We lived with a giant
We are all privileged today, for we are the South Africans who knew Madiba. He was the best of us. He was a towering moral authority who inspired, and sometimes demanded, the best from us.
Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was the ultimate public servant, a statesman admired by the world. The best gift we gave him in return, a small one by comparison to what he gave us, was our ready expression of that respect. He knew he was loved.
He was not the only man to liberate this country, he always fiercely rejected that notion. But he became the rallying point for us all.
Chosen as the face of the struggle, he became the embodiment of a nation’s transformation, casting off the shackles that could have kept him imprisoned, even off the island. In the process, he freed the rest of us through the example he set.
We were jailed in cells of prejudice, separated from one another by bigotry, reinforced by fear. The one man who could have been bitter, after losing a third of his natural life to fight for what was right, was the opposite. He was extraordinary: the hate he suffered made him no hater.
The man, who could have sought to redress the wrongs visited upon him by hanging onto privilege and power, set an example for all by stepping down after only a single term in office.
The pensioner, who could have put his feet up and forgotten about the rest of us, spoke out when there was nothing for him to gain, giving his voice to the poor and the desperate when the government they had trusted had forsaken them.
It was Madiba who thought of the children, giving up part of his salary when he was in office to create a better future for them.
It was Madiba who spoke out for the desperate reeling under the hammer blow of life with HIV/Aids without accessible or affordable medication, which could have been the difference between life and death – and was in many cases.
It was Madiba who pulled on a rugby jersey for a sport beloved of white South Africans, a gesture of breathtaking reconciliation.
It was Madiba who went out of his way to have tea with the widow of the man who drew up the blueprint for the very system that might have executed him.
It was Madiba who twisted arms mercilessly to get corporate South Africa to build and equip schools in rural areas that didn’t even have roads or basic services.
These are just some of the reasons we loved Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela.
He was our secular saint. He was everything that made us proud of being South African. He was the reason we could stop hating others, loathing ourselves and start not just reaching out to each other, but actually believing in ourselves and in a future together as a nation. He showed us what was possible.
As we start making sense of life without him, we should look at ways of honouring his memory by recommitting ourselves to creating a country that he – and the generation of heroes who paid a terrible price for their beliefs – would be proud of.
And what is that? It is a society which takes care of its children, a society which protects its women, a society that is honourable and principled, whose leaders always do the right thing, irrespective of the personal cost.
We owe Nelson Mandela nothing less.