Saying Goodbye to My Madiba!

MY VIEWS, NEWS | | December 6, 2013 at 9:26 am

I feel so emotional as I sit here in Boston writing about the death of Nelson Mandela. I had stopped following news of South Africa intently and have embraced my home in the USA, other than keeping in touch with my family there. I had moved on. Then after a therapy session for my child I sat in the dark parking lot with them making a banter in the back and checked my Facebook newsfeed.

RIP Mandela!

What? Where? I quickly opened my WhatsApp app to chat to my sister and before I could type a word she texted me that Nelson Mandela had just died. I moved on, right? This was sad news but I am an expert in news of death. I had lost both my parents and countless family members. But I looked at my phone and was expecting someone to tell me that it was a rumor, like the one spread a few months ago. It was not. The tears were unstoppable. I could not fathom why I was so emotional. Yes, I could,… but I had pushed those memories to the back of my head.

My kids looked at me confused. I tell them what happened. They still look baffled. I try to explain and get choked up. I switch on the radio hoping it would do a better job than me. Of course it was on a “music” station since I don’t listen to news with kids since it is unfiltered, but they were playing Christmas songs. I normally find it annoying when played all month long but tonight it angered me. It angered me that did they not know who this was? Did they not care to stop and pay tribute? Did they not consider this important?

My moment of “Gah!” was momentarily as I switched to NPR. I knew I could rely on them to realize the world was bigger than 50 states. I heard “his” voice and I weeped. I was still trying to make sense of the deep seated emotions but the mama logic also knew I had to get 2 hungry kids home to dinner. Mechanically I drove on a dark, and rainy night over 2 interstates roads, at peak office traffic through blurry eyes as the tears streamed down. I don’t know how I got home, but I did. I switched on the television, but was wise to go through to CNN, not even bothering with with the other news stations. In auto pilot mode I got the kids to shower and laid down dinner in the lounge, in front of the television. I was praying for no antics from my kids as I was devoid of energy and the tears were still rolling.

The memories competed with the tears and they all came flooding back. Below is just a small rundown of some of those memories.

During Apartheid

I was born at a time where we had to be separate based on color. Separate homes, schools, beaches, restaurants.. everything. I remember thinking “Does anyone else not see how WRONG this is?” I kept wondering how did anyone not know this. I entertained the thought of writing a letter to tell the president., maybe they just didn’t know. Chalk it up to innocence or stupidity but I thought this would change. I remember hearing of famous singers coming to the adjoining countries because we had sanctions in our country and could not have them here. I thought why would be get the shitty end of the color of skin and then be punished further from world entertainment. Of course now I am immensely appreciative of the pressure sanctions put to enact change.

My dad was far from my favorite person in the world (no exaggeration there, in death you deserve the honesty of the life you lived) but he taught me to see through the propaganda. He used to spend hours writing to the newspaper to ask why we had to have separate newspapers. In 1985, during political riots, we had to evacuate my home, and my town was burned to the ground. The school I went to was burned to the ground. The school was built by Mahatma Gandhi in the famous Phoenix Settlement where he ran his printing press and Satyagraha was started. Talk about being the last to touch that part of history I had only the clothes on my back but was barefoot as there was no time to grab shoes as I fled fearing my life. The State of Emergency was part of my daily life as was rebuilding my life on donated clothing and books. But I was still better off than my friend who lost her uncle, dad and brother in those fires that charred our homes.

Fast forward the year later and losing a dad, we started to hope for change. The banned ANC (African National Congress) flag was still being carried by the National Indian Congress. Indians were allowed to vote but only for their little section and most refused to because Blacks were still not allowed to vote. The struggle was everyone’s! My school was chosen to be a voting booth and we were angry. It was my final matriculation exams and I was poor. I knew I needed my education to have a better life, But, I knew I had to stand up for what I believed it. It was one of the hardest decisions I had to make in my life, and probably ended up being my most defining one. My mom would probably kill me, but I chose to protest. I sat on the field yelling songs of protest, not caring that I could never carry a note. Best. Decision. Ever!

A short while after Mandela was released from prison. The jubilation was palpable. His speech about fighting white oppression and black oppression brought tears to everyone’s eyes and maybe for the first time I began understanding the humility of this great soul. I can’t explain how you could feel the winds of change and you had no idea what was coming, but you knew it was something. All I knew was it had to be good., right?

The moment! The time to vote!

Change takes time. 3 years in college saw me getting my 1st job as an engineer away from home, moving from Durban to Johannesburg. The 1st free and fair elections were announced, but not before a referendum. It was a referendum to ask Whites only (even though others except Blacks could normally vote in other elections) whether they wanted Blacks to vote. You read that correctly, FW De Klerk, the one who received the Nobel Peace prize was asking his White constituents for permission. That made my blood boil as I read the sign boards everyday on the way to work. Who am I kidding, the memory still kills me.

I needed to be part of the process. People needed proper documents to vote. While we could not issue them, we could help. We arranged huge tents, food and entertainment as we filled out forms for old, illiterate or anyone needing help and had officials do the final applications. I will never forget that long day, and though tired, I slept with a smile.

Then came the election. I had to vote in Jo’burg and we were as nervous as hell. Rumors of war were rife. The crazy AWB party wanted a separate White government where only Whites would live and kick out other colors. We bought canned products, isn’t that what you do in any emergency? I stood on line in the cold outside from 4am for 6 hours to vote. There was nothing in the world I would rather be doing. There was no way I would not vote  (also why it shocks me when people DON”T VOTE) and the euphoria kept me going.

Post election

It was still very much a White country. At work we were forced to communicate in Afrikaans, the language we were by law forced in learn in school or else we would fail. A language I knew, yet HATED. At night, seeking entertainment, my girlfriends and I went to a nightclub called Caesars Palace (aren’t they all called that) where we were the only people of color. It felt uncomfortable as we were openly stared at. And then though I wavered in dealing with the discomfort, my train of thought was it was LEGAL now for me to be here. If they were uncomfortable then they better get used to it and deal with it. I was not leaving!

Names were changing everywhere and vibes of The New South Africa were felt all over. Stigmas of the old were getting wiped out and with that even names of sports teams. Several were changed already and there was a huge ugly discussion on changing the name of our Rugby team from Springboks. I still remember that day when the the world cup was playing (the 1st one we were allowed since sanctions were lifted) and Mandela walked in to watch the game wearing Francois Pienaar’s (captain of the Rugby team) jersey. Everyone shut up. If the man who was in jail for 27 years could wear something termed a symbol of racism, who the heck were any of us to complain. The discussion died and the man did what he did best. He unified.

I’m here because of his work and while I feel we still have loads of work to be done (just last week my 6 year old was called a racist name on the bus), the paths have been paved, we need to just keep moving.

Thank you Madiba!

Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrika!

14 Comments

  1. 1

    So beautifully written Niri. We are all feeling an incredible sadness over his loss. Mandela was such a tremendous influence on so many and changed the lives of so many. He has clearly helped to instill an incredible passion in you that you are passing along to your children. Thank you for sharing your words.

  2. 2

    Thank you for sharing your story Niri!

  3. 3
    Wahida says:

    Beautiful and poignant.

  4. 4

    Thank you for recording this snapshot of your history and the world’s history.

  5. 5

    Thanks for sharing your story, my friend. Your last paragraph resonates. I marvel the most at Mandela’s ability to forgive…he was definitely a great example in that area.

  6. 6

    Thank you so much for sharing your powerful personal experience with us. It is completely impossible for me to imagine any of it… growing up in Canada, some of my earliest memories include hearing TV commercials reminding us as Canadians that “Canada IS multiculturalism”.

  7. 7
    Patricia says:

    I too feel emotional reading your post Niri. My concept of the world, the power structure of the world and my connection to the world came alive during the sanctions against South AFrica in the 70′s. I have visited in 90 and again in 97. What a complicated country. Yet It is time to go again.Thanks for sharing

  8. 8
    Carrie Gent says:

    Beautifully written. A tribute to our Country and the gentleman Madiba was. He stood for everything we should live for. Thank you for sharing this with us Nini. RIP Tata! You will be missed…

  9. 9
    Julie says:

    Thank you for sharing your very powerful story. Mandela’s death is clearly a great loss for the world. The light now shines on his legacy and as I learn more about him, about South Africa (an an American who has never been to Africa), and about apartheid, I am having some very meaningful discussion with my children. We are learning together, my children and I, and personal stories like yours are wonderful teaching tools. Thank you for that.

  10. 10

    I love every single part of this post. I love its raw honesty and I just love you

  11. 11

    Sweet Niri – thank you so much for sharing your story – this part of your history. You have such an extraordinary perspective. While I always admired the man from afar, your experience is and was so raw, so real. I’m grateful to you for taking the time to reflect and give us this glimpse into you and your life. Love you, friend. xoxo

  12. 12
    Ellen G says:

    This is a gift. Thank you so much for sharing your story.

  13. 13
    Jeannine says:

    Incredibly beautiful. Thank you, dear friend, for sharing these memories with us. xoxo

  14. 14

    How am I only now reading your story …
    So glad that we became friends Niri, you have such a heart for all that is right with the world and such a heart for all that is wrong. What a blessing both are for your children and all who know you.
    We have so much to teach our children going forward in the world, and in making a difference xxxx

Leave a Reply