Former President Nelson Mandela joins anti-apartheid veteran
Ahmed Kathrada on the eve of his 80th birthday.
(Picture: Debbie Yazbek)
I never imagined I’d be witness to the unavoidable and traumatic reality of your passing, writes Ahmed Kathrada.
Madala, as you light-heartedly started calling me some years ago, it both grieves me and inspires me to write this to you now, with the hour of your death still a fresh wound in our peoples’ hearts.
We have known each other for 67 years, and I never imagined I’d be witness to the unavoidable and traumatic reality of your passing.
Your abundant reserves of love, simplicity, honesty, service, humility, care, courage, foresight, patience, tolerance, equality and justice continually served as a source of enormous strength to me and so many millions of people around the world.
Your smile, which lingers still, was always from the heart, never forced, and the great joy you took in the world around you, especially in children, was unmistakeable. Most of all, you symbolise, and always will, collective leadership, reconciliation, unity, forgiveness, nation-building and a non-racial, non-sexist, democratic South Africa.
Your self-confidence and absence of pettiness stands out still and is epitomised in your attitude towards opposition parties; they are not enemies but political rivals.
I had the enviable privilege of being alive and walking the earth with you through the bad times and the good. It has been a long walk, with many challenges that at times seemed insurmountable. And yet we never faltered, and the strength of leaders like you and Walter always shone a light on the path and kept our destination and our people’s future in view.
I feel bereft and lonely. To whom do I turn for solace, comfort, and advice?
While we may be drowned in sorrow and grief, we must be proud and grateful that after the long walk paved with obstacles and suffering, we salute you as a fighter for freedom to the end.
Farewell, my elder brother, my mentor, my leader. With all the energy and determination at our command, we pledge to join the people of South Africa and the world to perpetuate the ideals and values for which you have devoted your life.
Comment: A couple of years ago I met Ahmed Kathrada at the Northern Cape Writers Festival. We were both panelists discussing the role of literature in nation-building.
We sat next to each other for about an hour and before the panel began he leaned over to me and said: "I am going to be like an old Indian uncle and ask you about your family name."
It was a heart warming moment that opened up a conversation that would go on for most of the day.
After the panel I joined him in the foyer of the hotel where he was waiting for a car to take him to the opening of an exhibition that honored his life at the McGregor Museum. The car did not arrive and I offered to drive him and his foundation's director to the museum.
He accepted and I immediately warned him that my car was a small VW Citi Golf and, therefore, nothing special.
He laughed heartily as we walked to the car in the parking lot of his hotel where he was staying. "Don't worry about how small your car is I drive around in one even smaller", he said to me.
In the car he started to talk about President Mandela and their friendship. He also asked me questions about PAC leader Robert Sobukwe and his life in Kimberley.
I listened closely to his words that conveyed a genuine dedication to his friendship with Mandela. It was not just an ordinary friendship and it reminded me of the friendship my dad had with Robert Sobukwe.
This morning I awoke at around 7am after going to bed quite early. Still in bed I looked at my emails on my cell and first read about the passing of Madiba from a former student of mine at Portland State University.
The news did not shock me because like most South Africans the inevitability of his passing continued to linger from the last time he was admitted to hospital.
Just before breakfast I walked outside in our garden and noticed that today being Friday the garbage was being collected. After breakfast I drove to the Northern Cape legislature where I have an office and saw black workers digging a trench to install fiber optic cables.
All the usual convenience stores were open and people were walking kids to school or waiting for a taxi along the way.
The mood at the legislature was somber. Most of the staff attended a prayer memorial in honor of the life of Madiba.
Just before 11:30am I left my office for the day and bid farewell to the skeleton staff that remained. The mood remained somber.
My point in relaying these seeming innocuous or mundane details is to impress upon those outside and those who have been warning of a post-Mandela apocalypse that life in the delusional republic has continued much the same as it did after the unbanning of the liberation movements and when Mandela became the first democratically elected president in 1994.
There is a lot wrong with South Africa and none of it can be decontextualized from apartheid. Today, however, is not about what is wrong with the fabled rainbow nation but what has always been right.
We are not primarily a vindictive and hateful nation. President Mandela embodied this humane spirit and even where I have virulently disagreed with his politics there never really was room to question his human spirit.
It is a sad day for all. But it is also a day that should remind us that the struggle is far from over. A lot of work needs to be done and the movement that created Mandela must be wrestled away from the self-serving and corrupt folks that pilfer its ranks.
When I broke the news to my mom about Madiba's passing this morning she stood silent for what seemed a long time. "It is a sad day but he has contributed so much in a long life. None of us live forever," she said before turning to walk away.
Before I left the breakfast table the moms looked at me and said: "Today would have been Uncle Robert's (Sobukwe) birthday."
It was then that I felt even more sad. Both men were giants in the struggle and I want to remember the huge contributions that both men have made to rid us of the scourge of apartheid whenever I feel like my life has no meaning.
I have a favorite Mandela quote that drew my admiration for him from the days I joined the school boycotts in the early 80s. It is a passage taken from his defence statement at the Rivonia trial in 1964 (the year I was born):
"I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to see realised. But my Lord, if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."There is much to be admired in this convicted spirit and it presses us to move forward to that "cherished ideal".
Hamba Kahle President Mandela, until that day.