I have a hard time remembering what sort of feelings I had about Nelson Mandela a little over three years ago, prior to our expat stint in Johannesburg, South Africa.
I knew who he was, of course. That he had been a civil rights leader stuck in prison for a long time, and that he eventually became president, an inspiring leader boldly navigating his country though the treacherous waters of a transition to democracy, possibly preventing the slide into a bloody civil war.
I knew all of this, and yet I knew nothing.
To know what Nelson Mandela was to his country, you had to live among South Africans.
You had to witness the pride with which South Africans of all colors threw themselves so fully and enthusiastically into the 2010 Soccer World Cup, the first ever on African soil. Everyone was determined to make this a success and show their country in a good light, from the street vendors selling flags and t-shirts at the intersection to the children celebrating their “proudly South African days” at school. Even would-be criminals smashing windscreens in pursuit of cellphones and easy cash temporarily let up on their pursuit, or at least so it seemed to us, newly arrived in Johannesburg, and finding our fears of crime vastly overblown.
You had to witness the zeal with which Nelson Mandela’s life story was celebrated by all South Africans, whether measured in the diverse crowds flocking to the Apartheid museum, his house in Soweto, Liliesleaf Farm, and Robben Island, or the outpouring of public support for charitable causes during Mandela Day every July 18.
You had to hear the school children, black, white, and everything else, belting out Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika every week during assembly, effortlessly switching between its five languages and feeling nothing but pride in what really is a collection of rather contentious songs from the past.
You had to walk the streets of Johannesburg and realize that you couldn’t turn a corner without feeling Mandela’s presence in some shape or form.
You could glimpse a little of Mandela’s magic by watching Invictus, where he is so brilliantly portrayed by Morgan Freeman as the statesman who refused to take revenge on a hated symbol of Boer power, the Springbok rugby team, and instead rallied the entire nation in pursuit of an unlikely world championship.
But really you just had to be in South Africa to see how this man was so universally loved by his people. Because he refused to be petty or vindictive or outraged. I’m not saying he wasn’t cunning and calculating, because he was. This is evident when reading his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. He also made mistakes. But mainly he simply loved his country. All of it.
And that is what he will be remembered for.
I just wish I could be there now, joining the people lining the streets in remembrance of one of the few truly great men of our time.
If you haven’t read Long Walk to Freedom, this might be a good time for it. For more suggested reading about South Africa, like Cry the Beloved Country or The Power of One, check out my Africa Bookshelf.