Tselane Tambo: Rest in peace, Uncle Nelson

2013-12-09 12:00

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Tselane Tambo shares her memories of Uncle Nelson, her father’s best friend and comrade

This is a day that South Africans and the rest of the world have anticipated with dread for some time.

Although we knew this day would eventually come, it is nevertheless both shocking and tragic. The stunned sting of our nation’s bereavement and distress could not be more profound. We know that people all over the world sympathise with our pain.

As we try to comfort one another, I’m sure the conversations lean towards expressions of “he was a great man”, because Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, our beloved Madiba, was exactly that, a great man.

“On thy grave the rain shall fall from the eyes of a mighty nation.”

My heart goes out to the Nelson Mandela family – to Mama Winnie, Zindzi and Zenani, Mama Graça, Olivia, Josina, Luis and the grandchildren. My heart, and the hearts of every South African, belongs to you today in sympathy, empathy, love and gratitude. Your grief and our grief are inseparable.

Many will remember a leader. A man of illustrious personal integrity and political credentials who was, from his youth, a leader of the ANC. He was a founding member of the ANC Youth League.

He was a leading participant in the creation of Umkhonto weSizwe, a founder of the law firm of Mandela and Tambo. He was a dedicated, fearless freedom fighter and liberation leader. Not one of us will forget the monumental sacrifices he made for us all.

Nelson Mandela was my father’s dearest friend and brother. Though he was imprisoned shortly after I was born, and I therefore had not met him, I was introduced to him in my infancy as Uncle Nelson. I don’t remember a time when I did not know of Uncle Nelson. Whenever my father spoke of him, there was something in his eyes that I was too young to fully recognise, but that even my young soul knew must be significant.

This is why I grew up with a love for Uncle Nelson. My father’s love, when he spoke of him, was infectious. I loved him because Daddy loved him.

Whenever Daddy came home when I was small, he would encourage me to draw pictures for Uncle Nelson and Auntie Winnie, neither of whom probably ever saw my labours of love.

My Mum and Uncle Nelson shared a birthday, July 18. On this day, they would often have lunch together and the families would join them for an intimate celebration. Uncle Nelson would regale us with anecdotes of his travels and experiences. He and Mum would talk about the old days and old friends.

They would laugh and reminisce together.

Those were special moments that I was privileged to witness. He had a wonderful, self-effacing sense of humour, a hearty sincere laugh and a warmth of spirit.

When I was growing up, there were anecdotes. Mum loved to tell of the day when Uncle Nelson and Auntie Winnie met. She credited herself and Daddy with the role of matchmakers.

She would laugh when she told of how mesmerised he was when he first set eyes on Auntie Winnie. Daddy described him as tall, vivacious and exuberant, while Mum never failed to mention how well-dressed Uncle Nelson always was.

These conversations were always tinged with sadness. There was quiet determination and resolve in Daddy’s voice when he used to say: “One day you will meet your Uncle Nelson.”

The first time I met Uncle Nelson was in Sweden in 1990. Daddy was in a hospital there recovering from a debilitating stroke and Uncle Nelson came to see him. Daddy wanted his family to be there for the reunion.

It was a poignant occasion – so many hugs, tears, cheers, ululating and singing of freedom songs – with these two giants among men seeing each other for the first time in 30 years.

They looked into each other’s eyes, embraced one another, joined hands and raised their joined hands in victory. Uncle Nelson received me with a munificent hug, smiled into my eyes and told me “you are my child”.

I was undone, besieged by so many emotions – excitement and wonder at being held so lovingly in the arms of this awesome man who I had known, yet not known, my entire life. It was truly momentous.

“Death leaves a heartache no one can heal. Love leaves a memory no one can steal.”

At Daddy’s funeral, Uncle Nelson said: “I say Oliver Tambo has not died because the ideals for which he sacrificed his life can never die.

“I say that Oliver Tambo has not died because the ideals of freedom, humanity, dignity and a colour-blind respect for every individual cannot perish.

“I will say he has not died because there are many of us who became part of his soul and therefore willingly entered into a conspiracy with him for the victory of his cause. While the ANC lives, Oliver Tambo cannot die.”

When I examine these beautiful words of accolade and esteem from the heart of Nelson Mandela in speaking of his life-long friend, I cannot help but think “back at you, Uncle Nelson”. Nelson Mandela has not died. For as long as there is South Africa, Nelson Mandela cannot die.

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