Tuesday, December 10, 2013

President Nelson Mandela and the Madiba Dance

Mandela doing his signature dance
Today it rained beyond reason in South Africa. The tens of thousands of people at the soccer stadium in Soweto did not complain. "27 years!" one woman exclaimed --- "we can stand a few hours of getting wet."

From January 1997 to June 1998 I worked at the University of Cape Town as a Fulbright Fellow. My flat in Festival Court (think 12 apartments in a parking lot with sheds where the "help" once lived) was not far from the official presidential residence in Rondebosh.

The story was that Mandela (or Madiba as he is called) would take long walks in the neighborhood early in the morning, his security entourage following behind. I wanted to see him coming down the street at dawn but instead I needed to settle for the smiling replicas of Madiba that greeted me as throw pillows on the couches of friends I visited or as refrigerator magnet dolls complete with polka dotted boxers and Hawaiian shirts.

Presidential kitsch intrigued me. Here was a man that many believed to be the greatest leader of the 20th century and yet he'd been turned into a decorative pillow.

But here's the thing: people completely adored him. They wanted his likeness in their homes, within easy access. The people had voted him into office sometimes traveling for days to reach a polling station. There were stories upon stories of families taking their elderly relatives to vote tucked inside wheel barrows. In the mid-90's when Mandela was President Mandela, people felt connected to the man, the man they had fought for and the man they had elected. And yet.

The news often brought stories of Madiba's flash of temper if another official kept him waiting; he endured the public's displeasure when he took his "companion" on official state visits. What kind of role model traveled with a "foreign" woman ---Graca Machel--- he was not married to? "I've asked her and she has turned me down," Mandela told everyone. Mandela and Machel married on Mandela's 80th birthday. She is the only woman in the world to take the role of  First Lady in two different nations. Her first husband who died in a plane crash was Samora Machel, President of Mozambique.

Like President Obama, my very first political action was attending a Free Nelson Mandela event. During my lunch hour I walked over to Boston Common with some Oxfam America colleagues. A very small group of impassioned people were demanding Nelson Mandela's release and justice for the Sharpeville Six. It was 1987. No one could have guessed that Mandela would be free within three years. That protest began my interest in South Africa and a decade later I was living there.

These last few days have been hard. I find myself mourning not only the incredible man but also the era. I remember setting my alarm and waking up at 5 AM to watch Mandela walk out of prison on February 11, 1990. Tears rolled down my cheeks as I watched his slow and steady walk out of the prison gates and into the street where thousands of people had gathered. Later it came out that Mandela had insisted on this --- on walking out of the prison gates and into the street by himself. He said the people that had worked for his release deserved to see this --- but perhaps he also wanted to claim that moment his own way.

I grew up in Boston, Massachusetts --- a city the South African apartheid regime often cited as an example of free segregation. And the only time I remember ever being in a fully integrated crowd in Boston was the day Mandela spoke at the Hatch Shell along the Charles River. Hearing Mandela, seeing him way ahead of us, sharing a footstool that someone near us was sharing so we could get a better look, and gossiping about Winnie --- it's all part of that magical day. A day that perhaps changed my life forever. To feel such energy, to feel love in a crowd of thousands. To greet a man that we never really believed would walk free. It changes the impossible into the possible for each person in that crowd.

Today in my office at Highline Community College where I teach I keep my eye on two pictures of Mandela on the wall. One was given to me by a student and shows an extreme close-up of Madiba's smile --- it's hard to look at that face and not smile back. The other image is a black and white postcard with Madiba speaking on a cell phone just a few days after his release. He doesn't look entirely comfortable with the phone or perhaps its with the person at the other end of the line but this is the picture I go to again and again. The juxtaposition of the man --- freed from prison --- and the phone, just beginning to be omnipresent ---seems to hint at something larger: the old with a bridge to the new.

In South Africa there is much rejoicing for the life that Mandela lived; people gather to sing and celebrate his legacy. That is the way to pay respect. Perhaps what I need to do now is turn on some Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela. To reclaim the Madiba dance.

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