June 16 is a national holiday in South Africa – Youth Day, commemorating the June 16, 1976 Soweto student uprising and those who lost their lives in the violence that followed. This year, June 16 was also Father’s Day. In the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands it was a bright, sunny day, lit in dramatic relief by a warm, winter sun that hung low in the Southern hemisphere sky. It was a Sunday and the archive was closed, so I spent the day lingering around one of South Africa’s newest memorials – the Mandela Capture Site outside of Howick, which marks the spot where apartheid police finally caught up with the leader of the South African armed struggle in 1962. I went as a historian and as someone interested in public art and sites of memory, so I spent time assessing the crowd and the amazing memorial that commemorates the spot where Mandela’s decades of imprisonment began. But then I got bored, so I just stood there and watched families.
It was a beautiful day in a diverse country whose better off citizens like nothing more than to cruise around. Not surprisingly, a steady stream of visitors parked, bought a cup of tea or browsed the small museum, and eventually walked down the path to walk among the staves of the sculpture. I could rehearse the rainbow nation doggerel about the blacks, whites, Christians, Muslims, etc., who were there that day, and could analyze who did what at the site, who looked moved and who bored; who posed with a smile, who grimly. But Nelson Mandela finally died last night and that’s not what I remember about my visit to the memorial. Instead, maybe because I missed my kids back in New York, I remember fathers hugging their children, I remember children running around, I remember people walking hand in hand and chatting, enjoying the light and each other. I don’t remember what race they were – at that moment and place, there was no bigger narrative, no greater lesson than that of people being together with other people, freely and joyfully spending time.
When icons die, it is understandable that we ask what their lives meant to the world. It is fitting that we mourn them and distill for the future what they meant to the past. In the next many days the world will be awash in tributes to Nelson Mandela, as it should be. There will be heartfelt, tear-jerking and moving tributes; there will doubtlessly be crass opportunism and from certain quarters, sheer hypocrisy. Mandela the legend will eclipse the man and South African’s long struggle for equality will be reduced down to tasty, easy to digest morsels – and perhaps Oscar nominations.
But the capture memorial tells a different story. It speaks eloquently to the essential truth: that in South Africa, some families mattered more than others. The white and wealthy ones could drive the Midlands roads near where Nelson Mandela was captured as they wanted; the black and poor could not. Colonialists, industrialists and bureaucrats thought little of enacting tremendous restrictions on black family life because it suited their ignorance, their greed, their pettiness and their fear. When people stood against this – men, women, children like those Soweto youth – they courted arrest, imprisonment and death. The Mandela capture memorial reminds us that the simple joys I witnessed on June 16, 2013, were in the past reserved for some; others, forced from their land by settlement and legislation, restricted in their ability to teach their children, and to promise them a better future. They could only adapt or, courageously, resist.
Nelson Mandela was one of the courageous ones. He was one among the thousands – millions – around the world who recognized this great injustice. His name is the most celebrated, but it is only one name and we do him no disrespect by recalling the countless others who also saw wrong and tried to make it right, who spent decades of nights separated from their loved ones, who suffered and died for essentially a simple truth: people ought to be able to live with their families, as they choose, to raise their children securely, confidently, with faith that such simple, quotidian joys are the markers of lives well lived and deaths satisfyingly met. South Africa in the past was not a place that agreed about this. Large segments of the white South African population, their political leaders and their supporters around the world – including many citizens of my country and elsewhere, who today will claim to mourn – instead fought their own struggle to keep Nelson Mandela from his family. Millions turned a blind eye to families ripped apart by resettlement and migrant labor, by poverty, disease and ignorance, and explained away the killing of children in Soweto’s streets. The violent reality of the past is what the capture memorial captures so vividly. To stand there is to look around and see so many of those laughing families fade away because others wanted it that way.
Human lives are perfect stories: they begin, they have an arc, and then they end. When they end, the story stops and we all strain to figure out what it meant. When I was younger the story of Nelson Mandela and the ANC swept me off of my feet and set me on the path to South Africa and the study of its past. Over time, I moved in a different direction, but that story stuck with me. Yet, I must admit that I don’t know very much about Nelson Mandela. I don’t study the ANC, and I have lost much of my interest in nationalism of any sort. I don’t know what Nelson Mandela really thought about those who hunted him down in Howick and jailed him for three decades. I don’t know whether he really forgave them, or whether his smiling face and reconciliatory rhetoric were just the tactics of a shrewd politician.
I do know that the world is better for all of his years, yet I can’t help but wonder whether the story would have been better if it had stopped in Howick, by the side of the road, where and when the rights of some versus the rights of others were made abundantly clear. I don’t begrudge the time that the families I saw spent at the Capture Memorial – far from it. But I weep to think of a humanity that needed a Nelson Mandela to lay bare the reality of what we have done to each other, and I shudder to think of all of the families that cannot pass time together as they would like, because of the suffering world that we have created.
So today I remember Nelson Mandela as a parent who was blessed with the recognition that society needed to change. I was out when I heard that he had died, and I came home thinking of that sunny day in the Midlands. But I was coming home to my kids, which meant no sitting in front of the computer to gorge on the world’s loss; instead, it meant dinner, stories and their warm, safe beds. Those simple things are my greatest gift, and tonight especially so. They remind me of times and places where such simple things were not assured. That security of family was resisted in Mandela’s South Africa and he and others fought for it, as millions around the world continue to do against similarly daunting odds.
When I close my eyes and think back to the Memorial, to place myself back on a bench, among people, thinking about a man and his captors, the rewards of such struggles are obvious. Mandela was the father of a country where parents and children can smile together on a Sunday, hold each other and take a moment to remember the past together. I spoke to no one about what they were thinking this past June 16. But I hope that some were prompted, like I was, to dwell on the suffering of the students in Orlando West and the father in Howick and to be grateful that on Youth Day and Father’s Day, they would get back in their cars together, to make their way peacefully home. Hamba kahle, tata.