Our beloved Tata (father) has died. He had been ill for months and we didn’t really know how he was. Of course, it was none of our business. He had retired from public life – he was no longer a political force, he was a private man living with his beloved wife and grandchildren, in a pretty home amongst the trees.
If only it was that simple.
Nelson Mandela was South Africa’s conscience. He brought us out of the struggle pretty much blood-free. He walked with us while we found our footing. He managed our expectations and our day-to-day as our President. And he said wise words. Things we knew we should be saying ourselves. But were too afraid to utter. He addressed the need to forgive, not to forget – but to see the other as a human. Not as an enemy.
We needed to believe he would always be here, watching over us. Because we are afraid of what we may do, of what we may become: when he was not.
I met him once, at South Africa House in London, in late April 2001. R.E.M. and The Corrs were playing the Freedom Day Concert in Trafalgar Square and I was coordinating the media interviews.
Madiba sent word to the sound check that he wanted to meet the artists involved in the show. Everyone was thrilled. And we trooped over the road to a room in the South African Embassy – only to be told that the meet-and-greet was for performers and managers only. No support staff.
I was dismayed – but got it – he met thousands of people in a week. The process needed to be managed.
R.E.M. weren’t having any of this – and suddenly a bodyguard appeared: “They say you are the reason they are doing this show – please join us.” I only just made it into the room when another door opened – and in walked Nelson Mandela. Straight-backed and beaming. He moved from person to person: shaking hands and thanking each for their time.
When he got to us, I choked up and couldn’t speak. Michael had to tell him my name. Nelson Mandela stood there holding my hand until I composed myself, then asked:
“How long have you been away?”
”16 years, Madiba.”
“16 years? That’s long enough – its time to take what you have learned and come back. We will need you.”
I just nodded and he squeezed my hand.
I watched as he connected with each person in that room. A word, a look, a pat on the shoulder – everyone was visibly moved. I knew R.E.M. weren’t only there for me. To be part of what this man had achieved, in any small way; made us all belong.
He stopped next to me on the way out: “I’ll see you back at home”. And he was gone.
It took another five years – but I did return. And here I am in Cape Town – doing work I hope would make him proud. After all, Madiba’s not a bad guy to take career advice from.
Nelson Mandela was all of our business. He was our Moral Compass. He was the North we looked to when the going got rough. Telling ourselves that a South Africa that contained him could never be all bad. Now we are not so sure. Now we will find out.
This world will be sadder for him leaving it and less. But he would not want us to sit around in mourning. Not his style at all. He would tell us to take what we have learned and use it. Until we are able – I thought I would share the poem that helped keep Madiba strong while he was in prison. It’s worth a read – for all of us.
Invictus – William Earnest Henley
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
(A version of this post first appeared here)