Nelson MandelaMusic, Dancing, and Madiba Mandela.

Growing up in the ‘apartheid era’ of South Africa afforded me a unique chance to fishbowl human oppression, from a distance. I watched as the majority African population were not given equal opportunity, i.e. the right to vote, the freedom to live where they choose or even, share a park bench. Born into a social structure of black white separation, this separateness naturally became part of the accepted order of my life in my formative years. Yet, despite this acceptance, none of this ever sat well with me. My external world, outside my home, didn’t align with the values I had been taught from loving parents.

Rewind the clock back to early childhood, I learned Zulu before I could speak English.  My first maid was a young Zulu girl with whom I’d spent a lot of time, from toddler to age four, while my parents were busy working.  We moved to a small town in the North of South Africa, and my next maid Anna, was a slim Northern Sotho woman.  She became a second mother to me.  She was a kind, sweet, softly spoken, well-mannered, gentle person who adored me.  Her beautiful nature helped me develop a sensitivity and a heartfulness I now carry into all of my counselling sessions.

Around the same time, our two SeSotho shop assistants, Josephine and Andries, helped my parents run their thriving furniture and second-hand clothing business. Oftentimes, I would accompany my dad and Andries on furniture deliveries to the remote African ‘locations’ (suburbs where African people were placed), outside of the pristine, white Afrikaans town of Potgietersrus, now known as Mokopane. I would play barefoot in the red dirt of Zebedela with the young kids outside their huts, while Dad and Andries unloaded the furniture onto the pressed cow dung floors inside.  We chased chickens, rode pigs, and drank sugared black tea from tins.  I learned a lot about African life from these precious teachers, their languages, their ethos, their ability to sing, smile and dance through adversity, and their quiet tolerance of the pain of oppression.

During my high school years, sadly the terrorist activity escalated to its highest, amidst media blackouts, international sanctions and a rigid intolerant government policy that reduced any hope of freedom.  The cognitive dissonance between what I saw, and how I felt inside, clanged louder than ever, as I found it difficult to reconcile the African people I knew with what the government was touting these people to be – threatening and dangerous.

The first whisperings of Nelson Mandela were filtering through word of mouth. Our community knew of him but no-one knew him more than a political agitator who deserved to be in prison, the head of the African National Congress, and a very dangerous man, responsible for the multitude of bombings happening around the country.  The closest I came to experiencing this was one Saturday evening, when I was working at Steers restaurant in Durban. A bomb went off in the nearby Garfunkel’s restaurant.  A sickening ‘boom’ shook our building, followed by screams, moaning and people wandering around dazed, with broken shards of glass stuck in their bodies – blood, dust and chaos everywhere.  Sirens followed, and we were told to stay indoors.

It was only when I travelled overseas shortly after that, that I really got to see the inequalities in my own country through a sharpened lens.  There was a deep resonance with my values wherever I saw separateness was not present.  It was suddenly clear how the power balance in my country was not what it should be, and seeing how people of all colours and creeds can work, and live side by side, in peace with each other.

Upon my return, my community was filled with fear for our country’s safety, and the future of our nation.  When the day came, for Mandela to walk free from Victor Verster prison, some even said it was the beginning of the end.

Yet we were met with a man who had a vision of inclusiveness, even though he had waged an intense political struggle for 30 years.  While it took time for him to dispel the myths that he was behind the terrorist activity.  He wore the accusations gracefully in his actions, diligently working towards a rainbow nation with the forbearance and tolerance of a gentle leader whose traumatised population, of all colours, found it hard to turn towards the possibility of peaceful transition.

He worked tirelessly, and even took time out of his busy schedule in Germany, to appear on stage with Johnny Clegg and his band, (one of the first musicians to play African style music in public with his friend and gardener, Sipho).  I will never forget when Mandela came out on stage in Frankfurt, in front of a very surprised crowd, and when asked if he wanted to say something, he stood in silence, looked to the back of the throng, and then the great man said: “Its music, … and dancing,.. that makes me … at peace with the world,… …and at peace with myself”.  I felt the spirit of his great heart, this simple African man, and in that moment, I knew him to be a good man, even if he may have been guilty of indirectly affecting change through violent groups who were a law unto themselves.

He was partially blind from years of cutting limestone on Robben island, a freedom fighter, someone who had the guts to correct a power imbalance, and to risk his life doing it.  Reading Bryce Courtney’s Power of One at that time, caused me to reflect still to this day, the difference one person can make. This is what I hold in my heart, as I sit in the therapist chair.  Calling forth Mandela’s resilience, his power, his openness, my whole body becomes an ear, opening to the pain and suffering of the individual sitting in front of me.  Madiba is one of my ‘power people’.  His tenacity, and willingness to hear his people on the deepest level, to sacrifice his freedom for the nation he served, truly inspires me when I doubt myself, when I doubt if I can hold space for a human in terrible emotional pain.  Together, we light the way to liberation by supporting people on their journey back home to their heart. No-one gets left behind. This is Madiba’s way, this is my way.

Written by Nicolette Ward