Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Farewell, Madiba. Godspeed.

I climb into the front seat of a minivan in Port Elizabeth, South Africa.  The young black man--Xhosa, he tells us--who will be our guide for the day introduces himself with a flourish.  "I," he says, "am Nelson.  Not the great man.  But it is true I am named for the great man--" and now his voice rises to a shout, and he pounds the roof of the minivan with one fist--"Nelson Rolihlahla Madiba Mandela!  Viva, tata, viva!"  Thoroughout the day, while he takes us on a tour of Port Elizabeth, its outlying townships, and the shantytowns that have sprung up in the spaces in between the townships, he evokes Mandela's name frequently.  Always the same:  the shout, the pounding.  "Nelson Rolihlahla Madiba Mandela!  Viva, tata, viva!"  He takes us to the school where Mandela voted for the first time, for himself as President, in 1994.  It's January, 2009: a table set up in the parking lot is registering voters for the new upcoming elections. 

I am standing in what was the prison cafeteria on Robben Island.  A large dignified black man, a former inmate turned tour guide, shows us the words written on two decaying wooden boards: the daily food allotments for "Bantus" versus "Other Colored."  Though Robben Island only held non-white political prisoners, even there aparthied divided them.  The guide points out that "Bantus" were giving mealie pap, a sort of grits, instead of bread.  "Your Christian prayer says give us this day our daily bread," he says, "But for seventeen years, the man who became president of our country was not given bread."  My husband leans forward.  "He doesn't want our pity," he says, referring to the guide. "No," I agree, "he wants our witness."

The cell at Robben Island is memorable for what it doesn't contain:   a bed. (Three woven mats, two coarse blankets).  Window glass.  (Only bars; the wind, icy in winter, sweeps through.)  A toilet.  (Small lidded bucket in the corner).  A pillow.  (Nothing.)  It's tiny.  Black inmates wore short pants, no underwear; colored inmates wore long pants and underwear.   They could get one heavily censored letter every six months.  No visitors for years.  Cape Town shimmering on the Northern horizon, shielded by Table Mountain.  So close.  Twenty-seven years away.

In the gift shop at our safari camp, a white South African woman in her mid-50s comes in to sell a line of products to the young black store manager.  I am looking at the store's selection of books, and I pick out one on Mandela.  (I'm already partially through his biography, Long Walk to Freedom, which I bought in Knysna.)  Bringing it to the cash register, I see the two dissimilar women talking together, and I ask, "So, what do most South Africans think of Nelson Mandela?"  They turn to me with identical expressions that clearly indicate they didn't know even white Americans came this stupid.  "He's, he's, a hero," stammers the black woman, while the white woman silently nods.

I'm in a cave near Oosthuizen.  Our guide has taken us into the farthest room, where lights illuminate the stalactites and stalagmites so that they look like an African landscape.  Without preamble, she begins to sing in a clear, beautiful voice.  The words are Xhosa.  "That," she says, when she is finished, "is our National Anthem."  She's not quite right: it's the first verse of the anthem, which features five of South Africa's twelve official languages, and combines aspects of both the apartheid-era Afrikkaner anthem and a popular apartheid protest song.

The Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg is as bleak as one would expect.  Until you turn the final corner.  The last room is nothing but video screens mounted on the walls, and each screen showing, over and over, the sprawling winding enormously long lines of black South Africans voting for the first time.  Over and over--thousands, hundreds of thousands of people.  A miracle.  The knot in the pit of my stomach unclenches; before I am aware, tears start down my cheeks.

He came out of hell free from anger or despair.  Godspeed, Tata.  Go in Peace.