'Finally we managed to see and hear the father of a nation that had yet to be born'
Richard Ramsden, about Nelson Mandela’s
release from prison on February 11, 1990
Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela
10 May 1994–14 June 1999
The woman behind the online writers' group Imaginary Garden with Real Toads is Kerry, a South African poet, teacher and mother who has taught us many things about writing poetry, and has gently mothered many of us through our growth as poets.
When Nelson Mandela died earlier this month, Kerry was working long, hard hours marking official exams, along with many other teachers. We, her far-flung group of toadlings, were unable to communicate with her until today. It was a strange, even eerie, feeling for me and, I'm sure, for other Real Toads worldwide, to be unable to reach out to Kerry at such a time.
However, she and all the other people working at the marking centre "came together in respect and communal sorrow to offer up prayers in 6 languages, representing 4 religions...the people of a land so long torn apart by unnatural divisions...(and) that we were there, joined in brotherly love, is a direct consequence of Nelson Mandela's life."
Today, Kerry has asked us to write, if we care to, about Nelson Mandela, familiarly known to South Africans as "Mandiba" (his clan name) or "Tata" (father) or "Tata Mandiba".
I was only a year and a half old when the system of apartheid became law in South Africa. I'm sure no one in Canada spoke to me about it at that time, but I'm equally sure my parents must have spoken about it when they thought they were alone.
I was a very inquisitive child, even then, and listened carefully to everything I heard.
I was also sensitive to moods and, I'm sure, to opinions. I certainly grew up with a deep antipathy toward apartheid, toward segregation of any kind, and even, I realized when I first met the people who were to become my brother's in-laws, toward the Dutch...perhaps unreasonable of me to blame the Netherlands for what happened in their former colony.
Although I dropped my negativity toward my sister-in-law's family, I maintained a hard line regarding segregation, and carried, almost unbeknownst to myself, a bitterness toward white South Africans, even after Nelson Mandela's release from prison in 1990.
As it happened, I was living in a very small town in south-central British Columbia in the early 1990s. I was on a disability pension and visited the local medical clinic quite regularly. I had a nice Irish-born doctor who, for reasons I've now forgotten, moved away, and I was transferred to the new doctor, a white South African.
"No," I declared. I was at my most charming, obviously. "I won't. I don't believe in white South Africans."
(Apologies, at this juncture in 2013, to my South African friends: Kerry, Jo, Jo's husband Grant, and Jo's brother Phillip.)
Fortunately, for the good of my soul and my digestion, I had long since learned to forgive some of the white people from some of the southern US states, because progress had earlier been made with regard to American segregation policies, and only once had I thrown someone out my door for calling Martin Luther King "that nigger"!
Back to the small-town medical clinic in the 1990s...
"What," said the nurse, "do you mean? How can you not believe in white South Africans?" in a tone of voice suggesting I had lost most, if not all, of my marbles.
So I saw the new doctor, and let him see me. He was wonderful. He was young, kind, considerate, gentle, friendly, and asked my advice about writing because he enjoyed writing and wanted to try it in English, which wasn't his first language. He listened to my opinions, and took my chronic pain seriously. I absolutely adored him until he moved to New York to become a radiologist, because they enjoy regular working hours.
Meanwhile, far, far from that small BC town, Nelson Mandela had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize together with F.W. de Klerk, for bringing about the end of apartheid.
Mandela also received the Order of Canada and was the first living person to be granted honorary Canadian citizenship.
Awards and honors from many other countries were bestowed upon him, and it was becoming obvious, even to that little girl who still resided deep in my heart, that Nelson Mandela, Tata Mandiba of South Africa, no longer needed my help.