By now you’ve probably heard the news that Nelson Mandela has died at 95 years of age. I’m sure many will write tributes in the days to come. I’ve already seen a few, with at least one turning it into a soapbox to criticise our current government and others rushing to point out that Mr Mandela had been a terrorist in his early life, thus hardly deserving of our tribute and respect. This saddens me, for though he was far from perfect, he was still a great man in the way that very few men in history have been.
I grew up in South Africa in the 1980s and 1990s. Back then I knew little of Madiba. I made racist jokes and hated him because that was what we had been taught to do. But as I grew up I got to know more about him. I learnt that here was a man who understood about forgiveness, who knew about compassion and self-sacrifice, and about not giving people what they truly deserved.
People have called him the Jesus of South Africa. I wouldn’t go that far, but if ever there were a man who showed people what it meant to be Christ-like, it was him. Sure, he made his faults, even in these last two decades of his life, but for once here is someone I hope we’ll remember not for his mistakes, but for what he did right in his life.
I want to borrow from what John Scalzi has written and say that I am glad to have lived in the same period of history as this great man, and while we will all miss him dearly, I’m glad he can finally take his well-deserved rest.
Stil, broers, daar gaan ‘n man verby.
(Silence, brothers, a man is passing.)
en dis verlaas.
(for the last time.)
Daar’s nog maar één soos hy;
(There is but one like him:)
bekyk hom goed.
(remember how he looks.)
From a poem by Jan F. Cilliers in tribute to the Afrikaner-hero from the Anglo-Boer War, Genl. Christiaan de Wet. With thanks to Max du Preez.
English translation my own.