- Guardian Professional, Thursday 12 December 2013 14.09 GMT
With the death of Nelson Mandela – Madiba to South Africans – I've wondered if a chance encounter with him almost 20 years ago wasn't in some way responsible for my academic career and research interest.
I bumped into him soon after he'd been freed from prison. I'd emigrated, disillusioned when South Africa's then prime minister , P.W. Botha, vowed never to let "that terrorist" out of jail. The infamous referendum in which the majority of the (white) electorate effectively voted not to change the apartheid status quo, was the last straw. Unlike Madiba, I gave up hope and moved to the UK.
It may seem strange, but like most South Africans living under the apartheid regime, I only became aware of Madiba's significance once I'd left the country. Despite growing up in South Africa, I was too young to follow the Rivonia treason trial. By the time I was reading newspapers, all mention of him and the ANC, was banned. The government ensured that he and his comrades were expunged from history books in the segregated school system. Black South African friends remember that the occasional brave teacher whispered his name in their overcrowded classrooms; I was kept ignorant.
Once, growing weary of the account of the Afrikaners' ox-wagon expedition into the subcontinent to escape British rule, I dared to ask a teacher if we could study a bit of black history. I was told to "stop being so cheeky". Free Madiba rock concerts came and went but in those pre-internet, pre-budget travel days, we political pariahs had little exposure to international pressure groups such as the anti-apartheid movement.
By the time he was finally released from prison I knew Madiba was South Africa's greatest son and sat weeping as he walked out of Pollsmoor looking so diminished. But not internally. Perversely, during his long incarceration, his magnanimity had grown.
A year later I was back in my former homeland for a 'new South Africa' holiday. And there, right before me in the busy airport concourse, was Madiba. In those days he wasn't wearing the colourful shirts that became his sartorial trademark; his grey jumper looked disconcertingly prison-issue. But oh, the warmth of the man. I felt no hesitation about approaching him with my two small children.
Immediately he bent down from his considerable height, bringing his damaged eyes level with them, asking their names, telling them his father had nicknamed him "trouble-maker", Rohlihlahla. Madiba urged me to consider returning to South Africa as the country needed people like us. I felt unjustly honoured to be included in a group of expats he deemed useful for the rainbow nation he was constructing – but it was too late for us, locked into educational programmes and contracts overseas. I resolved then to try and do something worthwhile for the people of my former land, to try and be bigger than I actually was. Madiba had that effect on people.
It took many years before an appropriate route opened up for me. Writing my ethnologically-informed novels (Salt and Honey and Kalahari Passage) about southern Africa's aboriginal people, the San, led me into teaching creative writing in higher education. Which led me into research.
Following work with some San students, I've been asked to help with the transformation of their oral folktales into an electronic form. The project is conceived as a way for these thoroughly dispossessed people to represent themselves and their culture to the world.
In 2011, I took a San group to meet Archbishop Emeritus, Desmond Tutu. He was enchanted by their storytelling and recognised that his own tribe, the isiXhosa, (Madiba was a clan prince in this tribe) had inherited one of their clicks from San languages. He also proudly acknowledged that he had "Bushman blood" having just taken part in the human genome project.
We now know that today's San are the descendants of Africa's first inhabitants, from whom we all come. After the Tutu meeting, one of the San students, Jafta Kapunda, wrote that he had only one more dream to fulfill, to see Madiba.
That can't happen now, but I'm sure Madiba would have been delighted to meet these young San, still on their long walk to freedom.
Candi Miller teaches creative and professional writing at the University of Wolverhampton and is the tertiary education advisor for the Kalahari People's Network – follow her on Twitter @KalahariPassage