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Letter from Johannesburg: Hamba kahle tata (Go well, father)

Riona Judge McCormack describes how South Africa awoke to the news of Nelson Mandela’s death on Friday

Photograph: Jonathan Evans/Reuters

Sun, Dec 8, 2013, 18:11


Riona Judge McCormack

South Africans woke on Friday to find the news awaiting them: over breakfast, in a text message, a radio announcement, a call from a friend. While they slept, the rest of the world had already begun to mourn. And remember.

That morning, the talk radio stations asked for tributes, memories, stories of encounters with the great man. This is how we began our Friday, steeped in memories.

They were of the statesman and the family man, the legend and the boy from the village. How he would smile, even as he criticised. How we would shake all the hands of the children first, before the adults. How in 1993, following the murder of ANC hero Chris Hani, he called the nation back from the brink of civil war with an extraordinary speech, exhorting all citizens to become soldiers of peace. “Now is the time for all South Africans to stand together,” he said, and callers wept, recalling his words.

There was the time he put an end to an industrial strike by simply standing before the press, arms around the strike leaders, and announcing that it was over. “We didn’t dare contradict him,” the strike leader laughed, remembering. “He had that combination of the autocratic and the humble.”

He was a man of many names. In his rural home village of Mvezo, he was given the name Rolihlahla, meaning “troublemaker.” At missionary school, his teacher decided to call him Nelson, in a long and sad tradition of Anglicising African names. Throughout his fight for liberation and decades-long incarceration, he was termed variously a communist, a murderer and a terrorist (the US did not officially remove him from the State Department terrorist organizations watch-list until 2008). His supporters usually referred respectfully to him by his isiXhosa clan name, Madiba.

But for most South Africans, he was simply known as “tata”: father. This is how they talk in the wake of his death, as if they have been orphaned.

He was not an uncontroversial figure. True agents of change rarely are, except perhaps in retrospect. His decision not to renounce the armed struggle in the 1980s is debated still.

But it is clear – and never more so than in these days following his death – that he has become a rallying point for this country and its sense of identity. His long illness meant that his quite death at home came as something of a relief, and Friday morning was as much as a celebration of South Africa the nation as it was a memorial for Mandela the man.

Young South Africans, the “born-frees”, have taken to Twitter and Facebook to reflect on their lives, their opportunities, their multi-racial personal lives and workplaces. “Think about where we are today,” one friend of mine wrote, summing up what thousands of others are saying this weekend. “We owe him so much.

Next week, my workplace, the South African Institute of International Affairs, opens its doors to some of the brightest young schoolchildren from across the country. They are coming to put in to practise months of research on food security, inequality, armed conflict and climate change – strange preoccupations, you might think, for children, but they will tell you that these are issues of great concern to them. They are coming from rural schools and cities, from rich suburbs and underserviced townships, from Christian and Muslim and Jewish communities. They are coming to forge friendships, to debate their shared future, to propose solutions to government. They are coming to embody all that Madiba made possible.

There is a saying in Madiba’s home language: Ithemba liyaphilisa. It means: hope causes one to live.

This is where his legacy is most evident, and where he always seemed to see it himself. In the children who come after, in the hope of the living.

Riona Judge McCormack is an Irish woman living in Johannesburg, South Africa, where she has been working in the non-profit sector for some years.