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Tomorrow is Mandela’s birthday. He will be 94. Born in 1918, he has witnessed the world’s slow crank evolve into the mad spin it is today. He has experienced cruelty, injustice and humiliation. Yet even though almost a third of his life was spent breaking rocks in prison, his heart didn’t turn to stone.
Tomorrow is also Mandela Day, when we remember the sacrifices Mandela made, and the 67 Minutes campaign is urging South Africans to spend time in service to others, in honour of Madiba’s legacy.
And right there is the problem. How easily we throw about words such as “legacy” and “honour”. Add to that “pay tribute to”, “in remembrance of” and “in the spirit of”, and everything takes on a PR gloss. That is the problem with these Days.
On Youth Day, we remember June 16, on Women’s Day, we remember women and on Father’s Day, we bequeath bad hankies and Toblerone. Then we carry on with our lives. And who can blame us? It’s hard being conscious.
Last year, I did 67 Minutes – although, because my cooking skills are more salmonella than Nigella, it took half a day. Half a day! In service to others! What a hero. I made a huge pot of curry which, when decanted into plastic pots (should I have used compostable containers?), served only six. Then I drove around our neighbourhood looking for poor people to feed. I think I gave a pot of curry to a student wearing proletariat rags. She looked at me strangely as she headed into Woolies.
Back home, I felt a warm glow of sacrifice. I even got tearful, but that might have been the chilli powder. I went to bed feeling like Mother Teresa.
The next day I shouted at Nicholas the beggar. I avoided eye contact on the train, and when I walked past the blind man I had fed the previous day, I smiled beatifically and waved. He watched straight past me.
Tomorrow I don’t want to be a hero. I’m not going to do 67 Minutes. Yes, it’s nice that many South Africans will do good things – houses will be built, socks will be knitted, children will be read to and people will be fed – but come Thursday, life will be back to normal. There will be no stories, no wool, no bricks and no soup.
We have to find better ways of being better. It starts in our hearts.
Perhaps we could all have transplants – doctors could find a way to culture bits of Mandela’s heart and inject them into us. Maybe we’d develop a thing for bright shirts.
A more realistic approach would be to take Madiba’s beliefs to heart (not everyone looks good in ethnic prints) and learn to feel before we think, think about what we feel and then think before we speak. It’s easier than we feel/think.
I tried it out the other day – psychologists call it cognitive behavioural therapy, Buddhists call it mindfulness; I call it the Nelson Nudge.
l Large woman gets on train. Instead of choosing a spot with three open seats, she squeezes in next to me and pokes my foot with her umbrella. My first thought: “Bloody hell! Stupid cow! I was just getting to the part where the 50 Shades virgin gets carpet burns. Now I’ll have to put the book away.”
Nelson Nudge: “Maybe she thinks you look nice. Maybe she thinks you’re Gwyneth Paltrow, before she got thin. Maybe she’s agoraphobic. Whatever, she’s certainly cuddly and warm. Lean in. Grab some heat.”
The woman pointed at the book and giggled. “It’s too terrible, isn’t it?” she whispered. We spent the rest of the journey talking about books. My left side got toasty.
l Supermarket cashier looks as sour as Posh Spice at a tequila party. My first thought: “Bloody hell! Miserable old cow! Joy dodger!”
Nelson Nudge: “Listen, you judgemental pile of skin. She probably gets paid peanuts and has a husband called Miles. Smile. Go on. It costs nothing.”
I crack my toothiest grin at the woman. She beams back at me and tells me to enjoy my day further.
l Man is scurrying behind me in the dark from the station. My first thought: “Oh God, it’s happening. He’s going to stick a knife in my ribs and take my bag.”
And, because I’m paranoid, I have second, third and fourth thoughts: “He’ll drag me to his house. Chop me up. Sell me to a pimp.”
Nelson Nudge: “Um, you’re stereotyping – again. Walk slowly. Check your heart.”
The man catches up with me. My heart is pounding. “Your zip is open,” he says, pointing at my backpack. We walk the rest of the way together. His name is Augustin. He’s an electrical engineer, originally from Congo. He laughs when I bid him “Aroovwoir”.
As tomorrow approaches, I’ve decided it’s the everyday that counts, not the every-year Days.
Perhaps if we try to reshape our hearts, we will stop being slaves to our prejudices, and service to others will follow in a meaningful way.
Meantime, happy birthday, Mandela. May you spend your day quietly with people who don’t expect you to break into a Madiba™ jive.