NginguThembi translates in isiZulu to “I am Thembi.” And, indeed, I am. But I would not be Thembi without Madiba. My love of South Africa came when I first read Long Walk to Freedom, a text that inspired me to pursue South African history as a career. I became Thembi on a sunny Durban day in June 2013, receiving this Zulu name, “Thembilihle” (good hope), a nod to my middle name, “Hope,” as well as, I think, to my idealistic consciousness. This naming was a kind of initiation of sorts into the UPenn Zulu Immersion Program that I was taking part in as a result of receiving a FLAS fellowship through the U.S. Dept. of Education. Being in South Africa was a dream come true, and throughout the trip, I referred to Long Walk to Freedom in moments of questioning or fear, reminding myself of the reasons that I had fought so long to get to eMzansi. Madiba is a core component of me, of Thembi.
Today, December 5th, 2013, at the age of 95, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela joined the amadlozi (ancestors). Right before I left for South Africa this past summer, he was rushed to a hospital in Pretoria for a respiratory infection that kept him there for months. I was sure that he would pass while I was in South Africa, a prospect which terrified me. But, as he has done so frequently in his life, Madiba surprised everyone and was able to leave hospital, returning to his family home to live out his final days. There was a rumor going around Durban while I was there that Madiba had passed away shortly after the 2010 World Cup, but the Mandela family and the ANC were keeping it secret until the nation was in a better position to handle this profound loss. I couldn’t believe it though and, now, I guess it doesn’t really matter.
For so many of us, Tata Madiba was a beacon; a shining example of what it means to be a true embodiment of ubuntu, the isiZulu/isiXhosa term representing humanity. Madiba represented so many of the things that are right with the world. As Mark Gevisser wrote in his beautifully balanced obituary in the Mail & Guardian:
Mandela epitomised those instincts we most associate with childhood: trust, goodness, optimism; an ability to vanquish the night’s demons with the knowledge that the sun will rise in the morning. But he also made us feel good, and warm, and safe, because he found a way to play an ideal father, beyond the confines of his biological family or even his national one. He was the father we would all have wanted if we could have designed one. He was wise with age, benignly powerful, comfortingly irascible, stern when we needed containing, breathtakingly courageous, affirming when we needed praise – and, of course, possessed of the two childlike qualities that make for the best of fathers: an exhilarating playfulness and a bottomless capacity to forgive.
But he was also more than his iconic stature; he was a father, a husband, a son, a friend, and an imperfect being. In the years since his triumphant victory and inauguration as the first black president of South Africa, the reality of Nelson Mandela has been lost in the myth of Madiba.
This hit home for me most clearly when reading his 2010 collection of personal letters and momentos, Conversations with Myself. Madiba was often-quoted as saying, “A saint is just a sinner who keeps on trying.” Madiba wrote constantly, not just about politics but about his own insecurities and fears. His relationship with his wives and his children was a constant source of concern for the nation’s patriarch. He wasn’t perfect; far from it. And that shouldn’t take away from our respect for him; quite the opposite actually, it should enhance it. He was just a man; a phenomenal man, but a man with not only a man’s problems, but also a nation’s weighing on him. But, now, he is at rest; and we have to let him go to rest at peace.
The cartoonist, Zapiro, always seems to have the perfect way of capturing seminal moments in South African life. And his drawings of Madiba capture the joy and beauty of Tata’s face so perfectly. The cartoon below sums up the current state of things perfectly, though letting go is no longer a choice.
And we do, indeed, have to let go. He’s gone. That’s the reality and we have to move on. Madiba wouldn’t want us to mourn him; he would want us to celebrate his life with music and singing and dancing. But he would also, I think, want us to get back to the job at hand. South Africa is far from the democratic miracle that was imagined as apartheid crumbled in the 1990s. Great strides have been made, to be sure, but much work remains to be done. To do true honor to his legacy, we all, South Africans and the rest of the world, should continue the fight to make South Africa into a true embodiment of the Rainbow Nation. Madiba sacrificed decades of his life for this goal; it is now our burden to carry his dreams forward.