Mandela. And Me.

As the entire world knows, Nelson Mandela died last night.


“Tata” is the Xhosa word for father. Nelson Mandela is often referred to as “Tata Mandela” or “Madiba”, which was his nickname.

Mandela’s imminent death had been a forgone conclusion for months. He was 95 years old and extremely ill, kept alive with the help of a life support machine.

I wasn’t surprised at all that Mandela died. I was very surprised, however, by my reaction to Madiba’s passing.

I’ve lived in South Africa for three-and-a-half years and I understood Mandela’s significance (although “significant” is an understatement) to South Africans. I understood that he was a hero. I recognized, on an intellectual level, that Nelson Mandela was one of the greatest world leaders of all time. I knew his death was going to be a huge deal, spiritually and logistically, in South Africa.

But I didn’t live in South Africa during apartheid, or during the transition to democracy. I didn’t stand in line to vote in 1994. I’ve never seen Nelson Mandela or heard him speak live. (Mandela’s final public appearance was during the 2010 World Cup, a couple of weeks before I moved to South Africa.)

Nelson Mandela was not my president. He was not my Tata. Or so I thought.

I expected to be sad, maybe wistful, when the inevitable news of Mandela’s death hit the airwaves. But nothing more.

How wrong I was.

I first heard the news late last night, via instant message from a journalist friend. I was too tired to think about it much, and fell right to sleep.

Early this morning, driving to boxing training, I heard several Mandela tributes on the radio and shed a few tears. I quickly recovered.

I got back home, sat down at my computer, and scanned a Mail & Guardian article about Mandela’s death. There was a photo of a small, sleepy child in pyjamas, sitting on his father’s shoulders outside Mandela’s Joburg home last night. That photo opened a small fissure in my heart. I had a good cry.

Then I opened Facebook and saw a photo of Mandela, posted by the European PressPhoto Agency. The photo, shot in 2008, was taken by my late boyfriend, Jon. Jon, a South African photojournalist who started his career in the 1980s, met and photographed Nelson Mandela on many occasions. Incidentally, the two-year anniversary of Jon’s death is on December 19th.

Madiba pic Jon

Jon’s photo of Madiba on the EPA Facebook page. I hope I’m not committing a copyright violation by posting this screenshot.

By this point I was weeping. But I pulled myself together, got dressed, and decided I couldn’t treat today like any other day. I had to go out and mourn Tata Mandela with the rest of the country.

I drove to Sandton, slogged my way through the Sandton City Mall, and emerged into Nelson Mandela Square — the central plaza with a huge (and much maligned) statue of Mandela.

Some of you might think it strange that Sandton is the first place I went to honor Mandela. But I’ve been spending a lot of time in Sandton lately and the more I’m there, the more I realize that it embodies Mandela’s legacy in many ways.

Madiba statue photo session copy

This photo makes it look as if Nelson Mandela Square is empty, but that’s only because this section of the square was cordoned off for crowd control purposes. People waited in line to take photos with the statue, one family at a time. This system was working surprisingly well when I was there.


This is two-year-old Kameni and his father, Kameni Senior. Kameni Junior didn’t understand what he was supposed to be doing.

The center section of the square had become a memorial. People approached one at a time to leave flowers and notes for Madiba.

Flowers and note

The note in the middle reads: “Thank you Tata. May Your Soul Rest in Peace. Born Free #94, One Nation United. -Michael” (“Born free” is the term for South Africans born after 1994, the first year of democracy.)

I felt the tears returning. Then I heard something in the far corner of the square. A large group of people approached. They were city employees coming to honor Madiba, bearing flowers and signs, singing and dancing.

Madiba song

Celebrating Madiba.

There was a little girl at the front of the group, maybe seven or eight, holding a bouquet of flowers and singing her heart out. The group burst into a rendition of Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika, the South African national anthem.


This was either right before or right after the national anthem. I was hysterical so I can’t remember.

During the national anthem, I sobbed uncontrollably. Two journalists standing nearby stopped what they were doing to console me.

I realized, at that moment, that Madiba was my president. I’m part of South Africa now, and South Africa is part of me.

If it weren’t for Nelson Mandela, South Africa as we know it today wouldn’t exist. I certainly wouldn’t be here. And if I weren’t here, where would I be? What would I be? Who would I be?

As the crowd dispersed and I slowly recovered, I saw some women putting a cardboard tribute to Mandela on the ground with the flowers. People were coming up, one by one, and writing messages on the cardboard.


Viva the Legend.

I knelt down, fumbled for a pen, and scrawled, “I found my soul in South Africa because of you.”

Thank you, Tata Mandela.

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  • Reply Gary December 6, 2013 at 10:19 pm

    So good Heather.

    • Reply 2summers December 6, 2013 at 10:28 pm

      Thanks, Gary. Hope you’re doing well.

  • Reply IdealisticRebel December 6, 2013 at 10:55 pm

    Reblogged this on idealisticrebel and commented:
    His spirit is a flame that shined brightly in the darkness that tries to engulf our world.

    • Reply 2summers December 7, 2013 at 5:42 pm

      Thanks for the reblog!

  • Reply Sine December 6, 2013 at 10:56 pm

    Wonderful, Heather, I’m glad you “took the day off” to go mourn. I felt just as surprised as you, because I’m also not truly a South African. But I guess he was the father to all of us. Maybe even to people who’d never heard of South Africa. He was that great of a man.

    • Reply 2summers December 7, 2013 at 5:41 pm

      Thanks Sine. I enjoyed your post too!

  • Reply David Kirkness December 6, 2013 at 11:22 pm

    the death of Mandela is the death of the Rainbow Nation. Zuma couldn’t have wished for better timing if he’d tried.

    • Reply 2summers December 7, 2013 at 5:41 pm

      Thanks for the comment, David. Although I do agree with the other commenter that the Rainbow Nation is far from dead. The incredible diversity of the people is of the things that struck me the most when I first moved to South Africa. And I think diversity is celebrated far more here than most places in the world, perhaps even including America.

  • Reply chuckv88 December 7, 2013 at 12:49 am

    I do not agree with all all your sentiments Heather, but at the end of your piece I did find a stinging salty one in my eye, Just as I did on the day of his inauguration in 1994 when I was in control of the ‘snake pit’ of international press photographers there. I wonder if a young Jon might have been there?

    • Reply 2summers December 7, 2013 at 5:37 pm

      Hi Chuck, yes, I’m sure Jon was there. I think he was working at the Sunday Times back then, or maybe still the Pretoria News.

      Of course we don’t agree on everything but I’m glad you enjoyed the post. And fortunately we live in a country where disagreement is tolerated and celebrated. It’s actually one of the things I like most about South Africa.

  • Reply Bill Hayes December 7, 2013 at 12:53 am

    What a great commentary you have written there. What a great day for you too. Great because you had no doubt about what this man meant to the world and after today, to you also.

    • Reply 2summers December 7, 2013 at 5:34 pm

      Thanks Bill. Yes, I feel very fortunate to have experienced this event while here in South Africa. I’ve learned a lot about myself because of it, and I’m glad I was able to share my experience and touch others.

  • Reply Kirsten December 7, 2013 at 2:12 am

    Of course, everything you read about him is awe-inspiring… but yours was the first article that made me cry… thanks much.

    • Reply 2summers December 7, 2013 at 5:33 pm

      Thanks Kirsten. As I just said in another comment, making people cry seems to come naturally to me 🙂

  • Reply Eugenia Parrish December 7, 2013 at 4:40 am

    Okay, you brought me to tears as nothing else has. I don’t know South Africa except from afar, but there’s a little bit of all of us in its history. Thank you for this.

    • Reply 2summers December 7, 2013 at 5:31 pm

      You’re quite welcome. I’ve discovered I have a special talent for making people cry. Myself especially!

  • Reply Justcallmegertie December 7, 2013 at 7:11 am

    Thank you, Heather. I just had ANOTHER little cry again. We did love this great man so much and all I could manage yesterday was a reblog of a post from a few months ago. It makes me happy to see the rainbow nation unified once again, by the love and need to honour our greatest hero of all times. And I am glad you have been touched as well.

    • Reply 2summers December 7, 2013 at 5:28 pm

      Thanks Gertie. Yesterday was amazing day. I’ll never forget it.

      • Reply Justcallmegertie December 8, 2013 at 7:38 am

        We planned to take the red city tour bus this Sunday ages ago and I am definitely making a stop at Chancellor house to see the shadow boxing statue which I have not yet seen, but first saw on your blog. Thank you for showing us all Jozi through new eyes.

        • Reply 2summers December 8, 2013 at 8:11 am

          I went to see the Shadowboxer on Friday again too. I love that statue.

  • Reply therebellion101 December 7, 2013 at 8:26 am

    That’s a very lovely post Heather.

    @David I disagree with your statement, Madibas death isn’t the death of the Rainbow Nation, cause he has implanted the same spirit in us. Like today we doing Slimcares at Soweto Kliptown Youth (SKY) where we will be giving away bursaries and 100 meals to 100 families, isn’t that a bit of keeping the rainbow nation alive???

    • Reply 2summers December 7, 2013 at 5:27 pm

      I agree, Eric. Viva the Rainbow Nation.

  • Reply Kameni December 7, 2013 at 8:44 am

    Here I am, again; after a long while, taken by the taste to write. your words just open my voice, my heart and my taste of reading. Surely, without any doubt, I have assimilated myself into yours, when you said I quote : ” I am not a South African ”. But I felt like I am one of them. as you have said, we are all Tata Madiba ‘s legacy. and i STRRONGLY go along with you when you said : if it wasn’t Him, Where would I be, Who would I be, What would I be doing. One light has gone, may His inspiration guide our life. thanks Heather, Thanks South Africa, Thanks Tata Madiba

    • Reply 2summers December 7, 2013 at 5:25 pm

      Thank you for this beautiful comment, Kameni. I’m very glad I met you and your son yesterday.

  • Reply Kathryn McCullough December 7, 2013 at 2:55 pm

    I love this post, Heather! I was so sad to hear of Mandela’s death, and, to be honest, I thought of you when I heard the news. I didn’t realize until I watched CNN last night that he had spent nearly 3 decades in prison and had been 71 when released. Wow!

    Some of us here are mourning, as well.

    Hugs from Ecuador,

    • Reply 2summers December 7, 2013 at 5:24 pm

      I know Kathy, amazing, right? Such a tragedy that the strongest years of his life were spent wasting away in prison. It’s unthinkable. It’s good know that people around the works are celebrating Mandela’s life this weekend.

  • Reply tenneymason December 7, 2013 at 2:58 pm

    What a wonderful tribute. So poignant.

    • Reply 2summers December 7, 2013 at 5:22 pm

      Thanks Dad. My life is full of poignancy these days.

  • Reply amelie88 December 7, 2013 at 9:13 pm

    Mandela’s legacy extends beyond South Africa. I don’t think there is a person on this planet who doesn’t know his name, that’s how influential and how powerful of a symbol he was in our society. I didn’t know much about him beyond knowing he spent a lot of time in prison and was South Africa’s first black president. I’m glad (maybe not the right word here? but I can’t think of a substitute) you were able to communally mourn with the rest of South Africa, that must have been such a powerful and emotional experience. I don’t think I’ve seen this kind of outpouring of grief for a revered public figure since Princess Diana died.

  • Reply fiona December 8, 2013 at 9:17 am

    I am South African through and through. Yes, I get angry with my country sometimes but I think that the rainbow nation is very much alive. Go to one of the memorials and see how people are supporting one another, in their mourning.
    I never personally met former president Nelson Mandela but I know he gave me a country and a citizenship to be proud of.
    The jacaranda trees weep their tears and lay a carpet of purple weeping. I know that I am weeping, not only for Madiba but for friends and family that have passed on. It is a mourning for loss and a celebration for a long life lived.

    • Reply 2summers December 10, 2013 at 9:42 am

      Thanks for the great comment, Fiona. Much appreciated.

  • Reply Memorializing Mandela | Historic District December 8, 2013 at 8:22 pm

    […] of 2summers, was here for a visit from her new home of South Africa. This week she wrote her own moving and personal tribute to Mandiba on her […]

  • Reply Catherine December 8, 2013 at 11:03 pm

    thank you Heather for a beautiful post about someone we will all keep and honor in our hearts…

  • Reply Olufunke Kolapo December 9, 2013 at 1:55 pm

    Your words brought tears to my eyes too. Very reflective. Thanks for sharing.

    • Reply 2summers December 10, 2013 at 9:41 am

      Thank you for reading!

  • Reply Jason D December 10, 2013 at 6:58 am

    Thanks for posting this Heather! I only got to Jozi for a weekend in 2012 but I did get to Sandton and had my picture taken with his statue and it is among my most treasured of the trip. Most of my trip was meeting my in-laws who live in Durban. I fell in love with South Africa and 2 weeks was not nearly enough I cannot wait to come back. Until then I live vicariously through SA bloggers like you so thank you so much for your blog posts, you are a really talented writer! I wish I could be there now to see the celebration of his life in person.

    • Reply 2summers December 10, 2013 at 9:40 am

      Thanks so much for the comment, Jason. I’m glad I could share some of the experience with you. Hope you get to come back soon.

  • Reply expatsophie December 15, 2013 at 8:36 pm

    Thank you for your beautiful post. I’m an American and have not (yet!) been to South Africa, but Mandela has always been a huge inspiration to me. Like you, I was still surprised at how deeply I felt his passing. Your post had me in tears.

    • Reply 2summers December 17, 2013 at 8:56 am

      Thank you, I’m glad you enjoyed it 🙂

  • Reply Gus Silber December 18, 2013 at 9:03 am

    A lovely piece, Heather. It’s so nice to be able to see South Africa, and in particular, my home city of Joburg, through your very perceptive eyes. You belong here, heart and soul.

    • Reply 2summers December 18, 2013 at 9:17 am

      Thanks Gus, I really appreciate that.

  • Reply bluebrightly December 22, 2013 at 2:44 am

    This is just brilliantly done, from the first image, through all the emotions, including your personal connection, through the end. And the choice of first photo – the newspaper – setting a restrained but at the same time, monumental tone – perfect. Thank you!

  • Reply hellonearth06 September 29, 2014 at 11:13 pm

    Hi. I have been reading your blog over the last few weeks from your first posting towards the most recent ones. I had to stop here and make a comment!
    I grew up in Joburg, in Sandton over 35 years ago. My home will always be here despite living in the UK for the last 12 years.
    When Madiba died, we took our small children to find somewhere to lay some flowers… London was just to far away so we headed for Coventry Cathedral – our closest city. We left a bunch of flowers, my SA flag and a picture of my children at the feet of the Madiba Statue in Nelson Mandela Square in Sandton. Later in the week, we attended a Service of Thanksgiving at the Cathedral surrounded by hundreds of English families and many more African ones – all nations represented from Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Kenya and South Africa… to morn the passing of a great man.

    I only saw Madiba once in person, when I was a student nurse and he visited Helen Joseph before she died at the JoBurg Gen – I wish I could have shook his hand that day, but the crowds of people around him prohibited it.

    Everyday I struggle with the gnawing ache to return home to Joburg… one day I may.

    • Reply 2summers September 30, 2014 at 8:52 am

      Thank you so much for your comment — it really means a lot to me. And I’m glad you’re enjoying my blog. Maybe I’ll meet you back in Joburg someday 🙂

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