On the evening of 5 December 2013, a giant man took his last quivering breath and a young nation lost its father. Nelson Mandela was dead. On 6 December, the new South Africa saw the dawn of the first day without its leader, the man that was not only a freedom-fighter, prisoner, president, peace-maker and world icon but also a father, comrade, husband and neighbour. He had retired from public life years ago, and had been critically ill for some time, so South Africans thought they were ready for his departure. Still, on that morning the void was so large it was hardly possible to breathe. One of the most important men to have ever wandered on this Earth was no more.
On the radio, only sad songs played that day and many people called in to recount how Madiba (Mandela’s clan name, by which he is often referred) had touched their life. Most of them choked on tears as they told their story. At his house in Houghton, people came in their hundreds to pay their last respects – black and white, young and old – this was a true reflection of what Madiba had achieved in a country that less than 20 years ago was deeply divided along racial lines, in legislation and in people’s minds.
But as the day went on, the mood started changing. Although people still had tears in their eyes, they nodded at each other and said: let us not grieve because he is gone – let us celebrate that he was here. And people did, at official memorial services, at impromptu gatherings and at significant places such as his Soweto house. They sang and cried and gave thanks for the things that Madiba gave them: freedom, democracy and equal rights for all regardless of race, sex or religion. People queued patiently for hours and hours to be allowed to pay their final respects as he laid in state at the Union Buildings, where he was sworn in as South Africa’s first democratically elected president 19 years earlier, and on the day of his funeral many stopped and reflected as they followed the televised proceedings.
But most importantly, people talked. About the values that Madiba represented, and the things he had achieved. They talked about how to honour this great man by living in accordance with his values, and how to ensure that his legacy is not lost. South Africa is not the same without Madiba, but people have the power to ensure that the South Africa he fought for, and sacrificed so much for, will live on. The South Africa he stood up for at the infamous Rivonia Trial in 1964, to stare the death-penalty in the eyes with these words:
“I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for, and to see realised. But my Lord, if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.“
South Africa is still feeling Madiba’s absence acutely but, contrary to many international media speculations, her people are not turning on each other. They are turning to each other, saying: “let’s live in a way that would have made Tata (daddy) proud”! Madiba will never be forgotten, and he will live on in ordinary South African’s minds and actions for generations to come. In a stretched-out hand to help a person in need, in open-mindedness and respect for each other and in kindness and tolerance for everyone we meet. President Obama summarised the mood perfectly when he said in his speech:
“He makes me want to be a better man”