Sunday, 8 December 2013

Dear Tata...

(This post first appeared on Men of Letters on December 6)

‘No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.’
- Long Walk to Freedom

Dearest Madiba

The world around seems to be abuzz. It started with the news early this morning. At first I was hardly moved. This changed and temptation drew my attention out into the world.

The spectacle has been both deeply moving and shameful. But then this land of ours seems to relish in its habit of juxtaposing the light and dark.

The strongest impulse was to turn it off, to be alone. But, like many the beating hearts of infinite reasons, I could not. And so it began with this somewhat cynical message, my contribution to the noise.

Dear Tata

Now peace and rest is yours. You are free from the many chains we placed upon you, the infinite pedestals that were not of your making or choosing, the ones that kept you from walking among us as an equal on this earth. You never belonged to us, though we claimed you endlessly. Rather you acted with grace in the way you shared with us the best of all those gifts you possessed and so inspired others to look for that same divine in themselves.

You were saint and sinner. And that is why you truly understood the meaning of what it is to be human - free from all the other manufactured categories. Now history will have the final say as to whether we took heed of your message and example, or if we will wait for yet another "prophet" to, yet again, point us towards an understanding of simple, universal truths that are as old as human time.

My hope is that we do not try and walk in your shoes, but that your footprints are enough of a reminder that we should consciously create our own.

Enkosi khakhulu. Ndiyabulela Rholihlahla, Dalibhunga, Madiba...

P.S. I am sorry to pay tribute in this most detached and impersonal way, to participate in the circus that will engulf your death. And yet you are free while, as you say, it is now in our hands.

But there was more. These stirrings in me sought further expression.

And then, the circus

Newspapers paraded their front pages like peacocks today, quoting the time of your passing from this world. Time of passing? Of all headlined things, how obscure? Detailed complied, stories, websites, video, and so on, many of these made years ago – all speaking of your death while there was still beating heart –  have been launched and will be played and replayed.

Qunu must be pulsing now. The investment of extensive media company resources to secure houses in the village, front-row seats for this long awaited day, have finally paid off. I remember John Robbie discussing your health in earlier in April. The comment struck me so hard I had to pull my car over. He mentioned how an Ireland-based radio station phoned him with a request:

“Hi John, when Madiba dies could we get you on air?”

He commented at how cold and clinical the request was, but that this was normal.

“In news or media terms, this is absolutely acceptable.”

And it is not just the mainstream. The Internet and social media world is ablaze. Your face, your image, your words, your anything, will probably break all records in terms of all previous comments, postings and searches today.

It will, no doubt, be a marketing and sales bonanza.

One esteemed university even posted this:

“To celebrate and commemorate the life and tremendous achievements of the late president Nelson Mandela, …. University has compiled this resources page comprising material and historical papers hosted in our archives. Below is also a list of commentators who can speak on the life and times of Madiba from a political, historical and cultural perspective.”

Today people will wax lyrical about you. There will be a jostling for space. Soon-to-be-forgotten promises will be made. Others will praise and hoist you to even greater heights, thrusting you into the stratosphere and further away from your rightful place among us. Experts and analysts will line up to predict what the end of your life will mean to the world. You will be claimed by many as their own: a man, a Xhosa, a black person, an ANC member, a former president, a South African, an African. There will be arguments and maybe even fights over your life and what will be labelled as your legacy.
This is the beginning of the myth-making. The myths are and will be many, potentially as many as there are mouths to express them. You will be plucked, yet again, from the earth. Some, I believe, will even try and make a God of you.
Not to be unfair though, the genuine outpouring of love and grief are being felt like ripples of a great wave across the world.

From rural breast to rustic rest

It is quite fitting that you will be laid to rest in your rural home of Qunu. This is the place that is your ancestral roots, your seed, and the start of your grooming.

It is poetic that it will be the day before December 16, our Day of Reconciliation. This was previously Geloftedag (Day of the Vow) to mark that day in 1838 when a group of Voortrekkers defeated a Zulu impi (army) at the Battle of Blood River.

Symbolically, it was also the day that the armed wing of the ANC, Umkhonto we Sizwe, launched its first attacks on government targets in 1961 as part of the planned guerrilla warfare.

But then grace and humility always seemed to characterise you. So why not have the day we go through the motions of laying you to rest be the one that lead us into a celebration of reconciling with our troubled past.

Richard Stengel, who collaborated with you on Long Walk to Freedom, gave an interesting insight into the private you that manifested during your daily walks in the hills around one of your Transkei homes:
“He wouldn't have breakfast. He would leave his house at 5:30, surrounded by these body guards, and it was quite cool in the morning in Transkei, and he would pick a direction to go from his house that he remembered from when he was a boy. He would follow those paths, and we would always come within about a half an hour to some tiny little village. And this was the most remote place on earth, and at 5:30 or 6:00 in the morning, he would knock on the doors of these rondavels (traditional houses) and say, ‘Good morning’…What was amazing to me, was that almost half the time, the people didn't know who he was… He, what is that French expression [plus royaliste que le roi]—is more royal than the king, more kingly than the king.”
You were among a long list of offended human hearts that worked tirelessly to end physical apartheid. You spent much of your time after 1994 trying to exorcise the mental separateness that humans are prone to accepting and upholding. This was, arguably, an immeasurably harder task, for while you seem pretty adept at moving mountains, to change just one human mind is the most herculean task! And yet already they are saying that your vision is incomplete, there are subtexts that even hint at failure. What a fickle set of judgement criteria!

It was we that bestowed upon you the qualities of a deity, and when you revealed yourself to be little more than human - maybe the only crown you ever sought in this world - we would point fingers and punish you for this!!! And even as your physical vessel lies cold and empty, waiting for burial, we still refuse to accept you were just a man. What more do we want from you?

Perhaps our greatest blind spot to your message is that humans are as powerful, or not, as we choose and allow ourselves to be. That if each person were to shift their own heart and mind towards collective love and purpose, the world could transform over night. But instead we look to others to do this for us! We seek out leaders, thus ignoring the fact that there exists this potential in each and every one of us. And so we turn our backs to our individual divinity, the thing you worked so hard to have us see and embrace.

Air emotional

And so I listened to the radio today Tata. And in the midst of the frenzy were the whispers of the most beautiful truths.

For you made yourself easily accessible and were truly available to all people, regardless. There was nothing untouchable about you. You did this, arguably, more so than any comparable leader of your time. Perhaps you conducted yourself so in the knowledge that if you live a life well, there is no need for protection or hiding. Indeed, as a man who walked the earth gently, though with the presence of a giant, there was nothing to fear about you.

Innumerable stories were shared of how you would wave away body guards so as to be able to greet  so-called little people at functions filled with so-called dignitaries. This was part of your, as is remembered, “uncanny ability to create contact with each human around him…”, how "there was always a smile in his eyes”.

One person spoke of waking up angry today, of how this was tempered by thoughts of your “sincerity and strength”. This was informed by your life, but a particular occasion was mentioned, when you showed, and so manifested, calm during a bomb scare one time in a crowded venue.

A woman told of how you were being treated in the same hospital as her mother in early 2000, how you were blockaded away, and yet you called her close. And this was your magic. A hospital visit, generally associated with pain, turned into a moment of pleasure-filled connection and lifelong memories. But then this should be no surprise as your youth was coloured by the teachings inherent in the wisdom of umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu (a person is not a person without people).

You made the ordinary extraordinary.

Another woman told of a visit to a clinic for hearing impaired children. After greeting every single child individually, she told, you went about comparing hearing aids with some of them. This was particularly moving in that her father was always ashamed of his own aids, while you used them as tools to create a bridge to understanding.
One man cried while remembering how he is now able to do a simple thing like walk down a street when he would have previously been denied. Another who was on the other side of the fence thanked you: “I was an indoctrinated racist…you changed my mind, you changed my life!”
A gentle man with tear reddened eyes, spoke of his amazement at seeing you walking alone through the gardens at a function. How you came over to greet him. How this small gesture drove him to tears.
“It reminded me of seeing Father Xmas for the first time!”

But these tears were ones of joy, the joy of recalling your many lessons. In particular, that “we have to do the best with what we have”.

This was one of the endless gifts you so selflessly gave. The recognition that each and every single life is as valuable, no more, no less, as the next.

Your friend, Archbishop emeritus Desmond Tutu, spoke to this today, echoing the fact that your life was one expression of the universal human divinity.
It is normally in times of play that we embody the vision of the Rainbow. Today, perhaps for the first time in our short history, we are a Rainbow united through shared grief. And you should hear it Tata, it is heavenly! The shared song and unified clapping, the many dancing as one...
Then there was Shaleen Surtie-Richards, an actress who is used to scripting emotion. She was deeply overcome. It was hard to hear her staccato sentiments through the floodgates of raw feeling: “His legacy was of love and forgiveness.”

Russel, in a quivering voice, honoured you for what you had personally done for him.

“He brought me dignity. He gave me hope. His sacrifice should never be forgotten.”

And you gave much, maybe too much, so that others might reap the rewards.

One story goes that you placed your hands on a pregnant stomach, wishing countless gifts of blessings and prosperity to a young family. Reflecting, the father of Brianca suggested that his daughter today embodies your values.

Your graduation from this life has brought an ebb and flow of emotions. The mood has been both celebratory and mournful. And rightly so, one needs give thanks for great benevolence and then shed a tear of gratitude when they pass.

Some have still to overcome the shock:

“I remember feeling like this when my mom passed away: very small, alone, a little afraid. I remember thinking ‘This is it - you have to be an adult now.’"

Another voice told of how meeting you was the “highlight of my life”. How? Why? I can only think it is because you are the mirror in which we gaze upon our own reflected greatness.

You chose Zelda Le Grange to be your right-hand. You a tribal leader, her a woman. You of the Xhosa-speaking peoples, her of those associated with the policy of separateness. None of this mattered though, because you saw, and so sought after, her unique light.

She is largely silent today. What more beautiful tribute to a knowledge and experience of a life?!

But, perhaps the words of the young, always close to your heart, are the most fitting today.

“From Mika, for Madiba... ‘Half of heaven is crying with happiness because Madiba is there, and half of heaven is crying with sadness because he isn't with us anymore!’ (Its raining here today)”

Blessing phoned in to say that last night he saw a “light, light star in the sky last night next to the moon…I think it was Madiba smiling at us and laughing.”

In a time of big talk about human rights and demonstration of bigger human wrong, you are a most profound an example of ideas made reality.
The reverberation that your physical passing has created in many hearts is the greatest testament to a life well lived. It is grander than any honourific, parade, statute, or marble-clad monument. In this way you are alive today in ways that you could never be in human form.
I feel a deep sense of pride today in belonging to this human family in which you invested all of your faith and hope. Watching them, in all their diversity, draw together in droves, in spaces and places across the globe, to pay tribute to your life fills me with the energy of possibility. Harmony in contrast? Maybe this is your greatest achievement yet?

You are so much more than just a man, but you are, for me, a model of what it means to be a man.

This being said, will we, in this throng, I wonder, make more noise external, or will this be a time of quiet self-reflection where we meditate internally on your message and the walk that always seemed to accompany your talk?

Grace before greed

A dear brother wrote about the rot that is greed, how it spoils the souls of many (men) today. How it is like a moth and an open flame.

You are a man who resisted the temptations of this human vice. You could have amassed material wealth unimaginable, like those of your generation who went on to lead their nations to freedom, and we probably would been kind in our criticism of this. But you did not!

When politicians chase the maximum amount of terms, you were unwavering in your commitment to a single one. As to your exact reasons for this decision, that is known only to you, but you were an example then, not to African politics as many might say, but to the principles of politics as they are used the world over.
In my understanding of you, what is most profound is your knowing that what is internal is infinitely more powerful than anything external. And that is why, to me, you shine a light on my search to understand what it means to be a man.
In this, you are the most dazzling flame, me a giddy moth.

Perhaps that was the main rite in the passage to your own manhood? Your physical circumcision, the one key step in your cultural journey earning the title of "man", was not enough to make you. Rather it would be a much longer process of internal making and remaking of the self.

You boyhood name Rholihlahla, the “trouble maker”, seems to have stuck to you into adulthood. Necessarily so, it seems to have been part of heritage’s grand design. As if to confirm this, you returned to the smouldering ashes of your circumcision lodge, something forbidden, taboo, to look upon the “lost and delightful world, the world of my childhood” and mourn for it.

“Looking back, I know that I was not a man that day and would not truly become one for many years.”

It was as if the cold, cramped prison cell that was your Robben Island home was the key that unlocked you as a man. Emerging from that 27 year attempted crushing confinement, you most certainly lived up to the name given you aged 16, Dalibhunga. You truly were a founder of the council.

You captured the growth that comes from  inner understanding in a letter to your then wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, in 1973 during one of her periods of detention. A message from the inside of one cell to the inside of another:
"You may find that the cell is an ideal place to get to know yourself, to search realistically and regularly the process of your own mind and feelings. In judging our progress as individuals we tend to focus on external factors such as one's social position, influence and popularity, wealth and standard of education… but internal factors may be even more crucial in assessing one's development as a human being: honesty, sincerity, simplicity, humility, purity, generosity, absence of vanity, readiness to serve your fellow men -- qualities within the reach of every soul -- are the foundations of one's spiritual life… At least if nothing else, the cell gives you the opportunity to look daily into your entire conduct to overcome the bad and develop whatever is good in you…You may find it difficult at first to pinpoint the negative factors in your life, but the tenth attempt may reap rich rewards. Never forget that a saint is a sinner who keeps on trying."
You are a human among humans, and you have inspired in me the strongest desire to be a better one…
If it does indeed take a whole village to raise a child, you are my father.

In the days of your youth they would have asked:

Inkaba yakho iphi?” (“Where is your navel?”)

This was part of the complex traditional greetings that characterised the crossed paths of two souls. This was one part of the practice referred to as ubuntu, those small gestures that nurtured connection. Asking this was an acknowledgement of both the individual as well as their collective heritage. So each interaction became about far more than those physically present, it was an invocation of both the collective living and the collective dead.

This question arose from the ritual of burying a new-born’s placenta outside the main homestead of the family, thus bonding them to the space and place of their people, as well as welcoming them into the family cosmos. The answer to this revealed a lot to the asker, one’s place of birth, clan association, and therefore one’s belonging in this human universe.

Inkaba yakho iyakuhlala ingcwatywe entliziyweni yam, Tat'omkhul' uMadiba, YemYem, Vela Mambhentsele, Sophitsho... (Your inkaba is buried in my heart)

With the unconditional love and boundless gratitude that is a man’s to give…

A son, Howard

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