Mandela: Just an ordinary, wonderful man

2013-12-07 11:10

To sanctify Madiba is to detract from the scope and magnitude of his achievements.

It is one minute to noon on Friday, December 6, and 15 hours since Nelson Mandela died.

The vast glass lobby of the building where I work is filling up with employees.

Everyone is so quiet that when a minute’s silence is observed, it is hard to say where it starts and ends.

A soft, churchy rustle of cloth as people make their way back to their offices, is the only signal that it is over.

Outside, a remembrance “wall” has been put up – basically a huge reel of blank newsprint taped to the side of the building, with a box of marker pens and an invitation to write a farewell message.

“You where [sic] simply the best,” says one.

“May your soul rest in piece [sic],” says another.

The editor in me hopes the writers aren’t journalists, though this irreverent thought does not stop the tears that have refused to spill all morning from stinging my eyes.

“Thank you for fighting for me, even though you didn’t know me.”

The word ‘love’ crops up a lot.

“We love u Tata.”

“Love you!!!”

Here, among the love words, is a message that makes my throat ache.

“He loved every race. Let’s love one another.”

Was our love for Nelson Mandela and all he stood for the first true thing we had in common as violent and violated new South Africans in 1994?

Twenty years later, is he the only true thing we have in common?

How can a death so expected be so shocking? Because, perhaps, we are ashamed and afraid of what we have become in spite of all the lessons in love he showed us.

And now, what we knew must happen, has.

And even though we were led by an extraordinary man who refused the cult of personality we put on him, we fear we have lost the moral compass whose Due North we could always rely on.

Even when we didn’t.

And if we fell short of his love lessons when he was alive, how much harder will it be to fulfil Mandela’s “legacy” – about which we will hear much expert posturing and puffing in the coming days – now that he is gone?

On the radio I heard Zwelinzima Vavi describe Mandela as “a supernatural human”.

I disagree. To call him supernatural is to put him outside humanity, to put his courage, conviction and empathy beyond mortal reach.

Nelson Mandela represents the best humans we can be, flaws and all.

“I am not a saint,” he once said, “unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.”

Vavi might more accurately have called him “a supernatural politician” – not a breed generally known for leading a nation out of slavery while charming the pants off the plantation owners.

No wonder The Onion, a satirical US news site, announced his death with the headline Nelson Mandela Becomes First Politician to be Missed.

A natural extrovert, Mandela was both fighter and flirt – and boy, did he love people.

He made working the room with Naomi, Oprah, Bono and Barack look like the best job in the world.

Still, he seemed to take at least as much pleasure in the company of the ordinary “us”.

Radio stations have been flooded with callers wanting to share their big Madiba moment.

The endless “I met Madiba” tales were told with the pith and polish of stories that have been told many times.

He shook my hand. He asked my mother how old she was and she told him you don’t ask a lady her age. He wanted to know my baby’s name. I met him twice.

He came all the way to the back of the hall to say hello.

He made me feel like the most important person in the room. He made me laugh.

“George,” he said to his old friend and comrade George Bizos the last time they saw each other at the hospital, “don’t forget to take your jacket.”

Two old guys, looking out for each other in their forgetful twilight: so many things to so many people.

Back at the memory wall outside my office building, someone has added a Madiba quote: “It all seems impossible until it’s done.”

What Mandela actually said was “it always seems impossible until it’s done”.

But I think the wonky wall version neatly describes our challenge as we make peace with our loss and learn to live on our own two feet.

The chief architect of our freedom has walked the long walk. Sometimes it must have seemed impossible. Yet it is done.

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