Madiba is dead. He really is no more

2013-12-13 11:50

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Death’s presence has a way of knocking your feet from under you. Madiba is dead. He really is no more. I’d known this for a week, but now it’s really sunk in.

Behind me a woman collapses in tears as she walks past the coffin where he lay in state for the last time today. The thought must have hit her too, violently so, in a deep place full of old and new pain.

Nelson Mandela is lying in a coffin in the big white shrine that has been erected in the Union Buildings amphitheatre, which will now bear his name and where in May 1994 he stood proud, spirited, strong and alive, as South Africa’s first democratic president.

But this isn’t Nelson Mandela any more.

The thought of it creeps up on you through your senses: up your nostrils with that unmistakable smell, through your skin, into your ears with sounds respectfully muted.

Death sucks the life out of the living around it. It is rude. It drains you, instantly, surprisingly. It renders you helpless, like a punch in the tummy. I felt the need to collapse too, fold double, cry, shout at death not to be proud, but I didn’t.

I bit back and kept my composure and filed out past the support staff awaiting mourners with boxes of tissues on the exit side of the coffin. At that moment, nothing could soothe this loss I could feel in my bones, in my blood, in my intestines – a loss that is primitive, personal, patriotic.

Crying would have been useless. Walking out, I briefly caught the eye of a presidency official I know well, and saw my emotions reflected in his expression.

Looking at other faces around me, I realised we were mirroring each other. Even though each had their own grief for the man, we share Madiba like we share a painful past. We’re all going into the same future. Mundane as it sounds, our collective grieving is also a moment of nation-building.

Madiba’s face didn’t look the way I thought he would. His skin was ashen, yet somehow brighter than in some of the last public pictures taken of him in life.

His mouth sloped downwards, and it made him appear serious rather than serene. His closed eyes made him appear preoccupied with some ponderous dream.

He looked less frail than I thought he would, except for his hair, which was wispy and grey like that of a very old man. He seemed so dangerously close to me and human, yet at the same time, paradoxically, he didn’t.

Now the body of the man that symbolises our struggle, reconciliation, and nationhood, is lifeless. For a moment it felt like all those dreams had departed with his spirit.

It is hard to imagine that this body had endured 95 years of pain, love, suffering, happiness, struggle and power. I told myself his spirit is still out there, reincarnated in the democracy he fought for, in a new, born-free generation.

I’m glad I went to say goodbye, to see him, although how I saw him today will in future only be a small part of how I remember him. publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

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