela was a hero to every non-white who had victimised, abused, and marginalised - and that was pretty much all of them. He'd been stuck in prison for 27 years. He'd lost the prime of his life, working in a quarry. He'd got tuberculosis and his health was permanently damaged. If he had been a different kind of man; if he had got into power and demanded retribution in blood, the streets would have run red, and most people thought that was exactly what would happen. How many people would resist the chance for payback for a thousand slights, for the blood already spilled by the previous regime?

And then Mandela was elected, and the world held its breath, and the apocalypse never happened. Instead, we ended up with one of the most progressive legislations in the world, affording rights to people no matter what their colour or sexual orientation was. Instead of firing squads and butchered whites, we ended up with the much-abused death penalty removed, never to be used as a political weapon again, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

That bell that rang in my head the day he was released continued to chime softly over the intervening years. It said This is a good man. This is a giant. This is Madiba.
Madiba changed the world, and South Africa, and he did it in a good way. And while South Africa is still struggling with poverty and crime, there was no ethnic cleansing. There were incidents, yes. There are always incidents where there is hate and fear, and people like that security guard cling to both because they cannot see any other way of being.

When he stepped out of office, it was another myth squashed; the right-wingers had pretty much assumed it would become a dictatorship no matter what pretty words were spoken. His successors have struggled to fill the shoes he left behind ever since; it cannot be easy trying to step into the footprints of a giant.

Out of office, Madiba was still revered. Even those who'd viewed his presidency with scepticism started to soften. He never stopped his message of reconciliation, and he was never afraid to call out his own party when he disagreed with them; the ANC have managed some pretty brutal stuff themselves.

The bell began sounding weary a couple of years ago. I cannot imagine how exhausted he must have been. We never stopped needing him, and no matter how hard he tried to step back, to let others pick up the reigns, we never really let him. In the end, Madiba was imprisoned by love. It may be softer than the chains of a prison gang, but that kind of need is also grasping and suffocating. He was a man, with flaws as all humans have, but we never really let him step off the pedestal he never wanted to be on to start with.

When Madiba got sick earlier this year, we held our breath again. No-one wanted to let him go. Giants should be immortal, no matter how tired and sick they get. The media swarmed the hospital like locusts. There was a court case over graves, and another over his estate. The vultures gathered and settled in to wait.

On Thursday night, I was on Skype to my parents when the news hit my feed, and I told them. The shock on their faces was the strongest personal indicator of how Madiba changed my world.

So now the bell is silent, but the echoes remain. I have no idea what happens next in South Africa. Hopefully, the determination to hold his legacy will remain strong, and the ones who would use this as an excuse for violent change are ignored. I just don't know.
I know that a good man is dead, and the world mourns his passing. I know that there will never be another quite like him. I know that on Thursday night I sat in the bath and wept.

Hamba Kakuhle, Madiba. Even giants need to sleep after work. Safe journey to the Summerland.