Nelson Mandela, 1918-2013: A Memorial and a Celebration
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Nelson Mandela, 1918-2013: A Memorial and a Celebration

By TK | Think Pieces | December 6, 2013 | Comments ()


On the evening of December 5th, 2013, I was driving home from work, crawling at a snail’s pace on I-95 despite having left the office early. As I sighed in frustration, an eerie, thick fog drifted onto the highway. Visibility diminished to no more than a dozen yards at best, and traffic slowed to a near-total stop. The red light of a thousand brake lights filtered through the fog, creating a ghostly crimson glow. As I sat there staring, my phone buzzed, with a simple text from my sister:

“Kurt. Mandela died.”

It’s strange to say that the passing of a 95-year-old man who you’ve never met can have such an impact on you, and yet I couldn’t believe it. I frantically checked the news outlets, and sure enough, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela had died. And so in that strange, otherworldly red mist, I sat alone in my unmoving car and quietly sobbed.

I tell you this not to seek sympathy, but to try to make you understand: I am not prone to fits of sentimentality when it comes to the death of someone famous. I feel like most deaths are tragic in their own way, and I don’t actively mourn the passing of strangers. But when Mandela died, I was beyond distraught. He had been sick for quite some time, and had lived something well beyond a full life, and yet, as I said to my sister, had he lived to be 100, or 110, my heart would still have broken at his passing.

My family emigrated here from South Africa in 1985 to escape the violence and oppression of the Apartheid regime. When I was a small boy, I drank at the other water fountain and went to the other beaches. We used different restrooms, we looked down as we walked. My first-grade class had weekly bomb drills. We feared the police, no matter what we were doing. My parents could not vote. We weren’t in chains, but we sure as hell weren’t free.

Nelson Mandela changed all of that. Born into the Xhosa tribe in 1918, he rose to prominence after the National Party took power in 1948 and instituted Apartheid. He joined various revolutionary protest groups and became one of the leaders of both the African National Congress as well as the Communist Party. He was eventually arrested on charges of conspiracy and sabotage, and in 1962 he was sentenced to life in prison.

From that moment on, Mandela became a symbol, a rallying point, a leader in chains. He was everything to South Africans, a powerful figure who symbolized all of the things that they struggled and fought and died for. And 27 years later he was released, and I will never forget that day. My family huddled around a television, watching him emerge, fist raised, defiant and proud and for all intents and purposes, a god made flesh. He did a massive goodwill tour after that, and I remember my family standing in line for hours so we could get a good spot at the Boston Hatch Shell and watch the concert and speeches and finally see him, free and unfettered, smiling and raising that fist again and roaring “AMANDLA!” as we responded as part of a deafening chorus “NGAWETHU!” He would then go on to become the president of South Africa in 1994, completing a story so completely, insanely unbelievable that it seemed like something born from myth. He was like a gladiator, doomed to fight in chains, breaking free and becoming a king.

And that’s the thing about Nelson Mandela that is hard to explain. To call him a hero is to understate his importance. He is called by many names — “Madiba,” his clan name, or most tellingly, “Tata,” which simply means “father.” My friend Tracy put it best, saying that she was “crying for a former president who it felt like I knew as a dad.” And that was Mandela. He was so deeply ingrained in the hearts and minds and souls of our people that he felt like a member of our family. I can think of few figures who created that kind of reaction. Yes, his influence was global, and his strength and wisdom inspired millions. He had the ears of world leaders, of popes and kings and presidents. But he was also our Tata, our father, and we cherished him like nothing else on this earth. He fought and gave everything, yet once it was said and done, he preached peace and forgiveness, and we all knew then that if this man can forgive, than surely we can, too. He changed the lives of everyone in South Africa.

In a strangely serendipitous turn of events, I’ll be arriving in Cape Town this Saturday, and spending the rest of December there. It’s going to be a joyous affair — my wife and I are bringing our one-year-old son, who will see his grandparents for only the second time, and meet my massive, crazy, wonderfully beautiful family for the first time. But now, it will also be bittersweet, because I will land in a country in mourning, a country that has expected this moment, but was never actually ready for it. Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom is playing in cinemas there, and I had told Dustin that I wanted to see it with my father, my other hero, a man who also toiled so hard in the struggle to fight Apartheid, and write a review based on that experience. That experience, which I had expected to be an emotional one, will now be something totally different.

Nelson Mandela’s legacy will be eternal, of that we are sure. That was cemented long before this fateful day. He’s had songs written about him, poems and essays and stories and legends. He’s been the subject of several movies, depicted by Sidney Poitier, Dennis Haysbert, Morgan Freeman, and Clarke Peters. Most recently, the film Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom has him portrayed by Idris Elba. The film has seen only limited release thus far, but I suspect it will blow theater doors open now.

There will be those who say that his legacy is tarnished, because South Africa is struggling so hard to fight its own demons. Yet despite its problems — and there are many — its people are free, and that is in no small part due to a man who literally gave every breath that he had for the majority of his life to his country and his people. There is nothing that can possibly diminish that.

Rest In Peace, Madiba.

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • Nelson Mandela taught me a valuable lesson because I grew up somewhat on the other side of the equation. I wasn't a white South African, but I was(and remain)the next-best(or next-worst, depending on which side you were on)thing, a white American.

    I grew up with a father who lionized Ronald Reagan(and who has not let the intervening thirty-odd years diminish his man-crush), but who also had a good deal of respect for Mandela. To do some of things he did took a lot of courage he said, and brave men should always be respected. He also disagreed with Reagan's veto of the apartheid sanctions.

    I learned that sometimes you could disagree with your friends and agree with (for lack of a better term)your adversaries. I also learned that you didn't have to agree with someone, or even necessarily like them, to respect them. These are, I think, valuable lessons for a small boy, or for anyone really who grows up in and hopes to function in a civil society.

  • Jelinas

    I'm so sad he's gone, but very glad deep down that the timing of your trip worked out the way it did. Hugs to you and your family.

    And hugs to the world.

  • Sirilicious

    Thank you. I am far removed from being a south african or black. And while in my mind i recognised that a truly great person had passed, your words made it real on an emotional level.

  • Dennis Albert Ramirez

    this is why i love this site. thank you, Kurt.

    and rest in peace, Mr. Mandela

  • John W


  • Mrs. Julien

    'The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.'
    Martin Luther King Jr.

  • Beautifully written, TK.

    As an 80s child, there wasn't a time when I wasn't aware of Mandela and South Africa. There'd be news about pleas for his release, his struggles in jail or the ongoing boycott against the white minority regime. Then he was free and it was as if there was a global celebration. Then he becomes president of the new South Africa and it was unbelievable to most who had followed his story and the story of South Africa that this would be so. And then finally, to elder statesman and symbol of justice.

    There will be many articles today eulogizing him and trying to encapsulate him. There'll be also articles pointing out his human flaws and failings. There's going to be many attempts at saying what we all know deep down:

    He was the best of us.

    And now he's gone.

  • JenVegas

    Ahhhhh TK, this is beautiful and I'm crying again. When I was in grammar school I went to the United Nations school with the children of diplomats and emissaries of other countries and learned a great deal, very early on, about the struggles of South Africa. Back in 2000/2001 I was working for The Oprah Winfrey Show when Mandela came on as a guest. Every single member of the staff lined up along the white walls of the long hallway coming into the building from the underground garage. Oprah escorted him down this reception line and he shook hands with every single one of us. It brought tears to my eyes, the opportunity to meet him face-to-face and just simply say "thank you." He left an indelible mark on the history of human kind. His absence is a rift and we can only hope that his legacy acts as inspiration for the coming generations of world leaders.

  • Bert_McGurt

    He was, and will remain a true giant of morality. Let his example and his humanity never be forgotten.

    A fitting tribute, TK, to a hero of so many.

  • Snath

    <3, TK.

  • lowercase_ryan

    Thanks Kurt.

  • NimueIBack

    I can only say wow.

  • Beautiful tribute, TK.

  • Lourens Corleone

    Nice tribute! As for our national anthem (I'm South African), that's the main song / prayer that our anthem is based on, but it isn't quite the right version. It is missing the different languages + merger with "Die Stem" ("The Voice"), the previous national anthem. Here's the correct national anthem:

  • GDI

    Rarely am I moved by the passing of people that I have no personal connection, but this certainly feels like an end of an era. I could see why you would some state that his "legacy is tarnished", but he was never the absolute answer for equality and justice; he was the pathfinder to the proper way.

    That is not to downplay his significance; he went through some shit. His famous "squint" comes from damage sustained from working a lime quarry. 27 years of a harsh life, with him losing lot on contact with his family, even losing several family members when locked away. And his post-imprisonment activism wasn't exactly a smooth ride (I don't recall the exact details, but I know that several of his supporters/party members were slaughtered and then branded as terrorists).

    His fortitude, resiliency, and constitution to withstand and overcome his trials were/are lengendary. Another fallen hero.

  • Berry

    God, but this was a beautiful piece of writing. Thank you. (I wrote a whole thing about how being aware of Mandela in the early 90's was a part of the reason I started questioning the pervasive racism of my peers, but it seems a bit insignificant, all things considered. Very important for my personal history: not so much globally.)

  • emmalita

    The personal impact is not insignificant.

  • Berry

    Considering the views many people in this country still hold, I guess it's not.

  • Maddy

    This is the best tribute I've read. I embarrassingly don't know enough about this man and his legacy as I should, or really ever properly understood the personal connection people felt to this man and what he represented, this helped me understand as much as I could being somewhat removed from the time and place - thank you.

  • Muhnah_Muhnah

    Thank you, TK. I didn't grow up in South Africa, I grew up in Rwanda. Apartheid was The Great Evil, we renounced it every morning at assembly in schools. Mandela was the Great Father Africa. He was more loved than our president, than any national hero we had. He was a kind of Jesus, except alive and imprisoned.
    When he was elected president, Rwanda was in its darkest moment in history, we heard it on the tiny radio which was our only connection to the world at the time. We were hiding, terrified, traumatised, we were slaughtering each other out of hatred and an inability to forgive and this man was showing us that there was another way. It was too late for us, and we thought that if we'd had a Mandela, then maybe, things would have turned out differently. But we've learned from him and what we learned is that the way of forgiveness is the hardest, but it's the only one viable.

    I was at the London premiere of Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom last night. His daughters with Winnie were there and we only found out at the end when Anan Singh (the producer) came out to tell us. He said his daughters had been told at the beginning of the film, but had insisted that the movie continue. I can understand why. It was a great celebration of his life, of the man, and I'm glad I was reminded of how very human he was, the very best human any of us can be.

  • PerpetualIntern

    "It was too late for us, and we thought that if we'd had a Mandela, then maybe, things would have turned out differently."

    This made me weep.

  • Damn, you made me cry. Thank you for sharing.

  • Berry

    Thank you for sharing this.

  • Uriah_Creep

    That was also beautiful. Thank you.

  • brite59

    This is the best obituary I've read of Mandela...personal and global and so heartfelt. Thanks TK.

  • Sara Habein

    This was a wonderful, perfect tribute. Safe travels.

  • sanity fair

    This is so touching and so beautiful, TK. Thank you for sharing it with all of us here.

  • Wrestling Fan

    "There will be those who say that his legacy is tarnished, because South Africa is struggling so hard to fight its own demons."

    South Africa is fighting those demons. The people are doing everything they can to ensure that the old ways stay as such. That means Mandela's legacy still stands untarnished. And seeing black and white mourning together outside his home is undeniable proof of that.

  • Kate at June

    I spent only a brief time living in South Africa, but you could feel his importance and the reverence his countrymen have for him at every turn. The world mourns this loss, but none so closely as his home.

    Ndiyakuthanda, Madiba.

  • ggadventures

    Absolutely beautiful. Thank you and condolences to all.

  • linda Tibbets

    a very touching tribute, beautifully written. i have had few mentors in my life, i have always cherrished Mr. Mandela's teachings. rest in peace

  • coryo

    Thank you, TK, for writing something appropriate when the best so many of the rest of us can come up with is maudlin.

  • mswas

    Eloquent eloquence, indeed.

  • Thank you for writing this.

  • Beautiful.

  • Donna SHerman

    My parents left South Africa in 86 for similar reasons. We're actually going back there in January to visit family. This was a fantastic piece, and I wish I had something of value to contribute to the conversation, but I feel mostly blank. Blank, and relieved that he isn't suffering anymore.

  • BlackRabbit

    A-1 words, sir. I wish we could upvote stories

  • stardust

    That was beautiful, TK. It brought tears to my eyes. After I absorbed the shock of hearing the news one of my next thoughts was about you and your family, wondering how you were processing the sad news. The world has lost a great leader and a great light of inspiration. May he have the most peaceful rest.

  • LaineyBobainey

    It feels weird to offer my condolences to someone when the loss is a global figure, but after reading this, I feel like you've lost a member of your family and my heart goes out to you and your family and loved ones. And also the world? I'm not sure how to phrase that properly. But, I also know you know what I mean.

    This was beautiful and perfect and I'm glad you're going to be home with your family, with your entire nation's family, to mourn such an amazing man's passing.

  • Buellie413

    I can't put my reaction to this any better than Lainey did.

  • Lollygagger9

    Thank you for this lovely, personal tribute.

  • DarthCorleone

    Beautiful tribute, man. Well done.

  • Maguita NYC

    The most beautiful and touching tribute I had ever read TK, and so befitting a courageous man who had inspired many.

    Rest in peace Mandela, you have changed the world for the better. My condolences to his family, his friends, and every person whose life he had ever touched.

  • BWeaves

    Everyone has said what I would have said, only better.

    My heart is breaking, again.

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