Remembering Nelson Mandela


Last year during my fall semester at the University of Toronto, I worked as a research intern at the Hannan-Crusaid HIV Treatment Centre in the Township of Gugulethu, Cape Town, South Africa. The Centre was established in 2002 by the Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation (DTHF) in partnership with the Western Cape Provincial Health authorities. As I think back to my experience from a year ago, I can’t help but want to share my thoughts to remind us all of the legacy of Nelson Mandela. The piece was written the evening after the death of Nelson Mandela on December 5, 2013. 

Grand Parade celebrating the life of Nelson Mandela © Mina Kazemi
Grand Parade celebrating the life of Nelson Mandela © Mina Kazemi

Rest In Peace Nelson Mandela

It was a sad awakening this morning as the whole world felt the loss of Nelson Mandela. For South Africans, it felt as though they had lost a father. Hugs were given openly: to Alice who cleans the house, to the taxi driver, to my colleagues at work, in order to say I am sorry for our loss.

While working at the clinic in the Gugulethu Township, patients, doctors, nurses, and counsellors all came together at noon to mourn the loss of the Father of South Africa. We sang the National Anthem, which in my opinion is the most moving anthem I have ever heard. With 5 parts, in 5 different national languages, it captures the sense of spirit, determination and struggle that was required to build the country into what it is today. It is sung with such passion every single time because the people who sing it lived through the pain and the long walk to achieving pride in being South African.  Prayers were sung together and some people spoke.  My eyes were fixated on a fragile woman, maybe in her 70s. The way she broke down into tears magnified her fragility. As she passed by me, I put out a hand thinking I would somehow absorb some of her grieving sentiment. She sat by the wall to gain support and crumbled into tears.

That day, we lost a man who was a hero to the ordinary South African. It was Mandela’s courage, conviction and compassion that gave ordinary South Africans hope for the future of their nation. My colleague, Bongi described this to me. She said it was he who has brought us together, to be able to work side by side. She squeezed my hand and smiled. And that is what we did for the rest of the workday, Bongi, Kholiswa and I sat close together and worked and sang and worked some more. At one moment, I was standing up to learn a celebration dance from the Eastern Cape, where Bongi and Kholiswa and Mandela are from. I felt so close to my colleagues today. Maybe because I was counting my blessings and feeling so appreciative that the man who died today led a fight to allow for the formation of these connections between people of different backgrounds and that he revealed the absolute necessity of such relationships.

By 5pm, my friends and I congregated in town, piled onto the train and were on our way to Mandela’s memorial. It was held at the Cape Town Grand Parade where Nelson Mandela made his first public address after 27 years in prison. Words of reflection and thanks were spoken by representatives of the church, synagogue, and mosque, and the leaders of the Khoisan and Xhosa people. Rallied by the speakers, the crowd threw fists into the air and shouted “Viva Mandela!”

In contrast to the solemn mood of the memorial service, a rhythm of song and chants was mustering off to the side. We walked over to see what was going on. Black South Africans with others joining in were building up a roar of song and dance– beautiful and powerful voices synchronized together with movements coordinated in unison. Despite the deep loss, joy, pride and dignity emanated from the group—refiguring the gathering into a celebration of a life that had influenced and transformed many other lives for the better.

Let us celebrate Mandela’s life and allow his legacy and ideals to live on for eternity. Siyakukhumbula Tata Madiba! We will miss you Father Madiba! May you rest in peace.

A national mourning period was observed in South Africa over the 10 days following his death. Now a year later, we need to remember that his ideals are ours to realize and that the struggle for human rights for the people of South Africa is not yet over. He wrote, “After climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb.”