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

newspaper

“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.

Kameni

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.

Prayer

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

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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