When I first heard the announcement of Nelson Mandela’s death I was shocked. I felt my heart chambers deflate. Of course I knew he was ill, but what I’ve learned from watching elderly family members battle sickness and slowly fade over to the other side is that you’re never really ready when the news comes. At first I tried to face this news with a celebratory attitude. Mandela was 95-years-old. He had lived several lives in the almost century his soul was here on Earth. He changed the lives and outlooks of many worldwide. If anyone deserved rest, it was him. As a former Baptist, I was trained not to mourn death but to celebrate it. We sing. We shout. “Our beloved is going home to be with our Heavenly Father and those who have gone before him. He will always be with us –even until the end of time.” That is what my head reasoned. It told me to clap my hands as I watched South Africans gather in front of Mandela’s home and sing, “Nelson Mandela ha hona ya tshwanang le ena.” But my heart wouldn’t concur. Tears fell over tears so fast that I couldn’t contain them. I cried as if a member of my family had passed, although it really doesn’t matter that we didn’t share chromosomes…one of my family members did pass.
For anyone who craves freedom and justice for everyone, Madiba was our father. I grew up watching the Black Liberation and African National Congress flags fly in my backyard. My father told me about the struggles of the ANC and Nelson Mandela, who was still serving his prison sentence. He told me how apartheid mirrored Jim Crow and how we must show our support, even if all we could do was show up at a rally to put pressure on the U.S. government and corporations to divest from South Africa. It was Madiba’s imprisonment and incidents like Yusef Hawkins’ murder here in New York that forced me to write manifestos and place them on my high school bulletin board in an effort to create awareness among my classmates. From prison Madiba’s spirit and the spirits of other freedom fighters led me to attend protests and marches against injustice wherever it showed its smug, intolerant face.
Madiba has brought me to tears before. My parents and I had tears in our eyes as we watched him walk out of prison in 1990. He was so vibrant; the feeling resonated through the television screen. Within months he was in New York and we went to see him. It didn’t matter that we were just faces and voices in the crowd, we were there. Madiba brought me to tears when he was elected president of South Africa and he brought me to tears when he took the oath of office.
Today I realized why I had to cry when I heard the news of Mandela’s passing. It brought me back to the day I realized my family, which at one point was too large to count, was shrinking. All the individuals who strive to simply make the world a better place for all its citizens were leaving. “Our elders are transitioning…” I thought as I cried. “Who would take their place? Has the last few decades prepared anyone to take their place?” These answers will only come in time.
Social Media has provided a platform for anyone with brainwaves and internet access to comment about the life of Nelson Mandela, positive or negative. But I will remember Madiba as a patriarch and the “troublemaker” that his name proclaimed him to be. I will remember his unyielding spirit. I will remember how he ascended above the lower emotions of hate and hostility to work towards a greater South Africa. To me he was Gandhi, Spartacus and FDR rolled into one towering figure with a smile that beguiled the heart of anyone who saw it.
Madiba, I never met you in life, so I will take this opportunity to say thank you. Thank you for giving the world you. Thank you for being the type of troublemaker who wouldn’t hesitate to shake up and change an unjust system. Thank you for showing us what one person can do when they are armed with devotion, discipline and forgiveness. Thank you showing us that even through our human frailties we can and should always allow our God-given light to shine. And to the family of Nelson Mandela, thank you for allowing us to share him with all of you.
Nelson Mandela there is no one like you. There will never be another like you. History and the world could never forget you. Go and take your place among the ancestors.