It may seem strange, but I, like most South Africans who grew up under the Apartheid regime, only became aware of Nelson Mandela’s signifcance once I’d left the country. I was too young to follow the Rivonia Treason trial and by the time I was reading newspapers, all mention of him and the ANC was banned from the South African press. In those pre-internet, pre-budget travel days, South Africans had little exposure to international pressure groups such as the Anti-Apartheid movement.
I left South Africa before his release from prison and remember sitting alone in my newly-adopted country, the UK, weeping while he walked out of Pollsmoor.
A year later I returned to South Africa for a visit and was astonished to literally bump into the great man. It wasn’t his colourful shirt – he had yet to embrace that style and was still wearing his prison-grey jumper – nor the size of his entourage that alerted me to him. It was his distinct aura. He radiated both dignity and warmth, so much openness that I felt I could approach him and did, whispering to my two small children that this was the greatest man they were ever likely to meet.
Madiba bent down from his surprising height, down to the level of my children, speaking to us as if we were the only three people in that busy concourse, as if he had all the time in the world, instead of a world of international engagements awaiting him. He asked me what work I did, what work my husband did, urging me to consider returning to South Africa because “the country needs people like you.” He delighted in my daughter’s name, asked me to spell it, remarking on its similarity to a popular name in his own tribe, the isiXhosa. He told the children his father had nick-named him ‘Rolihlahla”, trouble-maker, and we laughed at how prescient that was. Then he was led away, looking over his shoulder to keep waving.
There are many things he said that I find inspiring. Now, the most apposite seems this:
“What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we need.”
Few have made such a difference to so many.