To Come Back from Qunu

I do not have a background in the struggle. Unlike the many people who over the past week shared their stories of their personal interactions with Nelson Mandela during the struggle, my only brief meeting with Mandela was as a journalist for the Afrikaans newspaper Die Burger, which he visited despite the editor, Ebbe Dommisse’s ongoing demonization of the ANC and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. As a white South African I have lived with the shame that it was the White State that imprisoned Nelson Mandela. I grew up in the illusion of white suburbia while the country burned around us, and was taught to fear the threat of the Other. As a child, I wasn’t told about Nelson Mandela, yet his movement changed our lives and the future of my children. Which is why, Sunday morning at 5 a.m., my wife and I woke our children, put them in the car and made the four hour journey to Qunu.

Of course we did not have accreditation to attend the main funeral event, so we headed for one of the public viewing areas. We expected throngs of people, traffic jams, people wrestling to find space. What we found was a small gathering of people around a big screen. Now and again a small group would stand up and join the singing, like when Jacob Zuma led with Thina Sizwe.

But, overall, there was a quietness about the day. People strolled slowly from their homes towards the viewing area, goats and cattle grazed around, some hopeful entrepreneurs tried to flog a can of Coke, a T-shirt or a cap with Mandela’s image. There were almost as many journalists roaming around in search of a quote as there were viewers sitting on the plastic chairs around the screen.

Almost immediately after we arrived, however, we were pounced upon by journalists – from Telesur to France 24 to CNBC Africa– asking us to explain ourselves. Why did we come all the way from Grahamstown and not just watch the event at home? How do we feel as white South Africans about Mandela? Do we see ourselves as victims in a way? What does Mandela mean to our children? Can you speak to the camera in Afrikaans?

We wanted to watch the ceremony, wanted to be a part of the group of mourners, to give tribute to a leader who also freed his jailors, to paraphrase Barack Obama’s speech at the Johannesburg memorial service. But we do not yet live in that ordinary country, and perhaps today that was the testimony we were called upon to give – that, thanks to Madiba, it is all of us that are free. That the history we look back upon is not only the history of the ANC, the history of black South Africans, or the history of the banished and the imprisoned. The history we came here to be a part of, belongs to all of us.

As the ceremony ended, my kids couldn’t contain themselves anymore, and wandered off to go and play some distance away from the viewing area, spontaneously making friends with two black kids that were just as bored as they were. They ran around on the green grass, behind them the spectacular backdrop of the green valley and the big white marquee where Nelson Mandela’s body was being carried out to his last resting place. And for a moment I found the meaning of Mandela in this ordinariness, the laughter of children, the grazing of cattle, the chatter of people from the village.

As we walked back through the dusty streets of Qunu after the service, the familiar sight of rural poverty was around us, and the contrast between the modest dwellings and the rented cars and expensive 4×4’s parked on the sidewalks outside them was an example of the stark inequalities that continue to characterize South African society. And it reminded us that, despite the victim discourse of many whites (and not only the crazy rightwingers who believed that Mandela’s passing would unleash a mass killing of whites), white South Africans by and large still find ourselves on the affluent side of that gulf between the rich and the poor. We have benefited greatly from the transition to democracy.

It is precisely because their lives have remained comfortable that many whites could make a cuddly patron of Mandela without confronting the revolutionary part of his legacy. It is true that Mandela’s almost unbelievable capacity to forgive ensured that racial reconciliation is the legacy he will be remembered for. But for too many whites this became a get-out-of-jail card that absolved them of the responsibility to find ways of contributing to the eradication of apartheid’s enduring legacies. This is the humbling power of forgiveness that caused – in the historian Albert Grundlingh’s words – a ‘traffic jam on the road to Damascus’ among many white South Africans. But too often Mandela has been reduced to a fridge magnet saint, a T-shirt hero that did not pose a challenge to business as usual. This is the sanitized version of Mandela that made possible the corporate arrogance of Woolworths to dress singers as shelf packers to stage a flash mob while singing Johnny Clegg’s anthem Asimbonanga. (And why many of those that shared the clip on Facebook would probably not know as much about Steve Biko, Victoria Mxenge and Neil Aggett who the original song also pays homage to.) This reduction of a revolutionary to a safe, cuddly saint is why newspapers over the past week were brimming with advertisements of big corporates paying tribute to Mandela, in a country where mine workers get killed for demanding a living wage.

And yet, and yet, I find it difficult to agree with overly negative assessments like those of Slavoj Zizek. There is no doubting the sea of poverty and inequality in which so many South Africans remain adrift. But as we critique the pernicious effects of neoliberalism and attack the current ANC for moral insolvency, let us not forget that the country my children are growing up in is vastly different from the one in which I became an adult. They now live in a country whose founding principles are that of freedom, human dignity, and equality, instead of fear, conflict and hate. They don’t know war, bombs or uniforms. At school they share classrooms with children whose parents I would not have been allowed to play with forty years ago. They can paint the South African flag on their faces and cheer for the Boks, the Proteas or Bafana without thinking about it twice. To invert a cliché: the present is a different country.

But it is not different enough yet. At school my children are still more likely to learn to care about the dangers facing the rhino than seeing for themselves the precariousness of life for children on the other side of town. They may live in a country that is now formally non-racial, have a few black friends and they may know the words of Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika, but they remain ensconced in the comforts of a life where education, health care and security are privatized. In some ways, theirs is light years away from my childhood. But in many other ways, twenty years after democracy, it is not.

Nelson Mandela’s funeral service reminded me of how little Xhosa I can understand, how little I know about Xhosa burial rituals, how much I still have to learn about the history of a struggle that is too often presented as that of black South Africans and too seldom understood by white South Africans as the trajectory that led to our own liberation from prejudice, hatred and fear. White South Africans like us will have to challenge ourselves (and be challenged by the media) to cross the many divides that still mark South African society, learn to listen to different stories, speak other languages and participate in social and political life rather than emigrate inwards to our suburban homes.

Driving back through the heartbreakingly beautiful green hills around Qunu, past the awe-inspiring Amathola mountains, I hoped that one day my children will just live in an ordinary South Africa. One in which white children attending a funeral in Qunu won’t be newsworthy enough for TV cameras. But I know that for this to happen, we will have to move beyond reconciliation, wonderful as it is, to social justice, to equality in all its dimensions. There are many rivers still to cross. I am asking myself again: what can I do, what can I contribute? And as they grow up, I will encourage my children to ask the same question of themselves.

We are all islands/till comes the day/we cross that burning river

On 15 December 2014, we came back from Qunu. The next day, 16 December, was Reconciliation Day. Soon enough, however, this season will pass – and then we will need to get back to work.



  1. Well said, I full agree with you. the gap is too wide between poor and the ordinary class yes indeed too many rivers to cross

  2. Herman, thank God you’re a Professor of Journalism. This is the best, most thoughtful, most heartfelt and even handed piece I have read on Mandela’s passing. Thank you. I hope every student reads it, and then their parents… and I hope all have the sous to reflect on it. And to read it again. (PS. As a prof. of journalism I hope this is not one of those awful blogs that expect us to write for them for no pay, read the Publisher’s Letter in the October edition of Harpers.) And thank you again, I’m so sad I’ve never met you, what a fine brain, and brilliant pen you have. Charlene

  3. Herman, you experience is well reflected. My wife and I have become involved in helping to rehabilitate the damage done to our black communities and we see life from the other side of the fence and appreciate many of the angry comments about our countries failures. When we walk the streets of the Townships and the Rural Villages, one that is now our home, we never see a white South African unless it is an ‘event’. This is why we will always hear people asking what they should. Once they walk these streets outside of the ‘event’ mode, they will already have found their answer. In 1994 we were faced with this fork in the road, most have elected the ‘road less travelled’, it is not too late to switch paths, but soon it will be. Let us not ask, but do. Cedric de la Harpe

  4. ngiyabonga Herman ngamazwi akho futhi ngiyakuthokozela ubuntu bakho loku okukhona ukukhuluma izinto abanye babelungu abangafuni ukukuzizwa. Ngithandazela ukuthi amazwi akho angaweli endlebeni zeywula. Losele manje umbsebenzi wethu sonke mfwethu . Unkulunkulu abe nawe nomdeni wakho .

  5. I really enjoyed reading this , the one comment I have, is you have largely ignored the fact that there is a large emerging black middle class. I live in an area where I have as many black neighbours as white and who are certainly very far removed from the poverty of either Qunu or any other rural town.

    1. Hi Debbie, they are not removed from the poverty. I’m one of those neighbours and as I was reading this article, I figured that my parents could be suffering as much, if not more, had it not been for the support we provide to our home

    2. Wow Debbie, to miss the point so! To entertain your thought though, i dont think there’s any black person who is removed from poverty, any. If you had real conversations, and i mean real conversations, not the usual perfunctory and safe conversations, with your neighbours, you’ll realise this.

  6. Your honesty is very refreshing to read. Too often our journalists do not acknowledge the depth of our transformation and the long road ahead. Please continue to talk, right and debate this topic as it is badly needed in our country

  7. Wow Herman, this is well said. One can feel every emotion that you went through and gets the sense that is it not a publicity stunt. You acknowledge that black people are also human and understand that the legacy of apartheid is still alive. It is so disappointing to read a piece on yahoo news and here white people saying blacks a lazy and just want everything to be done for them. I agree to an extend, but they do not know the legacy of our history. They have inheritance from their families and get cars at a young age.

    Yes Debbie Carr Donald, I am one of those middle class South Africans, but in order to get there, the road is hard. We have to start with building houses where we come from for our parents, we have to start with a spoon in the house and have to rent for years before we can afford a house. We buy our own cars at late ages and have to use uncomfortable public transport for years before gaining the freedom. We (the black middle class) are a minority among blacks. I do not agree with providing someone with a grant to help them survive, as that person will never learn to make their own money and will expect the government to cater for their life long costs. At the same time, I know what its like not to have money for school.

    It is one difficult situation that most white South Africans will never understand if they don’t want to and will forever treat a dog better than a fellow human been as long as they are black. I really appreciate people like Herman. They are hard to come by and when they do, one wishes they could clone them in order to have better work places and South Africa. Another thing, no black is interested in hunting white man and killing them now that Mandela is gone. We have the same goal, and it is to live and provide the best education, healthcare and living conditions for our families and ensure a better future for the next generation. White people would be amazed at how forgiving black people are. We just do not appreciate that fake smile and you thinking that you are better than us when some of us have proven that we are as intelligent or twice as intelligent as some white people and we are capable of running businesses and inventing stuff.

  8. You have articulated very well, my discomfort, with that Woolworths stint. Thank you for honesty! That is what we need. Just honest conversations!

  9. Very salient points and very emotional paintings! Just as you don’t know many Xhosa words do you know many of the other 9 languages ? My concern is that you seem to have condensed us into 3 main groups – which leaves a large number of people out of your narration. I love what you say albeit sometimes a little finger pointing but remember not everyone who loves some stuff on Facebook are oblivious! The fact that we are free to say I love you TaTa is a huge leap from our childhood days.

    1. It could not have been said better, I worked with Mandela, I have an appreciation of his conviction and of those people who influenced him. We will walk the journey without him. I am confident we will overtime find our footing as a people. Your children are blessed to have you as their dad. They will take a leaf from your thoughts and convictions. If we fail this country we have ourselves to blame. This country has great prospects we have to make it work. JL Mahlangu

  10. I also hated the Woolworths stunt but I have to say that as a white South African I’m getting rather tired of being told what I feel or think about as much as I am getting told what I should and shouldn’t do.

  11. This is beyond relevant. As a Mpondo girl who grew up in Mthatha I’m really affected by the sainthood bestowed on the late president. My family and many others I know died during and for the struggle. There are many damaged men and women who were involved in the struggle and they don’t have the privileges that other struggles stalwarts have. There are so many injustices we need to address. Thank you for this article. We need to heal our LAND.

  12. How authentic, eloquent and brilliantly articulated, Herman.! Reading your article gave me chills, as you really got to the very heart and core of reality. Thank you for expressing the way the situation is and the privileged way in which us white South Africans were raised, without the awareness of everything that was in fact happening around us.

  13. Thank you for summing up my feelings….I was wondering why I was so disconnected from the recent events. I should have been weeping but my tears were hijacked by the media sensation. So instead of being able to mourn I found myself fighting a rear guard action against cynicism. But this article clarifies why.

    But then I look around and I see so many people involved in weaving together a social fabric that fulfils Madiba’s ideals. I teach and I am privileged to witness the hours of community service that my pupils offer, often without thinking that they are making a difference.

    The tears flow and wash away the cynicism.

    On the day of the funeral our family participated in a toy cycle. It was our way of honouring the legacy and articles such as the one above will inspire us to continue honouring the legacy.

  14. Beautiful read. If only more people thought the way you do. If only more people who think the way you do would come out of the woodwork.

    I smiled when I saw the Woolies video but I wasn’t comfortable. It didn’t feel right. I’m a bit ashamed that I didn’t speak out about it. I should have.

    To Debbie above, it is true that there is growing black middle class and that a lot of black are now living in the suburbs. But it is mistake to think they are removed from rural towns like Qunu. many of our parents still live there and many of these parents are dependent on us for their daily living. We don’t give them money as a gift when we feel like it or at Christmas, we are actively supporting our homes and our families back in the villages and the townships. Our parents did not ‘loan’ us R100000 to pay a deposit for our house or flat. They did not buy us a Polo when we went to university, they did not have an old second hand car to hand down to us either. Most of our first salaries went into doing repairs to the old house in the township that was falling apart. So we are not removed at all, we are very much living in those villages in every way but the physical.

  15. Very touching,
    I must takeoff my hat to the honesty shared here, Prof. Herman Wasserman

    signed off, Mpho Raphahlelo

  16. Totally relate to this. I hope I can cross some of those rivers and make more of an effort to be a more interactive South African person.

  17. Well articulated. The sad thing is that we have ‘progresed’ from racial divide in the apartheid regime to a class divide in the ANC regime. There are many black people (i’m no exception) who exist in an insulated bubble. It’s only when our comfort zones are threatened that we remember that economic freedom is still within the grasp of a minority in this country. To quote a pastor whose teachings I’ve always seemed to find prophetic “One day the tide will rise & our high walls will not be able to keep it out” it’s a sad & scary thought & outlook, but if we do not act radically it will be our reality.

    1. Even better articulated. Again the question begs – what can I do to make a difference? 47 million questions like that an perhaps there us a defining answer to the challenges that lie ahead.

  18. Did you answer your own question! No and why not? If someone as erudite and in touch cannot answer the question posed in the last paragraph then it is a question aimed solely at making you feel better for asking it and shifting the responsibility to some others. I think you think you’ve done your bit by writing this article which was great up to this last bit which is a ‘cop-out’ and an emotional manipulation, like the posts which show a poor animal video and then ask for a donation….

    Perhaps that’s journalism today, just to ask questions and not suggest possible solutions… well the questions are very important of course! But why not give your solution, or will that detract from the question? I’m sure you do have some ideas….

    1. @Clive, well said. As I said in a earlier post, if you and your children just walked the Township and Rural Village streets once a week for a few months, you will find the answer. If, like our media comments we sit back and ask, “What can we do?” for are responsible for the lack of transformation.

      1. Cedric and Clive, your comments are mean spirited and miss the point. Journalists do not provide solutions. Do a little research into the nature of journalism.

        1. Hi Glen, I have researched journalism from the other side of the fence. The question that is posed is posed by journalists as a general comment. My wife and I have walked the streets of the Townships, live as part of a community in a native village, and my response to the question, “If white South Africans walked the streets of the Townships and Rural Villages, you will find the answer”, is of no interest to a journalist.
          “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
          I took the one less traveled by,
          And that has made all the difference.
          Vary few journalists take the road less traveled. Why? As society we avoid this direction, and therefore the reader does not wish to hear about the road less traveled from the journalist.

    2. Clive, this question is far from a “cop-out” and I don’t think it requires a solution to be spelled out on your behalf. Expecting an answer is the cop out.

      I think that the point is that each individual South African needs to ask this question in a deeply honest, reflective way. Perhaps for the author, the answer is writing pieces like this, teaching his children to ask the the same questions. Perhaps for many white South Africans the answer lies in confronting privilege and deeply ingrained ideas of prejudice that are not easy to work through on public platforms where any old troll has a say. It is unlikely, anyhow, that this sort of question will elicit an immediate response of any worth. The question is about reflecting and figuring out the best way, on an individual level, of contributing.

  19. Herman, great article prof. And the last question i believe is directed to all South Africans whether you live in the surburb, township or village. The question is simply, what can I do to contribute to South Africa being a better place for all who live in it? Thina, well put. Clive and Cedric, I dont know what the hack you two are talking about.

  20. I read this article yesterday, I was not gonna coment to it but until just few minutes ago… Having experience wit varkie full of racial hate hey.
    you know I’m so Fuken Pissed by motherfucken White Boer full of racial discrimination.
    From today I so hate every Fucken White individual and I don’t think that gonna change anytime soon.
    After almost Twenty years from so called “Democracy” but today some other white varkie called me a Kaffir. I did not knew what to say to him but I told him that “KAFFIR is jou Ma se puss”

    1. Well, thank you very much, Kheo, now you have dragged a civilized discussion to a level where it can only wallop at the bottom of the pigsty, wit varkies of te nie.

  21. The more things change, the more they remain the same. Reading this article reminded me of post-Obama America, where some suggest racism/discrimination no longer exits since he was elected president.
    There are yet very many rivers to be crossed in South Africa. May the country Madiba envisioned in the ideals he was prepared to die for, continue to rise.

  22. Well articulated I wish people like Steve Hofmeyr can read this article. God knew that people will question colour, each and every person has a purpose. Nelson Mandela’s one was to show us we are the same, we were all born free by the creator why oppress one another. Its up to you how you can contribute to the poor, by offering your time help refurbish schools, donate school uniform around your area, it all start there get involved. Donate money to build community halls, for art, music and other things where kids can find themselves. I think most important show love, a smile can even break anger, a smile can give hope, government will never reach all of us but we can reach one another. God bless you and Merry Christmas to everyone!

  23. Interesting indeed… I appreciate the mature debate that followed this article! These are conversations we need to have as South Africans. The sad reality is that, most white South Africans are not willing to come on board so to solve problems of this country of ours. All they do is complain as if they are playing major role in reconciling with their fellow countrymen! As a black person in this country, you work 10 times harder than a fellow white man who has the same or less qualifications as you and get paid 50 times less than them! As long as most of our fellow white countrymen behave as if nothing is wrong with social responsibility, this country is bound to end up in flames!

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