Nelson Mandela certainly proved wrong the old saying about the good dying young.* We have had the privilege of watching one of the world’s most impressive human beings grow old and reach a ripe age. It’s not often that a leader inspires the world as Mandela did in his prime. That he continued to do so for many years after his retirement was a tremendous bonus for us all.
During these days of mourning, people all over the world are remembering Madiba, calling him by the Xhosa clan name that was his nickname. A recent gathering I attended featured a screening of that wonderful video of Madiba’s walk-on – or rather dance-on – to the stage in the middle of a Johnny Clegg concert. This clip has been picked up by Top 10 Madiba Moments curators, with YouTube views soaring after his death.
See Mandela walk onstage and dance 2:45 minutes into this video of a 1999 Johnny Clegg concert in Paris.
Spry at 81, Madiba just wanted to dance along to one of his favourite struggle songs. Zulu for “we haven’t seen him”, Asimbonanga is a reference to the apartheid government’s ban not only on the words of the African National Congress leader, but also his image. When Clegg asked if he wanted to say something to the audience Madiba took the microphone and – apparently off the cuff – said those memorable words about his life passions.
It is music and dancing that makes me at peace with the world – and at peace with myself. – Nelson Mandela
Madiba’s dancing days were ended by his health problems, caused by the TB he contracted in the notorious Robben Island prison. He reveals in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, that conditions improved over the years from the time he was first jailed, when prisoners spent all day breaking rocks in a quarry. During the last year of his imprisonment Madiba was moved to a prison guard’s house on the grounds of Victor Verster Prison in the Cape winelands, a venue seen as more suitable for meetings with apartheid government leaders as they prepared to release him.
I have always been intrigued by the home that Madiba chose to build for his retirement. He could have had any architect in the world design him any house his heart desired, but he chose to create an exact replica of the place where he was last imprisoned.
My New Old Self understands what Madiba may have been thinking, and feeling, in a way that My Old Young Self never could. The older you get the more you appreciate familiar surroundings. The less you feel like negotiating change, even on a spatial level. There is comfort in knowing the lie of the land that surrounds us, the floor plan of the house or flat we live in. Madiba explained that he didn’t want to “have to wander at night looking for the kitchen”.
Elderly people are often exhorted to move out of the homes they have lived in for decades into something called a Lock-up-and-go. Talk about moving out of your comfort zone. Worse yet, being forced to do it. If and when I ever consider downsizing due to concerns around aging, I hope the painful decision is not made for me.
Madiba must have grown attached to that house where he spent the most important transitional period of his life. It offered basic physical comforts he had so long been denied, like a bedroom, kitchen and bathroom, and a garden. Though he was still confined, there were no bars on the windows. That house served as the Departure Lounge before his journey out of jail and back into the world.
From this interim haven Madiba was thrown into the maelstrom of the post-apartheid power struggle. Freedom must have been exhilarating but tiring for the 71-year-old. Averting a bloodbath while charting a course to the New South Africa was hard work. His achievement was neither total triumph nor capitulation, but he did capitulate to age and announced he would serve only one term as South Africa’s president. (Would that such humility and restraint was emulated by those in power today.) When he left office nearly 10 years after he left jail, he must have been looking forward to enjoying the last phase of his life on his own terms. For himself finally, not for the nation or for the world. In his own house.
Madiba owned a home in Houghton, one of the leafiest suburbs of the most treed city in the world, Johannesburg. Yet his favourite home was the one he built in the Transkei countryside to suit his wish for familiarity as he aged. Like South Africa’s current president, Madiba chose to build his private house in his home village, where he grew up in a traditional African culture.
Sadly, Madiba never returned to his rural home after he fell ill for the last time. In the middle of this year he was admitted to a hospital in the city of Pretoria. Reporters camped outside while inside his family quarrelled about his care and legacy. And all over the country, and the world, there was speculation about his health. Could he still speak? Was he being kept alive? Was there really a plan to prevent him from dying – or at least word of it getting out – during Obama’s state visit to South Africa?
When Madiba finally left the hospital nearly 3 months later, we knew he was not recovering but had been sent home to die. Not to his beloved Transkei home but to the one in Johannesburg. He was without the familiarity he had cherished, surrounded instead by medical apparatus. As the months wore on we worried that this man of such great dignity was being denied a dignified death. Thus the sadness of his passing came with a sense of relief that he can now be sent off with dignity and love.
I am pleased that Madiba made himself a home that offered him privacy, comfort and familiarity. And that his final resting place will be, as per his wishes in his home village, near the house he built. But our memories are of the public Madiba, away from home, out in the world. My strongest memory is of Madiba on the move. Dancing, of course. And walking.
For me one of his finest moments came with his decision about his release from prison. A powerful scene from the Long Walk to Freedom film shows Madiba vetoing the plan of South Africa’s last white president that the world’s most famous political prisoner be flown directly from jail to Pretoria to address the nation from the Union Buildings.
“No,” is (Idris Elba as) Madiba’s firm reply. “I will walk out.” He decided that his long walk to freedom should culminate in walking through the prison doors and into the street. So the freedom fighter strolled out of the oppressor’s jail into the arms of his people, clamouring to see his face for the first time in 30 years. An inspired move from an inspiring man.
See Mandela’s first steps at the start of this video, then more of him walking 1:30 into the clip. Also his first words to the world from Cape Town City Hall – note on Mandela’s left is the man President Zuma wants to succeed him in 2019, Cyril Ramaphosa.
*The notion of the good dying young can be traced back to a parable from the Greek historian Herodotus in 445 B.C. A mother appeals to the goddess Hera to reward her sons’ devotion to her, only to see the youths lie down to sleep and never reawaken. In 1814 William Wordsworth used a similar phrase in his poem The Excursion: “The good die first / And they whose hearts are dry as summer dust burn / Burn to the socket”. Thanks to The Phrase Finder for confirming that “only the good die young” was not coined by pop star Billy Joel in his 1977 song.