My first thought: I woke up yesterday morning in Muizenberg, just south of Cape Town, to the news delivered by Nathan that Nelson Mandela had died the previous night Cape Town time. Not surprisingly, my immediate reaction was one of deep sadness. I do not surmise that Madiba was a perfect man. I have not steeped myself in his personal or political history, yet I know that he had some Malcolm X in him, and that he said things I find inaccurate or just plain disagree with. But I know with conviction that Nelson Mandela’s moral leadership, political aptitude, and sheer force of character led South Africa from the depths of an apartheid that left the majority of his countrymen without dignity to a position of regional, and indeed global, leadership in the universal struggle to create a free and just society. That a world is weeping when he has finally gone to that long sleep testifies to the impact he has had. If in my lifetime I can live with a fraction of the courage or impact a fraction of a percentage of the lives that he did, I will consider my life well-lived. It is with these acknowledgements that I say that Nelson Mandela will be sorely missed.
My second thought is that, to be honest, I can’t really comment with a ton of credibility on how South Africa, broadly-speaking, is reacting to Madibas passing. My network of local contacts here is still small, and so my inferences about how the population is reacting to this more-or-less tragic occurrence is based purely on observation. As soon as I learned he’d died, I planned to head into Cape Town (we’re currently living a bit down the coast at the beach haha) for interfaith ceremonies, both because I wanted to be part of the public mourning process for myself because I was very sad and because I wanted to see how others were reacting. The service was nothing like I expected it to be. First, it took place on the Grand Parade, a huge square in front of the British-built (I think) Cape Town City Hall. I expected the square to be packed, but it wasn’t. There were maybe a few thousand people there at most, as opposed to tens of thousands. And a ton of those people were white, either white South African or straight up foreigners like myself. So I don’t know what to make of that. And finally, the vibe at the service was not sorrowful or even sad. Some people were very sad, to be sure. But a large number of people were actually dancing and singing. This really turned the mood up; it was almost celebratory of his passing. I think that’s entirely appropriate to be honest (I hope people dance at my funeral), but it was surely not what I was expecting.
I guess the most important thing I can say now is just that my observations are based on very limited observations and even more limited interactions. The most important ingredient to me understanding what’s happening, local knowledge, is not as available to me at this moment as I wish it were. So I think I’ll write more for sure when I have a better idea of what is happening, how and why people are reacting the way they are, and what folks think for the future, when I can pull on a broader network of locals to answer that question. I’m quite looking forward to that to be honest.
Sleep well, Madiba.