Friday, 6 December 2013

Thank you, Nelson

When I was 16 I went to South Africa on an educational trip and spent two weeks exploring the culture, mingling with local youngsters - both human and animal - and learning how fortunate I am to have been born into such a privileged community.

In the lead up to the trip, and in an effort to prove to my co-travelers just how committed - not to mention educated - I was, I sauntered off to the library, checked out Nelson Mandela's autobiographical epos, and immersed myself in the story of his legendary life for the next few weeks.

A few months ago I published a post about heroes. Nelson Mandela, I can tell you now, was one of my first.

In my naive teenage eyes, Nelson had all the makings of a truly cool idol. An ethnic minority, a contested freedom fighter, one of those rare politicians who was popular in office and subsequently proved able to withstand the test of time, obviously a joker with a fine sense of humour and an appreciation for music, art and sport, but also a fierce freedom fighter and trained lawyer against whom you'd unlikely want to stand.

History books taught me that he is the Rainbow Nation's grandfather. I remember disagreeing. In my eyes he was everyone’s grandfather.

When our itinerary took us to Robben Island, I remember sobbing at the sight of his cell; his cubic cage for almost two decades.

Perhaps pubescent hormones had something to do with my tears, but I do remember feeling a deep-rooted grief in the pit of my belly. How can you lock up someone for such along time solely for expressing his beliefs, for fighting for democracy, for being black?

I wrote to Nelson a few times too, digging up various addresses from websites and agencies and once I got a reply. I remember my heart leaping into my mouth when I saw Pretoria as the return address on the back of the envelope. Inside was a photograph of the man himself, an autograph scrawled across his already then frail chest.

I bought a wooden frame for the shot, mounting it on my bedroom wall and boasting about it to anyone who would listen. Like a messiah, he'd look over me with those glassy eyes as I did my homework, read trashy magazines, gossiped with girlfriends and suffered teenage woes.

When I graduated from school and stumbled into my first bout of eating disorders, I propped the photograph on the table next to my bed at the hospital, scoffing internally when people asked why.

He was whatever I wanted him to be. A godfather, a mentor, a guardian, a hero and most importantly, he was mine.

I went off to university, leaving the photograph behind, but Nelson still crept back into my life every now and then.

I bought a copy of his autobiography in a charity shop and would reread chapters sporadically - recognising their significance to so many different aspects of my life - as a runner, a student, a human.

That book was also one of the few that travelled with me when I moved to Berlin, and later to Frankfurt and London. It was a staple in the way that Great Expectation and even the Oxford English Dictionary never was.

Recently I was trying to decide what to write in someone's birthday card and stumbled across some of Nelson's quotes while surfing the internet. 

"It always seems impossible until it's done," applies to everything from completing any half marathon I've ever mastered to ending my last relationship. Nelson knows.

And as I embark on training for my first full marathon in spring next year, his words seem more relevant than ever.

I found out about his passing through the New York Times website late last night.

I'd always wondered whether I'd cry when he died, but I didn't. I got that sinking sensation in my chest that you get when you realise you've come shopping without your wallet or locked yourself out of your flat without a key, but it wasn't grief.

I read the obituary and then felt an overwhelming sense of relief that Madiba - as his countrymen affectionately call him - has finally been given peace. 

He'll always be a hero in my eyes - and a cool one at that - and I hope that teenage girls continue to read about him, look up to him and learn from him.

His resolve to change the world was one of his most admirable assets but perhaps more so, was his ability to forgive and bear no grudges for the hardship the world had challenged him with. 

Let's not forget about Madiba. Neither as athletes, nor as humans.

Thank you, Nelson. 
(Image courtesy

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