Madiba: I remember

I remember not knowing what you looked like; at sunrise seeing the regime’s footmen erase your name from walls before the paint had dried.

I remember, as a child, sitting on the back seat of the car on the way to town, and at the top of Hospital Bend, my aunt pointing to Robben Island and saying that was where he lived; where the government had sent you.

I remember the news saying you were a terrorist; and my parents having to carefully explain to my seven-year-old-self how you were a hero to the people; that the news and the government lie.

I remember the first time I saw you – the first time any of us had seen you for decades – walking free from Victor Verster, fist aloft, and in your smile, the uncertainties, violence and angst of those heady days somehow dissipating. The spectacle of your release; the joy of a people unleashed: the chaos of your arrival at the Grand Parade…

I remember your words pulling us back from the brink of fratricidal explosion: “This killing must stop… we must not permit ourselves to be provoked by those who seek to deny us the very freedom Chris Hani gave his life for. Let us respond with dignity”. On that day you already were our President.

I remember a year later – almost to the day – walking to school the day after the elections, and every person I passed, meeting my gaze and smiling at our new found wonderment.

And ten days later, in my school uniform, bunking off and heading to the Parade to hear you speak as our State President: immersing myself in a throng of nationhood and unburdened happiness; being hoisted atop shoulders to cling to a lamp post, to see you.

I remember the farce of the time that I met you: when while working as a waiter at a State Banquet for Bill Clinton, I abandoned my table and cunningly intercepted you… and hugged you before your bodyguards prized the crazy white kid from your smiling and surprised embrace.

I remember when you visited Zackie Achmat on his near-death bed. You probably saved his life, and – through his service – the lives of hundreds of thousands of South Africans in the face of your successor’s madness.

I was there when you had to be hoisted to the stage at UCT to celebrate the life of Steve Biko. How at the conclusion of your speech you announced your “retirement” from public life: “Don’t call me; I’ll call you.”

And I will remember this day – alone and bereft in Washington DC – so far from home and the people who have come to call you Tata…

Hamba Kahle Madiba.



  1. Bravo dear Jonathon.
    How beautifully you write and how clear the pictures you paint with words.
    Victoria in California told me about this message. Your memories have circled the world – and no doubt will change lives themselves.
    When the small stone has sunk, unseen, below the surface of the lake it is the ripples that show where it has been and the ripples that affect the shores on all sides of the lake. How much more so in this case.
    We cannot all be Madibas, but if we can manage our own Little Things what wonders may we yet achieve?

  2. Beautiful words bud- beautiful ! I write this looking out on the very parade ground in Cape Town of which you speak. It is indeed a sad time, but still, i feel one filled with optimism.

    Yes, there are some who darken our society and make many of the wonders that happen in this place harder to spot- but the reality is that this country is filled with amazing people, doing amazing things. There is a movement happening again- a different one this time- but the people are responding. People are waking up to the shame that is our current government, waking up to the corruption that is stealing the very bread from the poorest of our poor. More and more people are refusing to accept the lack of leadership coming from the top of the top, the lack of ethics, or morals of accountability. The people are ‘aware’ and there is the feeling of a change in the air!

    I was at the Nelson Mandela memoir concert in Cape Town in December- and i have to say it was one of the most amazing concerts i have ever been to. The feeling of joint unity- of every colour, race, age, creed coming together was simply jaw dropping. Better than any U2, Madonna, TIesto concert i have every been to in SA. No political rallying. No ANC flags. Geriatric whities dancing to the glorious sounds of the young three black tenors. People of all colours hugging arm in arm, singing with pride, crying with sadness, but all united by a great great man.

    Long may you live in all our minds Tata!

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