On Thursday 5 December, my grandfather passed away. He was old and frail and we were expecting it but when I woke to the news on Friday morning, I still felt like I had been hit by a truck. My response surprised me. Truth be told, the man was not my blood family or even someone I had ever conversed with. He was a man who had become a part of my life in such a profound way that I felt as if my own relative had been taken from me.
My overwhelming response of grief at the news of Madiba’s death was a shock to me. I have always had a deep respect for him, but the sense of loss was more personal than I had anticipated. Suddenly, all my plans for that day and weekend were on pause and replaced by back-to-back documentaries of the struggle icon’s life, trailing cyberspace and social networks for any and every commentary about his life and death, a visit to the vigil outside his family home in Houghton, and a walk up Vilakazi Street singing Bob Marley’s Redemption Song alongside other mourners getting drenched in a sudden downpour.
The three days following his death took me on a rollercoaster journey of emotions that caused me to re-examine my upbringing, my education, my attitude towards politics, and even my own values. My first emotion was amazement at my ignorance. I found myself watching documentary after documentary muttering, “really – I didn’t know that?” The amazement soon turned to anger. Why was I never told all of this while growing up? How did the history books at my Model-C school fail to mention even a fraction of these narratives?
I felt cheated. Cheated of the truth about a man people both loved and feared. Cheated of a history that, though fully interwoven into my own life, I did not feel justified in claiming as my own. Cheated of a legacy of fight and struggle that I had once dismissed with a self-righteous declaration of: it’s been so long; can’t we just move on already?
I had to do something about this.
I would start with my parents. Their lives were more obviously impacted by our political history: my intelligent mother became a teacher because, well, there weren’t really that many other options at the time. My father was a brilliant sportsman at provincial level whose star couldn’t reach its national potential given the restrictions to players of colour.
“Dad, why did you never tell me the full extent of the ugly truth of our nation? How could I grow up believing things were not really that bad?”
“I did not want to indoctrinate you,” was his sober reply. “I wanted you to discover things for yourself and make up your own mind.”
And here I sat, with 30-something years’ worth of having to un-make up the mind that had been so shrewdly and strategically made up by a half history.
My next target was meant to be my old school, ensuring that the history books of this generation did not have as many pages omitted as ours clearly did. But I didn’t manage to get that far. Making up my own mind – again – proved groundbreaking enough.
I realised that my parents had consciously lived out a value that I had taken for granted: to raise their children in a way that would shield them from the suffocating grip of untamed anger and bitterness. It must have been a decision they struggled with but they decided, like Rolihlahla Nelson Mandela to choose the values of forgiveness and reconciliation for their next generation – to set in motion a new possibility of what one day could be.
Forgiveness and reconciliation seemed in such contrast with Madiba’s birth name and I’ve often wondered why his father decided to call him a “troublemaker”. Was he troublesome in his mother’s womb? Did his birth cause trouble in his extended family? Or were his parents just incredibly prophetic in anticipating the amount of trouble his life would one day cause?
In one weekend Rolihlahla Mandela lived up to his name and caused more trouble in my life than I had bargained on. Did I truly understand the fabric and legacy that had formed our nation over centuries? Had I been fair in my assessment of certain political factions and leaders? Could I honestly promote a values-based narrative in our nation when I often had such a limited perspective on the values that drove people to do what they did – and still drive us to do what we do today?
At the memorial held in honour of Madiba on 10 December, Bishop Ivan Abrahams posed a challenge: The mantle is passed on and it is in your hands. I have never considered myself a political person. A person of values, working at Heartlines, an organisation that promotes good values, yes. But political, no – leave that for those with more of a fighting spirit or those who “suffered most”.
But in South Africa, carrying that mantle in 2013 and into 2014 remains a political journey. If I say my mantle is to improve the education of our children, I need to go back in history and understand how that system got corrupted in the first place. If it’s caring for the elderly or orphans I need to question how those little ones got orphaned, or what happened to the adult offspring who were meant to look after their parents in their old age. If success in business is my mantle, I can’t look at my profit margins without an awareness of the economic disparities that pervade our society.
Madiba, you have caused great trouble in my life. You have pulled on the branches of the tree of a history I now need to relive, re-make up my mind about as my father suggested, then once and for all claim as my own. And from there live out my values as authentically and passionately as possible so that the mantle I one day pass on will not be found lacking.
Nevelia Moloi is a Project Manager for HEARTLINES media campaigns. HEARTLINES is an NGO that uses values-based media to encourage South Africans to start conversations that transform individuals, families and communities.