Happy 100th, Mr Mandela!

I had gone to bed early that evening. Completely knackered after a long day, I was half-asleep when I heard a WhatsApp tune from my phone, which was charging on the desk three metres away. I usually turn the phone to silent during the night but for some reason I hadn’t. Not that I was going to leave the comfort in my bed, surely whatever it was could wait until the morning.

In my slightly more awake stage though, I could also hear loud music being played further down the corridor. At the time I lived in an apartment block in Sea Point, Cape Town. It was an old building with a mixed group of tenants inhabiting mostly small, run-down flats with very poor sound-proofing. According to the consierge, we represented over 20 nationalities, including most of South Africa’s own ethic groups.

The music I heard through my thin door was played on a battered speaker, but it was not difficult to make out what it was. Someone was playing an old recording of Amazing Grace, very loud, late in the evening on a weekday. That was indeed unusual, and the thoughts started to bounce around in my head. I reckon it took me 30 seconds or so to realise what it was all about. I jumped out of bed, picked up my phone and read the message from my colleague: “It’s happened. Turn on the tv!”.

Since I didn’t have a TV I rushed down to the consierge’s office. Everyone else who didn’t have a TV were already there. Some people were crying, others hugging. On the small screen was the president of the country, Jacob Zuma. As I arrived he had just announced the news that South Africans, and indeed the world, had waited for and dreaded for many years: Nelson Mandela was dead. It was 5 December 2013.

The morning after, I reported on the event for several Scandinavian news organisations. I spent time in the townships of Khayelitsha and Gugulethu and on Grand Parade in Cape Town, the square where Mandela in February 1990 held his first public speech after being released from prison. It was of course a very emotional day and what I struggled the most to explain to my editors back in Sweden, whom all had very limited knowledge about Africa, was the scenes of dancing and singing people. They were all expecting to see crying people and while there were also some of those, many took part in what seemed to be celebrations. I used the words of a lady I met at the square to try to explain the logic behind this: “We are all heartbroken that Tata Madiba is no longer with us, but he had a longer and more productive life than most, so rather than mourning his death, we celebrate his life and the fact that we have had the chance to live during the same time in history as him and enjoy the result of his sacrifices, and decades of hard, unselfish work for freedom and reconciliation.”

Today is Mandela’s birthday. He would have turned 100 had he still been alive, and in South Africa and around the world, this day is used to honour his legacy. Perhaps also to contemplate for a minute what we do to live up to his ideals and values. There is no doubt that Mandela, together with a handful of like-minded freedom fighters, saved South Africa from a complete disaster in the aftermath of the apartheid era. There is also no doubt that he was one of the most significant human beings who ever lived. He made South Africans believe in reconciliation after decades of inhumane hostility and racial division, and with tremendous acts of forgiveness he paved the way for a better future, inspiring people around the world as he went along.

Mandela was never a great politician, nor was he a skilled bureaucrat or economist; he was a leader, an inspirer, a travelling one-man show with a single message: “peace and reconciliation is always possible”. He gave South Africa a good push in the right direction and then he stuck to his decision to leave the presidential office after one term. That is in itself a sign of his greatness. He knew his strengths and weaknesses. Day-to-day politics, budget debates and arguments over seemingly mundane issues was never for Mandela. He believed others were better suited for that sort of work. He did what he knew how to do well, and he left everything else to people such as his successor Thabo Mbeki. The outcome of that has not always been great but suggesting that Mandela would have done a better job running the daily business of South Africa is nothing more than guesses, nostalgia, and wishful thinking. In a way, it also fails to appreciate what Mandela actually did. Without it South Africa would have been a very different place.

Nelson Mandela was a highly complex person, and many have tried to make sense of the sometimes contradictory aspects of his life. I have tried myself in some of my books, only to realise that one cannot explain or fully understand the mechanisms behind what made Nelson Mandela the person he was. We can only, as the woman on Grand Parade explained to me and my readers, cherish the fact that we got to experience, benefit from, and be inspired by the work of the unrivalled Tata Madiba.

Tread softly,
breathe peacefully,
laugh hysterically.

Nelson Mandela

If you read Swedish: in my book Sydafrikas Historia (“The History of South Africa”) I tell the story of who Nelson Mandela was, what he did and what it has meant for South Africa. In my upcoming book Det nya Sydafrika (“The New South Africa”) I try to outline Mandela’s legacy and what it means for South Africa today.

Andreas Karlsson

Journalist, author, photographer and safari guide. Read more about Andreas here.