As I switched off my computer today at work, a photo of Nelson Mandela flitted over the screen when I clicked out of my email. I had automatically clicked the browser closed but a sinking feeling came over me and I opened it again. All week long I had been watching the South African online news for some reason. I knew why now. Madiba had died. I sat for a moment in the place between sadness that his life was over and joy that he was finally free at last.
When I was in South Africa in June every day we would check his status. Was he still alive? Had the family stopped quibbling over things? Would we be part of a huge celebration of this giant’s life?
One night, while rooming with one of the South African women, she asked me what it would mean to me if he died. I could not articulate it at the time but I have thought about the question often since. How can I explain that this man has been an integral part of my life on the other side of the globe to people who were just discovering who he was? How could I know all the wonderful things that he did and some of the younger South Africans I was traveling with did not seem to know the gift he was to their country, let alone our world? I mourned that the propaganda had stopped them from learning about this man and his deeds.
I have many memories but the one that sticks with me is from the Millennium celebrations, when Mandela re-entered his cell of many years and lit a candle. He has been a light, one who gave much of his life to a struggle until captured. He spent 27 years in prison, planning for freedom. While others continued to risk their lives, he continued inside, fighting for a freedom that he never gave up on. When I read Long Walk to Freedom I wept when he was denied the dignity of attending his son’s funeral. Giving his life for freedom meant losing his own family. His sacrifices were great and yet he managed to remain free of hostility and bitterness.
He emerged from his ordeal envisioning a country where all would be free. Time and time again he showed his inner strength, his wisdom, and his mercy. I have much to learn from this giant of a man. His joy inspires me. His ability to forgive and move forward challenge me. He was humble in the midst of it all. I remember one other story, this time from the trip, that explains that this great man never forgot who he was or the people he served. A former TRC commissioner shared with us that he loved the gardens at the president’s house. One day he caught a glimpse of the gardener who immediately hid himself because he was not supposed to be seen. The next time Mandela drove by he spotted him again. He leaped from the car and invited the gardener and his co-workers to come for tea, much to the dismay of the presidential staff. When challenged, he replied that he would host these men and he did. He never stopped doing unheard of things for his people. I love that story because it shows his commitment to the people and his love of doing simple, good things as he tried to make the world a better place.
I am sure that there is an amazing, mind-blowing party happening tonight at the Pearly Gates. Biko, Tambo, and so many others are welcoming him Home, while God flings open his arms with the greeting, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”