Thank you Tata Madiba – for what you did for our country – we will never forget. Aluta continua
(Editor: Alex Smit-Stachowski)
It is with a very sore heart that I say goodbye to Tata Madiba or let’s use his official title, President Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela. For us South Africans – he was truly a Tata, a wise elder who showed us the way forward to a new democracy, a life with freedom – for all.
I grew up in Apartheid and until I went to boarding-school at age 12, had no idea how ‘the other side’ lived. There was a loophole in the racist educational system and Christian private schools allowed a small selection of black, Indian and ’so-called coloured‘ students and this is how I learnt the truth about South Africa and its hidden leaders – from the activist Steven Bantu Biko, the Communists Chris Hani and Joe Slovo to the People’s Leader, Nelson Mandela.
Once awake, I hunted down any and all information I could find – I was driven – the idea of such injustice did not sit well with me – I resolved to become a journalist, “to tell it like it is” and “make a difference”. My friends from activist families smiled indulgently and warned me not to end up writing cooking columns!
Freelance journalists were just a level higher than street cleaners. Still, we were welcomed in the trade unions and our black comrades would switch to English so we could keep up with the speeches urging us to stand tall and fight for our rights.
Messages from the ANC stalwarts would filter through from our prisons and we heard we should keep strong and continue – freedom was on the horizon. Afrikaans nationalists began talks and we’d scan the newspapers eagerly to see if there was any real hope for our leaders, still behind bars. The press was so controlled, much did not come through but several leftwing journalists snuck through nuggets of hope.
In early 1990, I was at the movies – it was late on a Saturday night. As we were leaving the cinema, there was a loud cry – this time of joy, as a man ran through the streets ululating – the Sunday Times street poster blazed, ‚He’s Free!‘ It was a truly magical moment – unimaginable as we realized that a true democracy was actually possible, if Mandela was going to be released. Several ANC leaders had been set free earlier but Mandela was the trump card.
We and many other South Africans sat in front of our TV sets as they broadcast the live transmission of Tata Mandela’s release from prison. There was a delay, we saw journalists spilling into the streets – all of a sudden, the foreign press was there and our hard-working local newsmen jostled to get the first pictures of a freed Mandela with his Winnie. When he raised his fist in salute to show the people that he was out, he would now take charge, I sobbed with happiness. It had taken so long, he had sacrificed so much but here we were – hopeful again.
The atmosphere in South Africa was fraught with tension in the run-up to the first election. It could’ve sparked into a full-blown civil war but the calm, moderate and forgiving style of Mandela’s leadership prevented this from happening. He insisted that all parties from the leftwing socialists to the rightwing racists, sit down at one table and talk through a negotiated settlement – where all would be represented. This sensible leadership was inspiring and proves the true spirit of ubuntu – we are all one community, despite who we are and where we come from.
When Mandela was inaugurated – we watched with pride as the very first black president was sworn in. I was still a freelance journalist at the time and soon joined the leading community newspaper group and was told that he would be appearing at an event in our area. After his time on Robben Island, President Mandela could not tolerate flash photography so I stood with my cheap camera in the darkened shopping mall and tried not to move so that my pictures would come out of him. They didn’t and the event was a swirl of security guards swooshing by and his aura of true energy.
A few years later, I was TV editor at a daily newspaper when Mandela had a birthday coming up and a leading firm decided to give him a TV network worth R80 million. I have kept the invitation – His Excellency Mr Nelson Mandela invites Ms. Alexandra Smit – it said. It was like a birthday when you are a child – I couldn’t wait to attend and counted down the minutes. I arrived early and sat eagerly in the packed audience, recollecting how much he had done for the country and then being the emotional woman I am – stood up from my seat and bellowed, ‘Viva Mandela, viva!’ – the battle cry we shouted in marches.
The response was electrifying – people replied in kind and soon we were graced by his presence. I will say graced as he was a holy man, exuding a spiritual strength and humbleness that I’d imagine Hindu yogis have – a true leader. He walked on stage, already frail, so was assisted and had to wait with a smile as we clapped for a long time and then sang, ‘Happy birthday.’
There are few people I call Sir – not many people have commanded my respect but Madiba was one of them.
Thank you, sir – for what you did for our country – we will never forget – aluta continua.