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Jakarta Post

Tears for Nelson Mandela: A personal story

  • Nirmala Nair

    The Jakarta Post

Bali   /   Tue, December 10, 2013   /  11:05 am

The last three decades of my life have been intricately woven with Nelson Mandela and South Africa.

When the announcement to release Mandela from Robben Island came, I was in the Netherlands. I was living with my boyfriend who came from Cape Town. As an Indian, in those days, our passports proudly stated, in bold letters: '€œValid for all countries except the Republic of South Africa'€.

The Indian government had given political asylum to members of the African National Congress (ANC). We had a diplomatic relationship with the ANC and boycotted the ruling apartheid government during those years.

So, it was both politically and personally a big day for me to watch the news on Feb. 11, 1990. In a strange way, Mandela'€™s release gave me the courage to take the plunge to brave South Africa. My boyfriend had by then left the Netherlands and was back in Cape Town.

He told me there was no way we could have a future together if I expected him to come to India. He had waited for this moment '€” of Mandela'€™s release and the unraveling of apartheid, as had all politically involved young people.

I also knew, as an Indian, it was not going to be easy for me to live in a white-ruled South Africa, even if my boyfriend was closer to the anti-apartheid movement. I had heard shocking stories of what the state did to bust up mixed-race couples.

So, when I arrived in Cape Town at the end of 1992, negotiations were already raging. And Mandela was already well on his way to shaping the destiny of a country that had been torn apart by its racial conflict.

I attended the first democratic elections to support my now-husband with our 5-month-old child. It was a great moment of victory for me.

I felt Mandela had not only united disparate South Africans, but I myself felt very proud to be part of a new generation of multiracial families raising mixed-race children who would symbolically become the generation of a new nation of freedom.

But my idealism and symbolic hopes of treading through the deep and murky waters of multiracial life started to wane pretty soon.

Integrating multiracialism into personal terrain did not come easy in South Africa, however, particularly for white South Africans who continued to cling to their ideas of cultural hegemony, especially in cities like Cape Town.

My husband'€™s elite family '€” so-called '€œprogressives'€ '€” opposed me from day one. They made life difficult for my children and me. Even my husband'€™s political interest in multiracialism began to wane once he had capitalized on all the kudos from such personal journey. He did not have the courage to stand up against his parents and their continuous manipulations.

Eventually, I had to quit South Africa and the marriage '€” a place that took me deeper in my journey toward discovering parts of myself that I never would have had it not been for a life of turmoil mixed with equally ecstatic moments of love and a sense of connection to a place that gifted me a family and opened the doors to healing the woundedness that seemed to afflict the beautiful people of this country. It is a restless country, even more saddened now by the departure of Mandela.

I remember reading The Long Walk to Freedom with a strange, sad feeling. I felt, no, Mandela is not free; he was shackled in prison and now he is shackled by the collective wounds of his people, which have continued to fester and sabotage the struggle for unification.

I truly believe that his long walk to freedom finally happened on Friday. A great soul has been freed.

When I left Cape Town early this year, I was heavy-hearted. I feel now as though the 20 years of my life in South Africa is being released me.

It is ironic that I read the news of Mandela'€™s death in Bali, while my child, who was born 20 years ago and who witnessed South Africa'€™s first democratic election as an infant, is now a young woman studying in Amsterdam.

The burden of shaping a truly unified South Africa, the burden of a truly multiracial South Africa now lies with this younger generation.

Hopefully, in my lifetime, I will get to witness a South Africa where color no longer matters. I pray for a day when no grandchild of a mixed-race couple has to hear from her grandparents that they don'€™t approve of her mother because she is not white.


The writer, a long-term sustainability practitioner from India, has been living in Cape Town, South Africa for the last 20 years.

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