I grew up in a small town in the Karoo, where we had to listen to the moon landing and Rugby matches on crackling shortwave radios. A place with achingly beautiful sunsets. And this whole week I have felt that I have witnessed the grandest sunset of them all. I spilled tears when Mandela was released in 1994, and it is time to spill some more.
The remarkable list of world leaders converging in South Africa for Mandela’s funeral is a fitting tribute to a man whose heart was big enough to inspire a nation and a planet. The leader of the most powerful nation on Earth will deliver a tribute, with the leaders of the world’s two most populous countries, China and India, looking on. Yes, even in death Madiba brings our nation and the world together, with foes like the US and Cuba on the same stage, all looking on in admiration and sadness.
A few choose to still narrowly judge Madiba by the ANC’s belated embrace of violent struggle in the early 1960s. But it seems a very harsh way to judge a man that had clearly embraced forgiveness and non-violence by the time of his release in 1990, when the ANC and its associated ideological organizations were unbanned in one breathtaking swoop by De Klerk. If Madiba wasn’t a Ghandi when he went into prison, he certainly was when he was released. But also more than that – a secular Moses, David, Saladin, and the human side of Jesus all rolled into one.
A man that went to visit Betsie Verwoerd for a cup of tea and koeksisters in Orania, when Western heads of state and other celebrities were already clamoring to welcome him with fanfare at their tables. A man that would unexpectedly drop in on Amanda Strydom, an Afrikaner singer/songwriter, when she was going through a rough patch in her life. And also a man that would don a Springbok jersey with all the eyes of the Rugby world on us in 1995, embracing us Afrikaners as intimately as he possibly could.
The African people was at war with the Apartheid regime, after decades of a seemingly futile non-violent approach. After all, one of our Afrikaner folk heroes, the dashing General Christiaan de Wet, also used guerilla tactics and violent sabotage to try and bring down the enemy. And the civilian death toll caused by the ANC pales in comparison to the thousands of civilians that died as a result of Apartheid, including the torture of individuals perceived as a threat or as “disrespectful” when confronted by the state security apparatus.
I agree that our ongoing horrible, violent crime rate and endemic corruption tarnishes the standing of the ANC, and also the silent support given to the horribly misguided and murderous policies of Mugabe in neighbouring Zimbabwe. But it would be unfair and wrong to hang this around the neck of Madiba. Our crime rate is significantly driven by desperate poverty. And Mugabe totally lost the plot during Mbeki’s rule, not during Madiba’s rule.
So, like most, I grieve Mandela’s passing deeply and unreservedly. Go well into the night, Madiba. As the hills of Qunu beckons you back, we are letting you go, reluctantly. Rainer Rilke’s poem encapsulates your soaring.
Ich komme aus meinen Scheingen heim
I come home from the soaring
in which I lost myself.
I was song, and the refrain which is God
is still soaring in my ears.
Now I am still
no more words.
To the others I was like a wind:
I made them shake.
I'd gone very far, as far as the angels,
and high, where light thins into nothing.
But deep in the darkness is God.
Dr. Pieter Swart, Vancouver, Canada
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