Over the past month our collective focus in South Africa has turned to the health of Nelson Mandela with much speculation turning to what the future of the country will look like without him. Each morning we look to the news to see whether or not he has lost his mortal struggle and find the same words greeting us: “Critical but stable”. On his birthday, we will celebrate the man, but still watch with sadness and concern as we realise this may very well be the last year we celebrate the contribution he played to our history and are able to think of him, and ourselves, with pride.
Critical but stable. The simple words seem to have defined Mandela’s life just as much as they have come to describe the long wait for his recovery. Born 95 years ago, today, Mandela has become an internationally lauded symbol of transformation. A catalyst to the vital, long overdue, racial revolution the country needed. But for South Africans, those of us who lived during this time, he has become both more and less than his reputation has created. For us, Mandela represents the cornerstone of our faith that the future will get better, but the placement of that cornerstone doesn’t always feel stable enough. We are surrounded by nations who have had similar revolutions and are now crippled by corruption and greed. We look to other African nations and see their strides towards peace marred by never-ending cycles of violence and suppression. Africa is always teetering on the edge of stability, her youth manipulated by politics that prizes ego and vice. We remember how close we were and there is little doubt that without Mandela and visionaries such as him, we would have slipped beyond the critical.
During his childhood, his youth and his incarceration, South Africa twisted and turned within itself, undermined by a broiling seething rage that seemed moments away from toppling not only the government of the day, but the heart and soul of the country.
By the time I was a 10, a precocious white girl attending wealthy schools and living sheltered behind high walls, I was too young to understand why discrimination occurred, and what it meant, but I was not too young to perpetuate it. I had already spent 10 years learning that black and white were different, but that black meant “less”. That white meant wealth and education and black meant servitude and simplicity. I had already learned to trust only a certain kind of person, and to look on the majority of my country’s citizens with a mixture of pity and condescension, if not dominance.
I had already learned, through the seemingly unending bomb drills which punctuated my whites-only school days, to fear the people around me and to see my world as a fragile struggle against a vague, undefined, threat.
Today, on his 95th birthday, I do not think of Mandela as an icon. I seem him instead as a frail and tired man who has spent his life fighting against the very thinking I was being taught to believe. What many white South Africans will not say is that while Mandela saved the black population from oppression, he saved too the white population from themselves, he saved me from being oppressive. Discrimination is insidious in its subtlety. It becomes a naturally ingrained system of thinking that can be impossible to dismantle without a significant catalyst. Arrogance and superiority are as addictive as they are self-righteous and thankfully, watching Mandela with fist raised in the air as he walked out of prison was enough of a catalyst in undoing what a lifetime had tried to teach me.
I celebrate Mandela’s birthday, and his life, with gratitude. We often thank him, and those within the struggle, for the sacrifices they made to bring democracy to the country, but we should also thank him for bringing democracy to our own hearts and minds; for teaching that revolution can come without violence and retribution and that power isn’t stable when it is expressed through oppression and suppression. Within the last 95 years, South Africa has grown and matured alongside its greatest leader and while we will not always have him to anchor our collective spirit, we have learned from him how to ensure we improve and learn from ourselves. South Africa has, during my lifetime, always remained frighteningly critical, but remained unshakably stable. We have been on the brink of tearing ourselves apart for so long that it is natural for us to fear a future without our greatest reminder of peace. But, if we learn anything from seeing what Mandela has achieved in the last 95 years, it is that we have also achieved greatness in that time. Mandela is just a man. He has sacrificed a lifetime of captivity to bring others freedom and he has reminded us, over and over again, that peace must create the revolution if you want peace to be the consequence of revolution.
We have learned enough from Mandela’s life to know that we are capable of carrying the legacy he expects us to carry, that he sees us as being capable to follow. It is perhaps the best present we could ever give him, the surety of knowing that what he created will not be torn apart when he is no longer with us to shoulder it.
Christine Davis works as the webeditor for the Africa Alliance of YMCAs. The Africa Alliance of YMCAs (AAYMCA) is a leading pan African youth development network on the continent, representing national movements in 20 countries, 16 of which are very active. The first YMCA in Africa was established in Liberia in 1881, and the AAYMCA was founded in 1977 as the umbrella body for all national movements on the continent. www.africaymca.org or https://www.facebook.com/AfricaYMCA