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.