Growing Pains: The Mandela family mirrors us all

2013-07-07 10:00

When I first started to write this piece, it was to throw my trusty pen’s weight behind o’Mandela and their cry for privacy.

Inspired by one newspaper headline, the one that curiously screeched “secret family meeting”, as if anyone’s family meetings are ever public, I wanted to tell you two stories.

The first was of how I found out my grandfather Walter was no longer with us. I got a call on a chilly evening in May 10 years ago that simply said “come home”.

There we gathered and, in the warmth of each other’s support, we received the news we had been dreading.

It would be some time before we would face the onslaught of calls and cameras brought by the news of that night. Just enough time to do what any family that loses a loved one wants to do – deal with the loss.

By contrast, I received the news of gogo Albertina’s passing very differently. It was on another chilly night and again I got a call, this time from a familiar voice – that of a radio personality asking me if I could confirm this terrible news that had somehow been leaked to the media.

I couldn’t. I didn’t know. Most of all, I couldn’t deal with the loss.

Many other relatives felt the same way. Why had they not been afforded the courtesy of a phone call saying “come home”, they wondered.

Instead, many were struck by the awful shock of hearing of it on a radio news bulletin, while driving. Alone. With no loving embrace to weep the pain into.

As a South African family all hankering after details of the father of the nation’s health, I wanted to remind us that family doesn’t pronounce on the death of our elders prematurely. And we don’t try to insinuate it from graveyard visits or family meetings.

“Should anything happen, it’ll be like the second coming of the Lord. Everyone will know” is my standard response to anyone asking for the inside track.

But of course the world is also a different place since last week.

For one thing, the privacy many of us have long felt should be accorded to the Mandelas has been voluntarily given up in a soap opera scriptwriter’s wet dream and any family’s worst nightmare.

We’ve watched loved ones viscerally lay bare some of their ideals, their unmentionables and, most of all, their hurt.

And yet, which of our own families do not have these very same issues to grapple with right now – issues of authority and power, culture and tradition, patriarchy and ageism, heritage and inheritance, legitimacy, the definitions of family itself and deep dark secrets.

It dawned on me this weekend. How ­uncanny is it that, as a leading family, the Mandelas are once again unwittingly making the ultimate sacrifice, this time of their own privacy, to lead us to a most difficult realisation, that all is not well with our families in South Africa.

The baggage, the unhealed wounds and the legacy of systems purposefully designed to destroy the family unit have festered almost secretly since the dawn of our ­democracy, and yet we have barely begun to address them.

Now, like a boil lanced, we see ugliness oozing and it scares us. But perhaps the pain of keeping the boil is no longer worth it. Perhaps it’s time to look at our own boils and lance them or, as grannies suggest, apply onions. There are fewer tears that way.

The Mandela name has always been one of extremes – extreme courage and resilience, extreme humanity and, sadly, the recent extreme anger and anguish. But through that, the name has shown us what is possible and demonstrated what we should be ­focusing on. There is perhaps no greater call for us to act on rebuilding our respective families.

So as we move towards Mandela Day and think of ways in which to make a difference to our communities, let’s spare a thought for the family: our own.

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