A few weeks earlier my roommate and I had gone to see Donald Woods, the prominent former South African journalist who had to flee the country with his family for speaking out so forcibly against apartheid, speak on campus and we met him. My roommate asked him, "What do you think will happen if Nelson Mandela dies in prison?"
Woods, though, was adamant that would not happen. That the government would not let it happen. But I don't think we believed him. To us the idea of Mandela going free, being free, was just unthinkable. It seemed he would be a prisoner forever, that this was a wrong that could never be righted.
Then came February 11, 1990. In those early morning hours. Those images on the TV screen. That proud, thin black man with white hair and a weary smile, emerging from darkness. Unreal.
I was an English major. Writing was all I did then; articles for the school's daily newspaper, commentaries, short stories, poems, even a one-act play. So I got up from the TV, after witnessing this staggering event, and I wrote.
This is what I wrote:
February 11, 1990
Remove the chain running heart to fist
Break the light with a silent shadow.
All you’ve known forever
Now, time is what you breathe,
Face the season-burnt country
so long your longing,
wasted by earth-scorched tears
running rivers through the fire of your soul.
The change you only dreamed
is before you now, screaming.
Sweeping a mournful hand
across the dust of shattered bones and dreams.
Biko is gone.
Botha is gone.
Sobukwe is gone..
They all turn mixed eyes to you.
Ready to create.
New friends – new enemies.
New vision – new blindness.
New triumphs – new tragedies.
But more than all,
Mandela's death yesterday really couldn't have come as a shock to many. He was 95, he'd been sick. But watching more images on TV last night, those of people holding signs outside his house, shouting their appreciation with even a sense of joy for all he was able to do, put me in mind of this:
This is the way the great man deserved to pass on. Not violently and young like King, without ever getting to see the true results of his heroism. Not locked away in some horrible prison, as we thought he would remain forever all those years ago. But like this. Safe. Old. Surrounded by people who loved and cared for him, and with an entire country celebrating him outside, a country he had saved. That he had lived to save, to see change before his very eyes, to see his wildest dreams realized.
It's hard to imagine anyone being more deserving of the gift of long life, of old age, more than the man they called Tata. Or "Father."
This is a music blog, I know. So here is some music. The first a stunningly beautiful song that was the theme song to the not-quite-but-nearly-great movie about Steven Biko and Donald Woods from 1987, Cry Freedom. This played during the film's closing credits and it caused me to go out and buy the movie soundtrack within just a few days. (It was nominated for an Oscar for Best Song that year. It lost out to "I've Had The Time Of My Life." I have nothing at all to say about that.)
Anyway, that's the first song. The second is one of defiance and protest from the same year, which became a hit and at the time became a rallying cry. One whose demand seemed, again, impossible when it was released. But it wasn't. Nelson Mandela proved capable of the impossible.
Rest in Peace, Tata.