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A Poem for Nelson Mandela

A bird cries

A perfect morning of blue skies it

must have heard the death announcement too.

The sadness transcends borders and time zones.

Before the fear takes over and before rhetoric reigns.

Before cynicism steals in and

before the battle for legacy…

There is only him.

The birds gossip loudly to each other. They know

that he is no longer with us –

Our Purveyor of Forgiveness,

the reason for the tears in the eyes of

a rainbow of faces.

Our messianic non-saint,

with a hand in the air,

clenched or open, may Freedom always reign high.

Our Promoter of Peace, may you rest as you have lived.


<p>Author <a href=”https://plus.google.com/102128103971030481396” target=”blank” rel=”author”>Jerome Cornelius</a></p>

Mandela, Nelson

I write this piece on 28 June 2013, with Mandela in ailing health, and the impending visit from Barack Obama to our fair shores.

I write most of my posts ahead of time, but this one felt most appropriate, given the current situation, and climate. This is my personal tribute.

I wrote this post ahead of time to avoid the emotional outpourings that will undoubtedly follow by many others. I struggled with the title. Words failed me, and simplicity won. It felt right to leave it as open invitation to simply remember him as who he was.

I do, however, find it so sad that we couldn’t let go sooner. Endless prayers for Madiba to make it through are, understandably expected, but wouldn’t a better plea be for one of peace for him and his family? I wouldn’t expect anyone to pray for someone to die, but rather for someone to pass peacefully, and not be in any more pain.

As potentially cruel as this may sound, I think that, while the mourning process should occur, we should also be grateful that we saw it coming. From the point of view of national pride, we had a leader who was there for us for most of his life. He dedicated himself to service and giving to others. He was not taken away before he could see his vision come to fruition, nor did he pass unexpectedly. We have a lot of growing up to do, and growing pains are inevitable. As a nation, we have a long way to go, but we are also not as bad as our detractors make of us. But for this solid foundation, we have no further to look than one man, one of many, who fought hard for freedom.

He belonged to all of us, and we all had a vested interest in this larger than life person who, in theory, saved us all from a story that could have turned out differently for everyone.  He belonged to the ANC, to the Mandela family, and to the nation of South Africa, the continent of Africa, and also the world. We were selfish in holding on to him so voraciously, but he was ours.

I have never met him, and a friend pointed out a stark reminder that I never will.  This may be an obvious point, but for someone who seemed so relatable, he always seemed within reach.

South Africa appears to be divided by not only racial and economic lines, but also lines of experience. This has become apparent as we reach this chapter in our story. I was born in 1985, so my story is different from older people who remember events starkly, and the so-called ‘Born Frees’ (born after 1994). Learning about what had happened in my year of birth, and onwards, really shocked me – state of emergency, negotiations, assassinations and a move to democracy were all foreign to me at the time. I remember one day in 1994, being told by my parents to stay in the house with my sister and not dare leave.  Police vans were everywhere. I figured out what an election was, and voting seemed relatively comprehensible, but the enormity of what this day meant for my country, and the world, went over my head.

So much has been said and done in the last couple of weeks – political wrangling and campaigning on the back of a man who has done so much for so many. I, frankly, have been ill at the way that he has been exploited.

I also always found it strange the way in which many have made a demagogue of Madiba. I think he would be the first to admit that he is not perfect, and an ordinary human being who should not be seen above others.

However, even more strange growing up and hearing increasingly politicised conversations; I was interested that many people did not feel the same way about him. Many took the opportunity to knock him and say that he pandered to white and foreign investments, and was too passive in the early days of democracy. I have heard comparisons to Steve Biko and Chris Hani, amongst others, who they felt were better thinkers and revolutionaries. This may be true, but to whom? And why? How could things have been better, and what is the point in imagining that now?

Nelson Mandela paid his dues. No one asked him to be dignified and seek peace. He did what he thought was best for everyone. He set an incomparable standard for generations of people. He handed over the golden key to a nation. He fought long and hard.

So what have we done?

We allowed a great man to fight for us well into his age. We couldn’t leave him alone. Even I, who was opposed to his being in the spotlight in his old age, could not help but join every debate about him. WE could not let him go. WE did not want to.

And understandably so.

No one could understand what he was thinking in his last days, even years. What I do know is that despite everything that has happened, the world is a better place with another great to look to. He joins the ranks of those who will remain in history as an agent of change and empathy, a conveyor of love and peace and a symbol of enduring strength and compassion.

I hope that that person does not get lost amidst the mire, and that he is remembered as such, by all.

Rest in peace, Tata.

So where to from here? Now that he has left us, I hope that it will serve as a reminder to live better and follow the basic tenets of respect. All the quotes from him being passed around social media sites will hopefully keep the teachings of Mandela alive, the way he would have wanted. In a time when being a South African is not always that much to be proud of, let’s remember one man who paved the way for our pride, and get back to that feeling.   

Below is a poem that I thought was fitting, by my film teacher, Shelley Barry, who met Nelson Mandela. She was the Media Manager in the Office on the Status of Disabled Persons in the Presidency and as the National Parliamentary Policy Co-ordinator for Disabled People South Africa. During this time she co-ordinated his guard of honour for his State of the Nation address in 1997.

Madiba’s hand

your touch

silences me

a presence unlike anything

i have ever felt or known

entranced by the heat of your hand

i barely hear your questions

this child of yours

is rocked to peace

your great hand

swallows mine

Madiba’s hand

the same hand

that wiped your tears/

ploughed a limestone quarry/

threw dust on the graves of comrades/

moulded freedom

as your hand moves on to others

i am still lost

lost somewhere

in the stretch of your palm

from the travelling poet by Shelley Barry (2011)

Published by British Council South Africa



<p>Author <a href=”https://plus.google.com/102128103971030481396” target=”blank” rel=”author”>Jerome Cornelius</a></p>

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