Best of 2013: Mandela crosses the burning water

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It's taken a long time for us to let you go, Madiba. For several years, even as your health faltered irreparably and rumours of your increasing fragility could no longer be denied, the world refused to release its hold. We said prayers, sent love and held vigils until we had brought our Madiba — a man who had lived longer than most — back to life. Such was our belief in the immortality of our hero that we were incapable of relinquishing you.

But now, despite our efforts, you are gone. I said my own private goodbye almost two years ago, when I visited Robben Island on a trip back to my homeland. As the ferry skated across Table Bay, a cold wind blew in through one of its hatches. A young man made everyone laugh when he said, 'Ladies and gentlemen, we will vote to have this door open or closed. This is a free and fair election — you will only be allowed to vote once!'

I had left the country a decade earlier, and was touched by the benign, self-deprecating tone so many black South Africans now adopted when referencing the past. The country's social undertone had transformed so radically I felt I could pluck a chunk of it from the atmosphere and take it home with me.

'Race relations', as the stilted interaction between black, white, Indian, coloured and Asian South Africans had been peculiarly labelled during apartheid, were so natural now as to be invisible; the lack of tension was tangible, the normalisation apparent to all of us who had grown up in the dystopia that preceded democracy.

Two decades after those first free elections, it was your warmth and forgiveness, Madiba, that was now being emulated by so many South Africans. That journey across Table Bay, towards the tiny green cell in which you lived for much of your 27-year incarceration, took me not so much to an outpost of apartheid as to the birthplace of democratic South Africa.

Robben Island and the icy, steel-grey ocean that swirls around it are metaphors for pain and loss and eventual triumph: 68 ships lie wrecked around here, mangled by an angry, unforgiving sea; the bones of the imprisoned Xhosa prophet Makhanda, who drowned while trying to escape to the mainland in 1820, have crumbled into the seabed; the graves of those who lived here across the centuries — lepers, slaves, convicts, whalers — lie suffocated beneath the island's maximum security prison, an edifice built over the old graveyard in 1962 in a vain attempt to stem the tide of political change.

A few tombstones escaped obliteration; they protrude from the long grass, ironic symbols of survival in a country once gone mad.

I found myself transported by that sad, windswept place to my teenage years in the 1980s, when you were being held on Robben Island. You were an enigma to all of us then, a faceless terrorist to be feared and reviled. At school I studied a history which could accommodate only the heroics of the ruling party and those to the right of it; sensing injustice, I joined the Democratic Party — our only real link to South Africa's oppressed — and was banned with my youngest sister from recruiting party members on our state school campus.

I enrolled as a journalism student and was given a list of 200 books — most of them banned — and told to reeducate myself. I interviewed the radical ANC-supporting president of Wits University's Student Representative Council for a journalism assignment and made the black power salute with a friend in a nightclub filled with national servicemen and rightwing students.

At Johnny Clegg and Savuka concerts I swayed as Clegg sang hauntingly, 'Asimbonanga/ Asimbonang' umandela thina/ Laph'ekhona/ Laph'ehleli khona.' ('We have not seen him/We have not seen Mandela/In the place where he is/In the place where he is kept.') All this felt subversive but it was really just an easy way of assuaging a guilty conscience. Most of us would have to wait for your liberation before we could be released ourselves from the straightjackets into which our government had placed us.

On Robben Island our bus passed the limestone quarry where you and your comrades laboured, men I was privileged enough to meet and interview years later — Ahmed Kathrada, Govan Mbeki, Walter Sisulu. This was the pit where men's lungs and eyes were irreparably damaged; but it was also the place where, in a little cave at the back, you and your fellow inmates formed a parliament of sorts, from which you brought into being a future where blacks would be emancipated and whites released from the shackles of shame.

You are gone now, Madiba, as surely as those lepers and whalers and slaves who lie beneath the prison that once confined you. I recall a verse from 'Asimbonanga' in which Johnny Clegg evokes Robben Island, a place that both constricted you and inflamed your resolve: 'Oh the sea is cold and the sky is grey/ Look across the island into the bay/ We are all islands till comes the day/ We cross the burning water.'

You have crossed the burning water. It is time now for us to graciously let you go.

Catherine Marshall headshotCatherine Marshall is a journalist and travel writer. This article was first published on 8 December 2013.

Topic tags: Catherine Marshall, Nelson Mandela, Johnny Clegg and Savuka, South Africa, apartheid



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Barbara Staley | 15 January 2014  

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