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Mandela was consumed by grief; on May 5 he had been woken by his personal assistant, Zelda la Grange, and informed of the death of his closest friend and comrade, Walter Sisulu. Mandela had been staying at a luxurious game farm, where he was working on the sequel to his memoir Long Walk to Freedom.
He dressed and returned to Joburg to give his condolences to Walter’s wife, Albertina. Helped into the Sisulus’ modest home in Joburg, the frail Mandela held the hands of the newly-widowed Albertina and said, “Xhamela is no more. May he live forever! A part of me is gone”.
Mandela spent two days with advisers working on his eulogy for Sisulu. He issued a media statement to the South African Press Association: “During the past 62 years our lives have been intertwined. Together we forged common commitments. We walked side by side, nursing each other’s bruises, holding each other up when our steps faltered. Together we savoured the taste of freedom.
“In a sense I feel cheated by Walter. If there be another life beyond this physical world I would have loved to be there first so that I could welcome him. I now know that when my time comes, Walter will be there to meet me, and I am almost certain he will hold out an enrolment form to register me into the ANC in that world, cajoling me with one of his favourite songs we sang when mobilising people behind the Freedom Charter:
Libhaliwe na iGama lakho
Vuma silibhale kuloMqulu
(Has your name been enrolled in the struggle for freedom? Permit us to register you in the struggle for freedom.)
“I shall miss his friendship and counsel. Till we meet again, Hamba kahle, Xhamela. Qhawe la ma Qhawe!' (Go well, rest in peace, Xhamela. Hero among heroes.)
Some time later, when his grief was not so raw, he confessed to a radio station that when he had first arrived in Joburg he had been warned, “Don’t get involved with that man Walter Sisulu. If you do, you will spend the rest of your life in jail”. “Of course,” said Mandela, “I ignored this advice.”
By the time Albertina died at the age of 92 in 2011, Mandela, who was nearing 93, was no longer able to attend the funeral, never mind make the eulogy. His legs and feet, which for many years had given him pain while walking, now refused to make the journey. Instead, his wife, Graça Machel, read a statement for him; for Mandela, who was best man at the Sisulu wedding, this death was particularly hard to bear. He referred to her as “one of the greatest South Africans”. Albertina kept her family together while Walter was in prison for 26 years, and the power of her as a mother was seen in the distress of her children, all of whom had achieved significant positions.
In a far sadder tribute than the one he had paid to Walter Sisulu, Mandela, acknowledging that his own time was growing short, said: “The years have taken the toll as one by one friends and comrades passed on. Every time it seems as part of oneself is being cut off; none of those cuts could have been more painful than the loss of this dear friend, you, my beloved sister.”
The death of Albertina gave Mandela much to reflect upon; while Walter Sisulu came out of prison and drifted almost seamlessly into the bosom of his large and loving family, Mandela had a somewhat lonelier path. He wanted nothing more than a relationship like that enjoyed by the Sisulus. Walter and Albertina adored each other. In one television interview, they appeared to forget the interviewer was there. Albertina paused for a while and looked at Walter. “You want to kiss me, don't you?” she said to him. He, beaming with love, replied to his 80-year-plus love, “Yes, I do,” and kissed her lingeringly on the lips.
While Mandela’s marriage to Graça Machel is happy, the many demands on him eroded the family time he treasures. As an iconic figure his life after prison was never his own, and although he tried to carve private space it was always difficult; there was always another who claimed they were a “special case”. He became saddened too that the high hopes of democracy were obscured.
In July 2011, Zwelinzima Vavi, the head of the powerful two-million-member Congress of South African Trade Unions, condemned a “powerful, corrupt, predatory elite combined with a conservative populist agenda (that had) harness(ed) the ANC to advance their interests”. Vavi referred to “wild zigzagging in the political direction of the country”.
He criticised growing poverty and joblessness. A million jobs had been lost in the three years preceding his speech – unemployment was officially around 26 percent, and at least double that unofficially. But BMWs and Mercedes were still conspicuous by their prevalence on the roads. And crime was rampant: 49 murders a day (an improvement on previous years), a rape every 26 seconds…
Perhaps the betrayal felt by so many who fought for liberation is misplaced, as the harm of decades cannot be overturned in two decades, yet still… still the failures burn holes in hearts, they sadden, and as they intensified, an aging Nelson Mandela withdrew into himself and finally became silent.
Perhaps one could muse that Mandela's epitaph might one day be: “I am, because of others. I learned all that I know from the greatest minds and the humblest of souls; all schooled me. I loved passionately, and was wounded deeply, and that taught me patience, tolerance, empathy and gratitude.
“My dignity was denigrated, and through that I learned to walk tall, with pride, because personal dignity is contained within the spirit. I bent to hear the whispers of children, and heard wisdom. I listened to my enemies with my heart and not my ego, and, from that, learned how to manage their fears and build within them the confidence that overturned hatred and brought my people, and the people of other lands, to freedom.
“I learned that freedom is not liberation; it is not the frivolous squandering of hours. True freedom is eternal duty in the protection and building of liberty.”
And so we say to Mandela:
Sala kahle, Madiba. Siyabonga, Tata. (Stay well, Madiba. Thank you, father.)
* This is an edited extract from Smith’s Mandela: In celebration of a Great Life, published by Struik Travel & Heritage