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[OPINION] How I met Madiba

I consider it a privilege to have shared this precious life while Nelson Mandela was alive. His example of an imperfect human being living his purpose for our good and the good of humanity can never be lost.

The day Madiba was released from prison in 1990, many of us volunteered as marshals at the Grand Parade and City Hall through our youth movements. After many, many hours of waiting, he was on the balcony and ready to address the nation and the thousands of people who had come out to meet him.

Years before, a friend and I used to take one of his grandchildren to visit him while he was in prison in Paarl. There were no cellphones for photos so all she could do was tell us how he was doing, not how he looked. This evening, standing behind him, I failed to get sight of him at all, I only heard his strong and believable voice. I was ecstatic to be within earshot but devastated not to be able to see any part of him, not even the back of his head. I was devastated.

During that night we received a call to ask for Madiba’s spectacles to be collected from the prison as they was forgotten there in the busyness of his release. Early that Monday morning we set off to collect the spectacles ahead of Madiba’s first international press conference. We arrived at Archbishop Tutu’s residence. Holding Madiba’s spectacles opened the tight security personnel path like a biblical sea. We stepped into the lounge where Archbishop Tutu sat casually reading the newspaper. “How can I help you?’ he said. “We have Madiba’s spectacles.” Without hesitation he said, “OK, he is in there.” We knocked on the door, walked in and there he was.

Madiba, alone looking out of the window onto the garden. He smiled broadly, warmly and walked towards us. I have no memory of what I said but it included, “Thank you Madiba” He stepped towards me with his hand outstretched. A big warm hand covered mine. We hugged. For me, the protection of that one hug was assurance that he and I and our hard-won freedom, were okay. Yes, I did try the spectacles on in the car and yes, I did clean them with my T-shirt, they were dusty. The night before at the introduction from the balcony he wore his wife’s spectacles, I recently saw on a documentary about her life.

My next encounter with Madiba was when my dad invited him to mass at our parish in Athlone on the Cape Flats. It was a church which during the struggle always accommodated secret meetings, political rallies and refuge for those who needed a space away from security police. During that service Madiba was invited by my dad and our priest to receive communion. This is not an invitation usually extended to people who were from other faiths. We were told later that there had been many complaints from the Vatican over years that an exception was made for Madiba. We decided to let go and let God be the judge of that.

A few months later my husband Robin became one of Madiba’s personal bodyguards. He used to collect him for his early morning walks, drive him to meetings and make sure he was where he had to be punctually. Madiba’s discipline around time was with respect to the people he was meeting.

After he became president he was allocated permanent and trained protectors. Our lives continued and in 1996 Robin was involved in a fatal car accident. Within days I had a call from the president’s office. Madiba called to sympathise and thank me for the service Robin gave him. He knew that I had a 21-month old son and that I was 8 weeks pregnant. He said he had been told that I was “a strong and brave young woman” and wished me well with the pregnancy and raising my sons. “Please hold the line for the president…” is not a call I anticipate to have again. My privilege is that Madiba took the time to acknowledge my grief, my children and our loss. He didn’t have to.

On what would have been his 100th birthday, I celebrated a life well lived. An example led from the front, through fear and threats and danger. He lived with conviction, he acknowledged his humanness, he led with firm unconditional love. His ability to be empathetic, conciliatory, extended and kind are embedded in the fabric of our country, we need to dust it off and take a look. We need to walk in each other’s moccasins and live in human solidarity. There is no other way than this pure and basic one. I am because you are.

Lisa Joshua Sonn is a social activist. Follow her on Twitter: @annalisasonn

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