By Anelia Varela
Nelson who? Until Nelson Mandela was released from prison, I had no idea who he was.
Google tells me it was a Sunday in February 1990: the week before my twelfth birthday.
I didn’t watch the live broadcast of him and Winnie walking down that street with their fists in the air. If I remember the scene as vividly as if I were there, it’s only thanks to years of reruns.
Who knows what I was doing that day. Maybe I was in my bedroom in my pretty hometown of Knysna, writing diary entries about my latest crush – Charl, Albertus, Louw, whoever it was that week. Or maybe I was recording the Top 40 hit parade onto blank cassette tapes, finger poised to hit Pause at just the right moment. You know, normal things that normal eleven-year-olds did. Normal, white eleven-year-olds.
We lived our lives without asking questions, blinkered by youth and censorship and small-town seclusion. It was just the way it was.
And then Mandela was released and soon we all knew who he was. And the way it was became a better way.
But still, I left. Five years after the first democratic election, I got on a plane to London, armed with a UK working holiday visa at a time when the world opened up to us in a way it never had before. I would never go back, not to live.
In London pubs, conversation often turned to Mandela when I revealed my national identity. “You’re South African? I met Nelson Mandela once.”
And they would launch into their Mandela story, keen to make a connection, to show they understood, to find some common ground.
One Brit remembered going to the Nelson Mandela tribute concert at Wembley Stadium; how he cried with the rest of the crowd when The Man Himself came on stage at the end. Another friend told me how she’d walked many miles as a teenager when she found out Mandela was visiting a nearby town, and how she stood waiting for hours just to catch a glimpse of him. I smiled at their stories, nodding, wowing and oh-really-ing in all the right places. But every Mandela story in every pub made me nervous, because I knew there’d be a pause at the end when the friend or the colleague or the random drunk would wait for me to respond with some or other life-changing story of my own. I was the South African, after all. But I didn’t have a Mandela story. And it made me feel like a fraud; like a second-class South African citizen.
It was even worse when he died. Having a Mandela story became a badge of honour to be displayed on TV and on the radio. By then I was living in New York and, like many other expats, I made a pilgrimage to Madiba restaurant in Brooklyn that night, wanting to mourn among my own. And there, outside the restaurant, white and black and brown South Africans flashed their badges for the cameras, their pithy soundbites immortalised as part of Mandela’s legacy on the local news. When they ran out of South Africans, the reporters turned to American bystanders who were keen to have their two minutes of fame.
I avoided the reporters, afraid of being exposed as the only South African in New York – or, seemingly, the world – who hadn’t had some kind of personal connection with Mandela. And now here I am, having to write an essay for the Mandela issue of i-jusi. And I have to put up my hands and say, I’m sorry. I just don’t have a Mandela story. I was too busy recording the Top 40 hit parade.
Ijusi Magazine issue #29, themed: The Mandela issue