Remembering Madiba

I couldn’t take my eyes off the blonde woman in the pink sweater, as she swayed to and fro with a tender smile on her face, singing to the cute little black girl she held in her arms. In the midst of a huge crowd, she was oblivious to the cameras as she sang, “Nelson Mandela, Nelson Mandela” in tribute to one of the greatest human beings our world has ever seen.

This was CNN’s coverage, live from Johannesburg, South Africa on Thursday, December 5, minutes after the announcement that the beloved leader had passed. At 1am South Africa time, while my father-in-law drove to Mandela’s home and joined the crowds gathered to celebrate this exceptional man, I was watching from the floor of my bedroom, thousands of miles away in California.

And as I continued to watch CNN over the next few days, and read the tweets from media in the US, South Africa, Israel, as I refreshed my Facebook feed and liked friends’ status updates when they changed their profile pictures to smiling faces of Madiba, paid him their respects, shared their favorite Mandela quotes and tribute videos, I realized how far away from South Africa, from Mandela’s South Africa, I really was.

I think of myself as a small-town girl, from Pretoria. In truth, Pretoria is a big city. Thirty miles north of Johannesburg, it’s the national capital, home to the Union Buildings where presidents, including Mandela, are inaugurated and where most government business is conducted. A couple million people live in Pretoria. It has its own university – the University of Pretoria – and its own rugby team – the Blue Bulls. Theaters, schools, shopping centers, restaurants, green leafy suburbs, a bustling central business district, hospitals. There is nothing small-town about it.

Except in the way I grew up – white, Jewish, privileged, sheltered.

My world – and the world of most of the Jewish families living in Pretoria in the eighties – was limited both physically and socially to the suburbs surrounding our Jewish day school and synagogue, with weekend drives to nearby Johannesburg and the Vaal River. Pretty small-town.

Pretoria’s Jewish community was, and still is, largely comprised of anti-apartheid Jews, many of whom were the children and grandchildren of Holocaust and World War 2 survivors – if not survivors themselves – who had emigrated to South Africa from Lithuania, Russia, Germany, Poland. Well-versed in what it means to be discriminated against, oppressed, hated. They were not supportive of a government that perpetuated the same abhorrent schisms.

Fewer Jews settled in Pretoria than in Jo’burg, and the community I grew up in was tight-knit and protective. Seen through my young eyes, it was idyllic despite the apartheid happening around me.

Most white kids growing up in South Africa in the eighties understood apartheid – perhaps not in detail, but we all had a strong sense of the segregation, discrimination and oppression happening around us. It was a part of our lives: our housekeepers were mandated to carry identity passbooks with them wherever they went – if they were questioned by police and didn’t have their passbook they were arrested. There were green buses for white people and red buses for black people. Park benches and public toilets had signs bolted on: “Net Blanke – Only Whites” (in Afrikaans and English, not in any other language). The economic and social divide between blacks and whites was enormous, gaping, seemingly unbridgeable.

Some of us knew better than others who Nelson Mandela was, and why he had been in prison on Robben Island for over two decades. For me, a fifth grader in a small Jewish day school in Pretoria, Mandela represented all those millions of people who didn’t have what I had, who couldn’t do what I could. But to my sheltered, young self he was elusive, a name and a face standing for the struggle of the oppressed.

As I moved through high school, the more mature me began to properly understand the tension of the country we were living in. While I’d never known anything other than apartheid, I started to long for the injustice to end. F.W. De Klerk was now president and with the dawn of a new decade, Nelson Mandela was released.

My sheltered world opened up a little. Our high school drama club staged an award-winning play written by our English teacher called The Non-Musical Human Rights Take it or Leave it Children-of-the-Rainbow Part 2. It poignantly tackled themes of censorship, oppression, human rights and ultimately the creation of a “Rainbow Nation.” I was 15-years-old – I had never really thought about any of this before, even though it was what I grew up with.

The arts in South Africa vibrantly exploded when Mandela walked free. The Rainbow Nation he was creating found true expression in living color on stage, in writings, TV, paintings, comedy shows, music – all reflecting the euphoria we could feel in the land. It was a time of hope and possibility. Mandela’s smiling face was everywhere – he amazingly harbored no grudge, no blame, he was committed to moving forward, to replacing the hate and segregation with love and reconciliation. That gaping divide was already smaller.

I was in my final year of university when I voted in South Africa’s first democratic election. I stood in line with my sister outside the Great Hall at Rhodes University, together with all the men and women that cleaned and maintained those beautiful old buildings, that cooked for us and joked with us when they served our food, or swept out the lecture halls after class. I can’t even begin to imagine what they thought and felt about finally having basic human rights returned to them, but I was overwhelmed with gratitude that it was happening, and that I was there.


My most vivid memory of a unified, free South Africa is watching the Springboks win the rugby world cup in 1995. Nothing short of spectacular! For me, that victory epitomized what Madiba had achieved for the country – using a national sport historically played by white Afrikaners, loved by the very people who tried to keep him silent and locked away, to build a bridge across a gaping divide. Mandela wearing the Springbok colors of green and gold with that smile that lights up the world is a powerful reminder of his belief that if people can learn to hate “they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

I never really lived in Mandela’s South Africa. I left four years after that election. I was barely a part of the rainbow nation. I sit in my car outside the supermarket in Oakland, watching the Soweto Choir in Woolworths sing the sweetest, most moving tribute to their Tata Madiba, on YouTube, with tears in my eyes and a smile on my face, and I feel very, very far away.

My daughter takes the photograph of her father shaking Mandela’s hand up to her room, just to look at it for a little while. And even though I am far away, I am South African, and I am humbled by the magnitude of the legacy of this tremendous human being, and so grateful for his tireless struggle for a better, equal life for all South Africans and for humankind.

“For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” -Nelson Mandela, The Long Walk to Freedom

About the Author
Nicki Gilbert, South African by chance and Californian by choice, lives in the California Bay Area with her husband, four kids and Pretzel, the dachshund. She has worked in theater, marketing, and event planning, and is now a full-time barely-at-home mom, writer, avid reader, country music lover and wannabe surf diva.