To Come Back from Qunu

Herman Wasserman, at the site of the funeral of postapartheid South Africa's founder, Nelson Mandela, contemplates Mandela's legacy for his children.

Qunu, Transkei in South Africa's Eastern Cape Province (Photo: Herman Wasserman).

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.

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