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Letter: My long walk to say goodbye


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REUTERS

People gather around a bronze statue of Nelson Mandela in Pretoria.

Clint Matthews tells of his journey from ignorance to an emotional farewell to Nelson Mandela.

Pretoria - I was born in 1973 and grew up in a lower-middle-class family in Krugersdorp. I had an average white South African childhood.

I never knew anything about apartheid or the struggle.

I did know that I went to school with white children only, and that the black children that I was friends with on our smallholding had to go to their own school. This was because of our different languages, I thought.

Only once I had left matric and been drafted into the forces did I start understanding what was going on in our country, and since it was now 1991, I was with a multiracial intake into the forces so still did not understand exactly what all the fuss was about.

Since I was stationed in Joburg during the most violent times of our struggle history, I soon learned that it was not just a fuss but a very important time in our history and for democratic change.

I was stationed at a voting station in 1994 to guard against possible bomb threats by a right-wing militia.

I remember the highs of watching people who had been oppressed for so long rejoice in voting and the outcome of the elections.

Since the history was all very gently put in the closet with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) I never learned much more about the struggle or the cruelty that many suffered at the hands of secret police and other forces during this time.

I did go to Robben Island for the tour of the prison and to stand in Nelson Mandela’s cell. I remember the lump in my throat as I stood there thinking of the president I now knew and could not reconcile the fact that this man spent so many years locked away there, and be such a gracious, dignified and humble human being. I still don’t know where he got such grace from, to bear no hatred toward his jailers.

We as whites who lived “normal” lives removed from all politics and blinded by the regime as to what was going on sometimes just kilometres away from our warm beds truly did not have a clue as to the suffering caused by our government. I know that sounds impossible but it is the unfortunate tragic truth.

Then with the drive for reconciliation and the TRC, and the past being sort of swept under the carpet, most of us still do not realise the extent of the horrors experienced by people during those dark years.

Trying to embrace as much of our history as possible, I made it my mission to learn more about the past and to make sure I watch every documentary on TV and every movie that is released.

On the first day of the release of The Long Walk to Freedom movie, I watched the first show, at 11am. I remember being angry with the way blacks were being treated (in the movie) and tears flowed down my cheeks several times.

The biggest lesson I learned in the film was what a big part Winnie Mandela played and what suffering she went through. Until that moment, I had only seen her as an instigator of violence and the “necklace”, but watching the moments where she was torn away from her children and detained brought me to tears and made me feel ashamed of being white.

This new vision of Winnie had me very curious to know more about her. I bought her book 491 Days.

Even though Nelson Mandela was subjected to a long sentence, I believe Winnie suffered much worse treatment and suffering at the hands of the regime than Mandela did.

I bow to this woman and would kiss her hand should I get the chance. If you have any doubts, buy the book and learn more about her.

On Wednesday, December 4, I finished reading her book and so on Thursday evening when I received a tweet about a priest having left Madiba’s house, I just knew what was going on.

I sent out a message to various friends telling them that he had passed. This was a while before President Jacob Zuma had come on TV. I just knew what had happened.

Then over the next few days I watched the services and many documentary programmes on the various channels, many of these teaching me more and more about what the struggle had been about and like.

I submerged myself in this and became very emotional. I felt that I had to in some way be part of this historic event.

The lying-in-state announcement was an interesting opportunity for me to say goodbye to Madiba.

On the first day, I watched some of the events on television. I decided to get up very early on Thursday, go to the park-and-ride and go and say my goodbye.

At the last minute on Wednesday night I received a meeting schedule for the next morning so now knew I would not get to go to Pretoria on Thursday.

Thursday produced many reports and visuals of long lines and cut-offs for the park-and-ride and Union Buildings. It dawned on me that unless I was going to be able to go to the park-and-ride very early on Friday, I would likely not get to say goodbye, but having a family and responsibilities that was not going to be possible.

Friday morning I read that people were being turned away at 8am already. This was not good. I was sad and thought that was it for my chances.

As the week had moved along I had an increasing feeling I was being drawn to Madiba. I felt compelled to see him.

One day at 11am, I stopped what I was doing, got dressed, told my family I had to go to the Union Buildings and that I would see them later.

I approached Pretoria from the N1 and about 1km before the prison the traffic stopped. I was stuck in traffic there for about an hour to get to Struben Street.

I turned toward the Union Buildings and thought to myself, “I will see him, I will see him”.

I got to the intersection of Edmond and Hamilton streets and found the road closed off on Edmond toward the Union Buildings. Without a thought, I parked my car about 30m before Hamilton Street on Edmond Street.

I was trembling. I got out and walked up Edmond toward the Union Buildings. As I crossed Hamilton, there were about 10 traffic officials standing across the road, and a “Permit holders only” sign and tape blocking the road off.

I walked up to the tape, lifted it and walked on. I did not look back or hesitate. No one said a word. My breathing was elevated and heart pounding.

As I proceeded up Edmond Street, I passed several police and other officials. It was as if I was invisible.

I got to the top of Edmond Street. At that point I could see thousands of people waiting in a line curving down Government Avenue, but I had not come this far to stop here.

There were police guards at the Union Building gates.

I proceeded across Government Avenue and without looking sideways walked up to the gates and gestured a high-five toward the police officer at the side of the gate and received a high-five back. Our hands clapped and I said, “Afternoon” and continued walking.

I was now in the grounds.

As I moved closer my emotions were stirring in me. The force that was drawing me in was stronger than ever, to the extent that I approached the direct stairs just below the amphitheatre.

I moved through the public queue to go up the stairs and then two police officers said, “Where are you going?”

I said, “To see Tata”. They paused and one said, “You can’t go up here. Continue down the road and find the dignitaries’ queue down there,” gesturing me toward the end of the public queue.

I smiled and said, “Thank you for doing your duties here. We are proud of you,” and turned and walked on.

I got to the end of the public queue and noticed an adjoining queue just before the stairs. I proceeded into this queue and up the stairs. We were told cellphones off and no sunglasses. I turned my phone off and removed my sunglasses.

I remembered seeing Mandla standing beside Madiba on TV and no one speaking to him. I thought to myself, “He must be so lonely standing there. I understand it is his duty but still it would not hurt to acknowledge him and speak to him.”

I was now preparing some words for Mandla. “As a man I offer you my deepest condolences, as a chief I offer you my utmost respect, but, as a citizen of this country I charge you with the duty and legacy of your grandfather, shed the shackles of party colours and worldly wealth, and embrace your destiny.

“We the people need you. We the people need dignified, honest and sincere leadership.

“Draw on your ancestors and stand up for the cause and struggle that the greats placed before us, before it is too late”

I was ready for this now. I was going to make sure I was in the right-hand line so I could walk up to Mandla, deliver my message to him and say goodbye to Madiba and move on.

I worked my way to the righthand line. I got to the front of the queue and moved out of the line and… the enormity of the moment overwhelmed me.

I took Mandla’s hand and started. “Nkosi Mandla”. It was as if I was looking into his grandfather’s eyes. They were filled with compassion. He said to me, “Be strong”.

The tears streamed down my cheeks. I said, “I am sorry for your loss. He was a great man”. That was all I could get out.

He smiled and nodded holding my forearm while our hands were locked in a handshake.

I turned and walked to Madiba. I said to him, “ Go well, and rest. Thank you”.

He looked peaceful, wearing a signature Madiba shirt.

I walked out and was embraced by a police chaplain. She handed me a tissue and walked with me to the exit, all the while whispering words of encouragement into my ear.

I then walked back out to my car and went home.

Much of the sadness I felt during the week seemed to be lifted.

I don’t know what overcame me to make my way there in such a daring way, but I will always cherish the moments there and be grateful for my “cloak of invisibility” during this time.

I pray that our future is as Madiba wanted, because the deep-rooted corruption and attitude of “now I’m getting mine” in the leaders of today has us on a one-way road to destruction.

I call on Mama Winnie and others who have the respect of the masses to shed the colours of their parties and steer us back to a course of prosperity.

In Madiba’s words, “If the ANC does to you what the apartheid government did to you, then you must do to the ANC what you did to the apartheid government”.

Clint Matthews

Krugersdorp

Pretoria News


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