A world without Mandela, but a lifetime of hope for all of us
IT WAS from Twitter that I first realised the time had probably come.
Reports of family members gathering at Madiba’s home in Houghton, Johannesburg, became more persistent as the night grew long and dark on Thursday, and I fell into a fitful sleep, fearing what lay in wait when I woke.
Yesterday morning, just after five, with three children already up and primed for an attack on the day ahead, Shihaam roused me with the words the world had hoped to never hear: “Madiba has died.”
I felt like turning over and going back to sleep for a long, long time, putting off the need to contemplate a world without Nelson Mandela. Yes, he had long ago retired from public life, and been in ill health for a while, but the finality of his passing was still a hammer blow. And it was one I would prefer to have received while back at home, rather than thousands of kilometres away in Qatar. But death doesn’t always take distance, or compassion, into account before striking.
As I struggled to pull myself out of bed, I remembered an exchange with a couple of my Egyptian col- leagues a few months ago, during the period that Madiba was spending periods of time in hospital.
At a gathering at my house, the talk turned to the strife in Egypt and the protests in their homeland, which had culminated in the removal of Mohamed Mursi as president. Mahmoud, who has been in Qatar for almost two years, but whose family still lives in Cairo, told me: “Ridwaan, right now, Egypt is divided. To bring us together, we need to find our own Mandela.”
I wanted to tell Mahmoud and his fellow Egyptians, indeed everyone present, that Mandela was unique, that there would never be another like him. Instead, I smiled and agreed, and said that Egypt would hopefully find their own great nation builder. One who, like Mandela, understood that in the aftermath of a revolution, there needed to be a country to govern.
“And today is Mandela’s birthday, and he is in hospital,” said Mahmoud. “How old is he?”
“He is 95,” I replied. Madiba did not live to see 96, like we had all hoped. But what he did do was give us enough hope to last a lifetime. But it’s up to us, in South Africa, Egypt, Qatar and throughout the world, to turn that hope into reality, to carry on his legacy. Perhaps, collectively, humanity can rise to the challenge of the example he set.
As I finally gathered the strength to face the day, and days ahead, I ran into Aqeel. Or, rather, he ran into me – literally. “Aqeel, slowly my boy. Come and sit down. I want to talk to you.”
At the age of six, and having left South Africa at 4, Aqeel naturally has a better grasp of his roots than Saabirah, his three-year-old sister, or Yaqeen, his one-year-old brother. “Aqeel, did mom speak to you about Nelson Mandela?”
He sat quietly, and replied: “Yes, she said he died last night. He was 95, very old, and was sick for a long time. Nothing bad happened to him. He was just very old.”
I nodded. “And do you remember what we told you about him? About everything that he did for South Africa? About how he helped us understand what was right, and what was wrong, and how everyone should live together peacefully and act fairly?”
This time, it was Aqeel’s turn to nod. “I remember. But dad, who is going to show us what’s right, now that he’s dead?”
All I wanted to do was crawl back into bed again. But I knew the question would still be there when I woke up, and that it would not be only on Aqeel’s mind.
“We all know what’s right, Aqeel, we just have to make sure we do it. Sometimes it’s not easy, but it’s always worth the effort. And we can all help each other.”
That last bit seemed to be what he was looking for. And why not, none of us is going to be able to emulate Madiba on our own. But together, perhaps we can come close.
Follow Bawa on Twitter @ridwaanbawa