Farewell, My Madiba

Black and white closeup photo of Nelson Mandela (Madiba) sitting in a chair and smiling

I am a 44-year-old South African woman who has never lived outside of South Africa. Just over a month ago, I moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts. Moving to a new city is hard enough, but a new country even more so. For several days now, I have been feeling the distance.

But tonight, the 7,800 miles separating me from my home in Pretoria is not just a number, it is a punch to the gut. 

I heard Madiba is dead, sitting in a room that is not yet fully home. 

Every South African over a certain age has a Madiba memory. I grew up in a small town of mine workers. Racism was alive and well in my environment, and because of the media restrictions, we never heard of Mandela, or even saw photos of him.

I was at in my third year of university, studying political science (I have always been a political junkie), when we heard that Nelson Mandela (Madiba) was being released from Victor Verster prison outside Cape Town. I remember my friends and I crowding around my tiny black and white television on February 11, 1990. We watched those first iconic pictures of Madiba walking out of prison, holding the hand of his then wife, Winnie, completely surrounded by an entourage of friends, family, media, and well-wishers. 

Words to this day cannot describe the impact those pictures had on me. I knew instantly that we were in for a very different future, a future that would not be like my past.

When he later stood above a crowd of thousands at Cape Town City Hall, and we first heard him speak, everyone knew we were watching the start of something new and amazing. The next few years were spent in a flurry of negotiations about the future of South Africa, all culminating in the elections on April 27, 1994.

Just nine days earlier, my father had passed away after a long battle with cancer. I often thought about the fact that my dad would never see this happen.

I stood in line for hours to cast that vote felt surreal. Here we were, people of all colors, ages, political orientations, all edging forward slowly to that ballot box. I am usually not a very patient person, but that day, the slow line was not a burden. It was an honor. I was voting for the new South Africa; it was all worth it. 

The emotions of that day were, however, topped by those from his inauguration just two weeks later. By that time, I was living in the capitol city Pretoria, and was fortunate enough to go to the Union Buildings that day for the inauguration. The energy was indescribable. The vibrancy of the colors from people from all over the African continent marching to the lawns of the Union Buildings, the sounds of people singing in so many different languages; and everywhere, people smiling.

At one point, I sat down on the pavement to watch the ocean of humanity file past me. I just wanted to drink in every moment.

Madiba finally appeared in the distance, and we saw him on the big screens. For nine minutes, he held us all in complete rapture.  

He spoke of new beginnings, of letting go of the past, and forging ahead together. That day will remain one of my most precious life memories forever. 

Because of his words, I have committed myself for the last 20 years to public health and public service. There was no greater honor than working in Madiba’s government and contributing to some of his landmark programs, including free primary health care, and the Reconstruction and Development Programme. 

What Madiba’s life taught me is that you need to live your life with conviction and integrity, to lead a life devoted to helping others, and I have tried for the last 20 years to remain true to those principles.

When I heard of Madiba’s death, tears began streaming down my face. Before leaving South Africa, I went to the hospital, only a mile away from my home, to pay homage to his life and sacrifice.

Even sitting now, writing this, I am overwhelmed by sadness, especially because I am not able to be home, in South Africa, to pay my last respects to a personal hero. These few memories shared is just one way in which I can honor the legacy of a man that was much more than a human. He was a giant.

Tata, I share in your family’s sadness today. Letting go of you is hard for all of us, but your lasting legacy will last long after I am gone, and that is enough.

Hamba kahle, Tata Madiba.