What a presumptuous title for a post! But still a meaningful one… We arrived for the first time to South Africa last year the day he died. In these days of remembrance, one will surely reflect on how the life of the leader of the nation has impacted his/her own. And so do I. Hence this post. I don’t belong to this country. Not yet. Having spent 6 months on a foreign soil does not grant you the right to be an autochtone. So I’m no South African. But it’s not because I haven’t shared the tears and blood of the people I’m living with, and it’s not because I haven’t lived these days of reconciliation, that their story doesn’t find an echo in my heart.
When I ask myself what made us come to South Africa, the answer is invariably the same. Is it the bright African sun? Not so quite, as it seems it shines over the whole continent. Is it the wonderful wildlife? Could have done that during a safari holidays, not need to come and live in the country for this. Is it the horrendous fame of Johannesburg outside of the continent? It actually scared the s… out of us.
So what made us come? Madiba of course. But not the Madiba the people of South Africa will remember these days, not the Freedom Fighter, not the Leader of the Nation. Or more precisely, not only. Of course, I will always admire how, by the strength of his will and his forgiving hand, he peacefully led a segregatory society into one of the most advanced democracies in the world. But to be honest, I knew little about Mandela’s past and achievement before coming here.
So if it’s not the political leader, who made us come then? Well, actually, it’s the iconic star. When Madiba got out of jail, he suddenly became a man of the 90s. His portrait was everywhere, and his fame much greater than many of the rock stars of the time. And as a kid of the 90s myself, I was very much impacted by the image the media conveyed for days on. I started to like this handsome man, with his laughing eyes and comforting smile, the same guy standing next to Michael Jackson, Bono or Madonna. All of a sudden, Madiba became “cool” to me.
Many criticised him for his lenient attitude towards fame and media, and I can partly understand why. But to be true, it made him reach a world that was far beyond Africa and the elites of this world. In my own story, by doing so, he built the bridge that later led me to this beautiful country, because, as a teenager, I then started to associate this bright smile, this positive attitude, this coolness not only to Mandela, but to South Africans in general. I was too preoccupied by my own teen problems to educate myself on apartheid and on the meaning of his fight, but I definitely assumed that all South Africans, as Mandela, were bright, cool, clever men. And this feeling sticked to my heart, to the point that even today, I’m always biased when I meet a South African fellow (which of course, sometimes leads to great disappointment, as you will surely understand. Not everyone in this world is bright, cool and clever, and South Africa is no exception to the rule).
So when we were offered the opportunity to come to South Africa, my first feeling was that I would love to meet the people of this country, and understand the legacy of Mandela. Hadn’t he be a rock star at the time, I’m not not sure the urge would have been that strong.
But there’s another point to this story, and that’s the bottom of this post. As I grew older, I started to understand better what this man had accomplished, and my admiration has never stopped to grow since then. And to my great surprise, it actually helped me to reconcile myself with my own self.
I was raised in a Catholic country, and although my parents are not churchgoers, Catholic faith has still been around, at wedding, baptisms or communions for instance. And more than that, in the values we were taught as kids. When, for some obvious reason, I started to distance myself from the faith I was raised in, it was a painful thing to do. But there were too many things I could not relate to. While doing so, I started to view Jesus as an artificial character, created by the weak to justify their condition and hope for a better place in the after-world. The whole “when people hit you in the cheek, show them the other one also” was too much for me. I was beaten in my own way, and just wanted to retaliate. Catholic faith was not helping. I really struggled with that part.
And then I read Madiba’s story. And as I was doing so, I started to picture him on his way out of prison. How easy it would have been to aim all that anger at the people who threw him there. But in his 27 years in jail, he had learnt better, he had learnt that by forgiving his enemies, greater things could be accomplished. That’s what he did, and that’s the path he showed for most South Africans to follow.
The day I read this story, I understood how wrong I had been turning my back to the Catholic faith. I’m no churchgoer either, but at least I now feel at peace with my own God. And thanks to my year with Madiba, I’ve started to recover a part of myself that I thought was lost forever. For this, and for more, I’m deeply grateful to this great man. May he rest in peace.