Janet Heard

Dear Madiba,

While you have been hanging on to life, I have traversed the Eastern Cape – through your childhood home of Qunu to and from the South Coast of KwaZulu-Natal – during a two-week road trip.

Relieved that you have now stabilised, I almost postponed the journey from Cape Town when your condition became critical. But I did not want to disappoint a group of American friends after months of holiday planning.

You may be amused to know that one of my guests – whom I met during a year as a Nieman fellow – said if they followed the travel advisories, they wouldn’t visit South Africa. The US Department of State website warns of public disturbances, strikes and xenophobic attacks, also the risk of being raped or hijacked and robbed at the ATM. Visitors must watch out for muggers when visiting the US consulate or hiking on Table Mountain. The risk of a shark attack is even listed.

Yet all my visitors endured were sore tongue muscles after trying to perfect the Qunu click; avoiding cows, pigs and dogs on the N2 between Butterworth and Mthatha; and unreliable Wi-Fi at otherwise beautiful coastal resorts.

You might chuckle to hear that while staying at a friend’s family cottage in the coastal village of Elysium in KZN, we slept for six nights with the front door unlocked, disturbed only by cheeky monkeys frolicking in the bushes.

Everywhere we went during our journey, we saw how our divided country has united in their love for you. Your name was on the lips of game rangers, bank tellers, shopkeepers, waiters and petrol attendants. The conversation began just 40km from Cape Town. “Mandela will not leave without saying something to us,” insisted Bernie, while filling our tank at a Somerset West garage. “He is our leader, we are waiting for his message.”

Your name was also on everyone’s lips at our seaside haunts in Wilderness, Jeffreys Bay, Port Alfred, Port St Johns and Chintsa (another tongue-twister our visitors tried to master).

On our way to Qunu one morning, we read aloud the Sunday articles on the latest family feud that threatens your dignity.

About 20km before your childhood home, we passed the fancy new paved road to your birthplace, Mvezo, where your grandson Mandla is reportedly building a Transkei version of Nkandla.

We visited your museum in Qunu. Being a Sunday, it was closed, but security guard Vukile Masinga welcomed us in your honour. Tourists wandered around in awe. Girls played netball nearby. Choral strains from the valley below broke the eerie silence.

We strolled down to one of your childhood rocks with a shiny smooth path down the middle. In Long Walk to Freedom, you called these rocks your “roller coaster”: “We sat on flat stones and slid down the face of the large rocks. We did this until our backsides were so sore we could hardly sit down.”

We were mesmerised as we imagined you – one of the most famous liberation leaders in history – as a little cattle herder squealing in delight while slipping along a rock in the veld.

Your museum visitors’ book is inscribed with “get well soon” messages and tributes: “We will always love you Tata”, wrote Sabelo Moloi. Lisa Copeland wrote: “I brought my children from Cape Town to be inspired by how a cattle herder could be president of SA.”

The distant sounds of the choir drifted up through the valley. Below, we could see your pink retirement home, guarded by police. We drove towards the source of the singing, to the community centre opposite your house. Your neighbours, villagers and family members – including Mandla Mandela – had gathered to sing and pray for you.

You would smile to see how amazed my friends were that they could walk midway into the sombre service without a second glance. You may nod sagely when, summing up the mood of my guests, Ashwini Tambe, a women’s studies and history professor, said she hoped on her trip to understand better the “transformation Mandela underwent from being the agitator who contested apartheid by all means necessary, to an all-embracing spirit who believed the best in everybody and wagered on it.”

Returning to Cape Town, we drove alongside the False Bay coast on Baden Powell Drive. South Africa’s challenges once again came into sharp focus as we travelled between the vast blue ocean and the cramped informal housing of Enkanini, where marginalised people live in growing frustration.

You warn about the ongoing struggle in your autobiography: “I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb.” When you stood down as president, you filled the country with “a reservoir of goodwill”, wrote Nicholas Haysom, your former presidential legal adviser, at the weekend. “This was a social capital it could draw on as it faced new and difficult challenges – the mountains ahead that Mandela refers to”.

This holiday, while you have been on your sick bed, I swam in this reservoir of goodwill. I was reminded how privileged I am as a middle class citizen. I felt an immense pride to show charmed visitors our magnificent country. Although unacceptably unequal and in deep pain, South Africa shines with potential.

Amid the white noise of divisiveness, we need to adopt your all-embracing spirit my friend speaks about. We need to learn about each other, to climb mountains together.

Happy 95th Birthday.

l Heard is assistant editor, head of news at the Cape Times.