Mandela’s close friends express the world’s grief

Ahmed KathradaAhmed Kathrada, 84, one of Nelson Mandela’s oldest friends and confidantes, at Madiba’s memorial service in Johannesburg on 10 December 2013. The two met almost 70 years ago in Johannesburg when Kathrada was a teenager in high school, and Mandela a university student. 
(Image: GCIS)

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Perhaps the best people to express the sadness of South Africa – and the world – after the death of Nelson Mandela are those closest to him: his long-time personal assistant Zelda la Grange, his old friend Ahmed Kathrada, and his fellow Elder, Desmond Tutu.

La Grange was Mandela’s aide for 19 years, helping organise his life and shielding from an often overenthusiastic media and public. They grew close. On Friday 6 December, the day after he died, she released a statement that summed up the feelings of many. She had, she said, “come to terms with the fact that Madiba’s legacy is not dependent on his presence”.

“His legacy will not only live on in everything that has been named after him, the books, the images, the movies. It will live on in how we feel when we hear his name, the respect and love, the unity he inspired in us as a country but particularly how we relate to one another.”

She wrote of how he had moulded her into the person she is today. “Thank you for all the wonderful opportunities you afforded me, but most of all thank you for believing in me Khulu, [isiXhosa for “grandfather”] making me a better person, a better South African.”

Prayer and reflection, song and dance

The nation has expressed its grief in different ways. Sunday 8 December was an official day of prayer and reflection on Mandela’s life. People gathered in churches, mosques and synagogues around the country. Others visited Mandela’s Houghton home to place flowers and candles on the street outside, and be quietly contemplative, or sing and dance in his memory outside his old home in Soweto. Still others just took to the outdoors, cycling in his honour, or being with family in public places.

His friends and companions for decades – George Bizos and Ahmed Kathrada, among others – have been on television and radio recounting anecdotes, talking about his sense of humour, his strength and courage in the hard times he faced, and his simple humanity. World presidents and prime ministers such as Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, who both describe him as a close friend, have similarly recounted with affection their times with him.

‘Trust, respect, liking and close comradeship’

His old friend and fellow prisoner on Robben Island, Ahmed Kathrada, said in a statement the day after he died: “Madala [Zulu for old man], as you light-heartedly started calling me some years ago, it both grieves me and inspired me to write this to you now, with the hour of your death still a fresh wound in our people’s hearts.”

They met in Johannesburg when Kathrada was a teenager in high school, and Mandela a university student. Kathrada is now 84.

The title Madala, he said, “signifies mutual trust, respect, liking and close comradeship. In a wider sense, this one word brings out much more. It encapsulates the foundation of the very qualities that set you apart from other men.

“Foremost is your sincere and consistent ability and skill in relating as equals to fellow beings from all walks of life – royalty, peasants, prime ministers, business people, presidents, workers, scientists, the illiterate, children, men and women: you treat, and regard, all as equal and equally deserving of respect, decency and dignity. You embodied the epitome of respect for your fellow beings, and the ability to relate easily to every strata of society.”

Kathrada was sentenced to life imprisonment with Mandela in 1964, and served 25 years.

“Your abundant reserves of love, simplicity, honesty, service, humility, care, courage, foresight, patience, tolerance, equality and justice continually served as a source of enormous strength to me and so many millions of people around the world,” he wrote.

One of the many endearing features of Mandela was his wide, warm smile. Kathrada said: “Yet your smile, which lingers still, was always from the heart, never forced or used for expediency’s sake, and the great joy you took in the world around you, especially in children, was unmistakeable.”

Mandela’s love of children was legendary. His love for his own children was long distance when he was a prisoner, but he always signed letters to Zindzi and Zenani with affection: “With lots of love and a million kisses”, or “A million kisses and tons and tons of love”.

‘The gift of Madiba’

Perhaps the best person to express the deep sadness South Africans are feeling is Anglican Archbishop emeritus Desmond Tutu, who with Mandela led the Elders, a group of retired and independent world leaders. Barely 12 hours after the world heard of Mandela’s death, Tutu gave a brief, emotional address in St George’s Cathedral in Cape Town to a tearful congregation.

“We gave hope to the world and one gift that you and I can give to the world as a fitting memorial, remembrance of Tata, is for us to become what the world had thought impossible,” he said slowly and deliberately, his eyes closed. “Let us give him the gift of a South Africa … God, thank you for the gift of Madiba. Thank you for what he has enabled us to know what we can become. Help us to become that kind of nation.”

Tutu led another memorial to Mandela on Monday 9 December, at the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory in Johannesburg. He had by now regained his famous sense of humour, perhaps just what the audience of several hundred needed, after a numb three days of grief.

“Thank you for giving the world this amazing person,” he said. “What a fantastic gift God gave to us in this Mandela.”

Tutu recalled many of Mandela’s extraordinary acts of reconciliation, such as going to have tea with Betsy Verwoerd, the wife of the architect of apartheid. “The chemistry of this country began to be affected.”

Or, when he wore a green Springbok jersey in support of the national rugby team during the 1995 World Cup, an act symbolic of the unity he wanted to create. “Any other president would have looked clumsy,” said Tutu, but not Madiba.

“South Africa used to be the world’s pariah, but it was transformed into a beautiful, beautiful butterfly.”

The audience responded with laughter, smiles and tears, in an emotional release.

But it could be Kathrada’s words, in the end, that best sum up our feelings: “Farewell my elder brother, my mentor, my leader. With all the energy and determination at our command, we pledge to join the people of South Africa and the world to perpetuate the ideals and values for which you have devoted your life.”