Thursday, December 19, 2013

Remembering Mandela

I got an email from my friend Miriam last Friday. “We are counting on you to be the eyes and ears for all of your friends back here in the US,” she wrote, “…to let us know what it’s like where you are, where the life and the loss has much more powerful meaning.”

The request seemed daunting. Here is my attempt. In an effort to share the writing, I have included quotes that have struck me for their passion and their insight.

I found out about Mandela’s death from an email from my friend Thea and one from my dad. All I could see of Thea’s was “sorry for your loss,” and I knew who she was talking about. The email from my dad confirmed it. The subject read:  

NYTimes: Nelson Mandela, South African Icon of Peaceful Resistance, Is Dead.

“Mandela is dead,” I shouted to my roommate.

Mandela, some say, has been dying all year. He has been so sick, his deathbed, and so his big presence did not loom large on a daily basis. Some are not mourning now because they say they have been mourning all year, that for them he already died. His impact this week has been far larger than his impact over the last year.

My roommate went off to work and I sat there reading. And reading. And reading. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I turned on the radio, the most accessible and popular communication here and got what I needed in a call in show where people were sharing stories of him, moments when they met him or moments that meant so much to them. I never met him, but in 1990 my parents took me to hear him speak at the Washington Convention Centre. Almost 25 years later, I couldn’t have imagined I would be here, experiencing this moment with South Africa.

When I walked around that morning, I kept staring at people wondering what they were thinking. Of course it’s not like the people at the shop were going to say, oh today is so sad. It’s their job to be perky. But I kept looking.

At the grocery store I pushed the woman at the counter. When she asked how I was I said, “Well it’s quite a day.” Then she asked, “Why? Mandela?” When I answered affirmative and asked how she felt she told me that she was wondering if the country would change and go down hill in any way.

That was bound to be one comment. Over my years here a few young people have said the exact opposite to me. They worried that apartheid would come back once Mandela died. Neither is going to happen. South Africa will continue it’s journey and in that, many people have said this week, try to live up to his legacy.

When I reached my favorite coffee place, I got what I wanted in a conversation with the woman who makes the coffee – who I have known for several months. We talked about how we need to celebrate his life at this moment of death. That he was 95 and this was bound to happen and we need to let him go, just like she let her 80-year old grandma go the week before.

The question I think of now is not only of my expectations of how people might feel, my desire for dialogue, but also how different people feel and mourn. What this has meant to people here. What it has meant for those abroad. For some it is immediately devastating and full of rich meaning, but some struggle to figure out how or what they should feel.

In the last two weeks, I have continued to read everything – news, editorials, a beautiful essay by Nadine Gordimer about how her book “Burger’s Daughter” was snuck into Robben Island so Mandela could read it, a warm and loving obituary by Desmond Tutu. All of this reading and knowing is part of what helps me feel. It has been positive and also an overwhelming barrage, which has rendered some of this coverage and commentary meaningless. Sometimes the more you read, the less it means.

Now when I read the profound statement that Mandela made in court during the Rivonia trial, I skim over it because the more it is quoted the more it loses it’s power to me. If you haven’t read it, I am sharing it here, because of the extraordinariness of the moment.

During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. 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 live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

Read several times a day over a week, for me it almost became just words. I wonder if people ever feel that way about the “content of character” section of MLK’s speech at the March on Washington.

Now, it is other things he said that tell me more about Mandela.

I read many personal and opinion pieces too. Several people felt that Mandela’s true and complete self was often quashed in the memorializing of the man, particularly in international coverage.

The issues they remind us of is that amidst discussion about how much Mandela was like Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr., which is quite true, we must remember that he took up a philosophy of violence when he felt like non-violence was not achieving the struggle. This is why he and other comrades started Umkhonto weSizwe --  Spear of the Nation.

There is the myth that without Mandela, South Africa would have erupted into a bloody civil war at the end of apartheid. We cannot know what would have happened. We do know that Mandela was a man of force who chose reconciliation, who staved off violence after apartheid, who chose to talk to his jailers and a hostile government, opting in later years for negotiation over earlier strategies of violence.

Mark Gevisser, the author of a biography about Mandela’s successor Thabo Mbeki, wrote about the message underlying much of the media coverage,”

 “For those of us who consume media, our week was full of content…. But it was also burdened by an overwhelming message: that we, Mandela's children, are his primary legacy, only worthy of his paternity if we live up to his exemplary example. This is a consequence of the way Mandela's legacy has been popularised: the world's embrace of him only as an icon of forgiveness and reconciliation – of love – rather than also as a fierce combatant for justice who turned to forgiveness and reconciliation because he understood it as the best route to the liberation of his people… The pressure of needing to live up to the legacy of Mandela exceptionalism is too much to bear: it can cause us to crack.”

In his writing, my friend Dylan, who works with teachers and who collaborated with me on my film Where Do I Stand?, honored Mandela as a teacher:

“Today we say goodbye to a great teacher… He has taught us all what it means to make choices, to sacrifice for something greater than oneself, to work hard, to laugh and dance, to love our children, to love our land and find love for each other. He has taught us to forgive where we can and be humble in asking for forgiveness when we need to. He has taught us to belong, accept and include. He has taught us to cherish this democracy, not to take for granted what has taken so long to build. He has taught us to share and be kind. And he has taught us that in teaching, we can give all of South Africa’s young children hope, opportunity and the courage to build on what he began.”
That evening, I went with my friend Greer to an Interfaith Service in front of City Hall. Right after Mandela was released from prison, he spoke to thousands from the balcony of this same building. The service was quiet as representatives from several religions spoke and prayed. It was both times that we sang the national anthem that really moved me. How amazing it is that I live here. That I am a part of this moment of celebration and mourning. That I am part of this country that is growing and changing, that despite disappointment and corruption, has so many people working to overcome its challenges. And that I have an opportunity to play a small part in that.

Last Wednesday I attended the Mandela Memorial Celebration at the Cape Town Stadium with my friend Bulelwa and her 16-year-old son Khulani. We told Khulani that when he is older, he would remember this day and be glad he was here.

There was a beautiful energy in the stadium, a unified and spiritual sense. A unique moment and an acknowledgement of this amazing man and the country he helped create today. There were inspired speeches and songs. Many who spoke reminded us that the struggle to maintain democracy was not over. That the responsibility to defend the democracy, to live with Mandela’s spirit of reconciliation must continue.

Western Cape Premiere Helen Zille came out singing a Xhosa song before she spoke, first in Xhosa and then English. When rugby player Francois Pienaar, the former captain of the Springboks – who you may only know as Matt Damon – the entire crowd broke into applause. He spoke of the power of sport to unify people and of his special relationship with Mandela. He referred to one of Mandela’s favorite poems, “Invictus,” by William Ernest Henley.

“Our heartfelt thank you, to our spiritual coach and our captain. A flower that blooms in adversity is the most beautiful and rare of all. Madiba mastered his fate. As a nation, we must be the captain of his soul. Our present, our example, thank you Tata.”

Former Minister of Finance who now works in the Presidency Trevor Manuel spoke with incredible passion and used the moment to remind South Africa of the challenges that are left to overcome.

“We are soldiers and we need to take forward the spirit of democracy as Madiba would have wanted…We must take forward the spirit of struggle that Madiba represents in our lives. He leaves us with a spirit of struggle, spirit of self-sacrifice, humility and inter-relationship with the rest of us… Let us take forward the spirit of reconciliation… let’s listen to each other, let’s hear the pain of people who don’t have houses, let’s hear the pain of people who don’t have jobs, let’s hear the pain of people who don’t have access to toilets or water. Let’s hear that pain. Let’s take forward the spirit of reconciliation and as we do it and as we reach out to the other, as we reach out to the people in need we must remember everyday we are acting that way, we can say to ourselves Long live the spirit of Nelson Mandela. Long live. The spirit of Nelson Mandela lives inside us. Inside us. The back and forth chanting continued until he ended with Amandla. And the crowd responded Awethu.”  – Power … to us.

Mark Gevisser was at the memorial for Mandela in Johannesburg where Zuma and Obama and other world leaders spoke (and an incompetent sign language interpreter gained notoriety). It was pouring, the program seemed to be more for dignitaries than for the people, and when President Jacob Zuma was shown on the screen, he was booed, in what some say is democracy at work. A people who cannot communicate with the government choose to speak out in a different own way.

In his article, Gevisser issued a powerful reminder of where the country is today and the work that is yet to be done.

“I am grateful for … the way the earthiness of the crowd's behaviour deflated the notion that we are a special people with a special destiny: the rainbow children of a saintly father. We are not. We are a troubled and fractious country in a tough neighbourhood. We have problems. Who wouldn't, given such a history? And we have leaders who don't do us justice. We need to do something about this. It's a long walk to freedom indeed. Even if we are sad about Mandela's death, we have already looked up from the sombre task of burying him – he is not even in the ground yet – and we have carried on walking.”

The most inspiring speech at the uninspiring event on Tuesday was the one given by President Obama. He pushed people to be accountable to their own behavior, to take action and to not be complacent when they should be speaking out. Quoting Obama here isn’t raw patriotism. On Tuesday night after the ceremony in Johannesburg, many South African’s I know have said the same thing.

With honesty, regardless of our station or circumstance, we must ask:  how well have I applied his lessons in my own life?...  We will never see the likes of Nelson Mandela again.  But let me say to the young people of Africa, and young people around the world …while I will always fall short of Madiba’s example, he makes me want to be better.  He speaks to what is best inside us.  After this great liberator is laid to rest; when we have returned to our cities and villages, and rejoined our daily routines, let us search then for his strength - for his largeness of spirit - somewhere inside ourselves.  And when the night grows dark, when injustice weighs heavy on our hearts, or our best laid plans seem beyond our reach - think of Madiba, and the words that brought him comfort within the four walls of a cell:

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul. 

 Mandela was buried in Qunu on Sunday. I went back and forth about where I should be for the service, if I needed to be watching it outside of City Hall with others or watching with friends or if it was okay for me not to watch, if I had already done enough memorializing and the rest would come and go on a personal level. I ended up choosing wisely, listening to the service with friends in a car on the way back from a night away, where I had slept under the stars.