Madibahood is a noun I invented to describe a state of perfect non-judgement attained by Nelson Mandela and refers to anyone who has become brave enough through his own efforts and insight, to participate in acts of similar selfless service to promote the inherent greatness of all other beings.
A caller to Radio 702 reminded me that Erma Bombeck once said: 'When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left, and could say, "I used everything you gave me".' Nelson Mandela must have gotten as close as anyone could have in exhausting the talent given him.
After his death, local and international media dedicated hours of airtime and pages of print remembering and honouring this amazing man. In all that coverage, there wasn't one word of criticism against him. Few live their lives in such an exemplary manner. Fewer still lead so significantly. He received nothing but the finest accolades.
He was incarcerated when I was in primary school and released twenty years after my matriculation when I was at the peak of my secular career. I heard nothing of Madiba during my school years. Springbok Radio's cheerful broadcasts set a false tone of safety and normality in a beleaguered country. Children's shrill and happy shrieks wafted between the leafy trees and over the green hedges as these children frolicked in the dappled sunshine and in the swimming pools found in every affluent suburban back yard. We didn't know the township children of our age living in shanties on the outskirts of our cities. They ran barefoot, pushing homemade toys shaped from twisted wire as dust puffed from the arid ground beneath their heels. Trees were sparse here and the only pools were stagnant puddles of rain and rivulets of sewage. We didn't know what happened to domestic worker's children. The men and women who worked for our parents were known only by their first names, usually Eurocentric ones given to them because we, whites, were too aloof to attempt the pronunciation of their tribal names. Domestic workers arrived in the white suburbs early in the morning, as if by some magical means. They donned their uniforms and performed their duties in our gardens and homes. The 'garden boys' dressed in blue overalls and gumboots. They mowed our lawns and tendered to the flowerbeds under the blistering African sun. The 'nanny girls' dressed in pastel blue, yellow or pink tunics, wore matching aprons and bonnets, lined with white lace. They dusted, washed our floors, made our beds and took charge of washing and ironing our laundry. We didn't know about their lives. We never asked them. They ate lunch of wads of unbuttered bread covered with a layer of peanut butter and cheap apricot jam. Unfit to eat from our household china, they, out of our sight, ate from enamelled tin plates and drank sweetened tea from matching tin mugs. We didn't know where they went each night while we sat around the dining room table eating the meals they prepared for us. Perhaps we weren't meant to know about them. Perhaps it was prudent of the government to keep the truth away from the children in case it frightened us. I did not know that our maids and gardeners were part of an oppressed people, enslaved in every way.
By the time I matriculated, I had my own issues to face and didn't question the gross unfairness of apartheid. Although minor in comparison to Madiba's ordeal, I endured my own forms of bigotry, marginalisation and imprisonment at the hands of the religious leaders and the apartheid government in whom I placed my trust. South Africa was a land of injustice, hatred and segregation.
As children, we look up to the authority figures around us as they are the ones that mould our thoughts and create the structures of belief that shape our lives. It's sad when those in authority: parents, family, teachers, preachers and politicians, indoctrinate the children and expect them to perform as foot soldiers of the cause. Untold young men were sent to fight the 'communist terrorists' on the border. Many never returned home. Those of us that refused to go to the army, faced months of imprisonment and other punishment for our disobedience. I experienced solitary confinement for nearly two years, with continuous reduced rations and imprisonment in dark cells before Helen Suzman and the United Party lobbied for a change in legislation that set us free.
My physical release from army detention barracks in Voortrekkerhoogte was daunting. The metal prison door flung open and I was shooed out to walk away free. I did it alone. Mandela walked to his freedom in the midst of a huge crowd of world supporters, placing a huge burden of expectation upon his shoulders. Although I walked out of a cell that held me there for so long, I wasn't truly free. It took several more years before I took my inner walk to freedom. The symbolic prison gates that held my mind captive opened one day in Durban where I lived. It was the day a committee of Jehovah's Witness elders excommunicated me because I was a gay man.
Mine wasn't a bold and triumphant walk to freedom; it was a staggered crooked stumbling along a very narrow and treacherous path that led to spiritual freedom decades later. I looked to other men and women for a new identity – mentors, tutors, exemplary individuals who had seen beyond the idiotic veil of separation. I instinctively looked to overseas shores to seek an icon of unconditional love as though it was impossible finding such a person in South Africa. I found inspiration in my spiritual teacher Ram Dass who lives on Maui's distant shores. I learned, under his personal tutorship, about the disastrous consequences of judgement.
Ram Dass, a spiritual figure who serves four generations, sat in his wheelchair, confined there by a stroke he had more than twenty years ago. He gently rubbed his hand across the surface of the wall next to him and asked me: 'Tom, do you love my wall?' I looked at the little bit of rising damp and some of the scuffed paint and replied in a rather cautious tone: 'Yes Ram Dass, I like your wall.' That wasn't the answer he sought and repeated his question again: 'But, do you love my wall?' It took a while for the penny to drop. Hampered by his expressive aphasia, he was asking if I could I love everything, unconditionally? Every form of judgement instantly separates us. It splits us, partitions us and classifies us. The first recorded occasion of human judgement expelled us from the paradise of Eden and brought upon us shame and the awareness of our figurative nakedness when Adam and Eve ate from the symbolic Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Bad. Having participated in an act of judgement, humankind fell from heavenly grace. By judging others, we judge ourselves.
But as quick as a runaway veld fire, a new realisation dawned on me in the days that followed Madiba's death: we were in the very presence of a magnificent being who lived right here in our city and I had sadly overlooked his exemplary teachings. It reminded me that 'a prophet is not recognised in his home town'. The Afrikaner propaganda machine taught me to fear Mandela as a traitorous terrorist. Jehovah's Witnesses, the faith under which I was raised and to which I no longer belong, twisted biblical texts into barbed-wire sculptures of prophecy which suggested that the black onslaught, supported by communism, marked the beginning of Armageddon, the end of Satan's reign on earth. Listening, reading and watching the outpouring of love and respect for Madiba during the Ten Days of Mourning, I came to realise how amazing Madiba was. He taught me how cruel judgement actually is. How divisive it can be. Mandela came closer to attaining a holy space of indifference, a place of complete impartiality, than anyone else I know. He made me think. Who is ever right? Who is ever wrong?
Tata Madiba invited his oppressors to join him. He dined with the state prosecutor at his treason trial. He drank tea with the widow of an apartheid architect. He invited his jailor to his presidential inauguration. Was this a politically expedient act of shallow forgiveness and reconciliation? Certainly not. This wasn't a rehearsed manuscript being played out in front of us. It emanated in his heart. I suspect that Mandela had no need for forgiveness and reconciliation as I'm sure he carried no bitterness. Had he carried hatred and a need for revenge, civil war in South Africa might surely have been inevitable. He looked upon everyone equally. He saw the divine in all. It must have pained him to see how narrow-minded judgement subjugates many, stripping away human dignity and dousing the spark of life in the eyes of the hopeless.
The world which thrives on judgement, uses the instrument of judgement to judge Madiba as saintly. Yet it fails to recognise that we all have the same potential he had. It omits to realise in the statement that 'the world will not find the likes of Nelson Mandela again' that we are indeed all equal. Social structures promote class distinction which imprisons the impoverished and emboldens the elite. Just as apartheid suppressed people of colour, so too does judgement bind us to a flawed paradigm of separation.
Much has been said about Madiba that is now etched in my heart forever. One person aptly said that South Africans, prior to Mandela's release, dreamt in black and white; Nelson Mandela dreamt in colour. But all ideas are always stillborn until brought to life through concerted effort and brave choices. It's one thing to dream but quite a different matter finding the conviction to realise our dreams. The only thing that limits our personal greatness is the doubt we carry of ourselves and our ego that leads us astray. We've just tipped the seven billion mark in human population. As earth's resources are stretched to breaking point, as technological innovation struggles to meet our survival needs, we see how brazenly some elbow their way forward to plunder the last of earth's resources with conscienceless recklessness before someone else gets there first.
As Madiba braved his way through his personal hardships to offer us the hope of human equality, so too is there room for great men and women who are prepared to emulate this giant of a man to bring fresh hope to a beleaguered planet. Madibahood: [a noun I made up] is a state of perfect non-judgement attained by Nelson Mandela and refers to anyone who has become brave enough through his own efforts and insight, to participate in acts of similar selfless service to promote the inherent greatness of all other beings. The form such a global liberation movement might take is for now but a dream: a world without judgement; a place of peace and harmony; a spirit of sharing and oneness. An impossible dream? It might seem so for now but so was the once impossible dream of a rainbow nation. Nelson Mandela is finally laid to rest on his estate in Qunu, and we might take a moment to reflect on the miracle that unfolded around him. The human spirit is ingenious. The heart, when courageous, conquers much. The impossible is made possible.
Sitting watching television as the C130 lifted off from Waterkloof air force base carrying Mandela's body, everything seemed so remote and detached. Then, we heard that the large grey aircraft, flanked by two Griffon fighter jets, had banked left after take-off. We realised that we could be beneath its flight path and rushed outside to look if we could spot the formation. Seven or eight minutes went by before we noticed three specks in the sky flying parallel to the western horizon in front of the white cumulous nimbus clouds towering high into the crystal clear blue sky that's so characteristic of the Highveld summer skies. The formation slowly banked on the horizon and approached us head on at a moderately low altitude. That's when the surreal feelings of the day turned real. Waves of pride and honour welled up within me. I met Madiba only once at a distance of some twenty meters. I wondered then if his electric presence was something I created in my mind or if it was really there.
Patriotism isn't part of me. Disillusioned by South Africa's shameful past and reinforced by the Witness's belief that we were citizens of God's kingdom and not of any worldly country, I had no sense of place that I could truly call mine. I felt displaced, homeless, like so many in the apartheid era. The aircraft formation approached rapidly and the closer it got, the greater my sense of Tata's presence; as though his great spirit accompanied his corporeal remains, like a big orb of energy, tens of kilometres in diameter, with the aircraft at its centre. Madiba's spirit passed overhead leaving me speechless. Gazing skywards, I clearly understood the profundity of what he achieved. I might have entertained a moment of national pride had it not been for government's stupid blundering with the sign-language interpreter and the stark reminder of corruption and self-serving interests of those who survive him.
The ten days of mourning were also a period of stark contrast. It brought into clear focus the disparity between my potential, the limitless possibility of what I could be, and my reality, the little that I have actually achieved. I am now deeply inspired to do more. However, I'm sure that this sense of contrast also spread across the country and around the world. It juxtaposed the wondrous prospect South Africa faced after its liberation in 1994 and its slow downward slide ever since. People noticed this and booed Jacob Zuma at FNB Stadium. Perhaps every heckler there recognised this country's potential and the substandard actualisation of where it now stands. Madiba's influence rippled across the world too. Barak Obama stepped forward and shook hands with Castro marking a shift in their relations that might have been inspired by the greatest man of the twentieth century.
Greatness seems to spring from the fertile soil of suffering. We don't really find wisdom by lying on the lawn and watching the clouds form. Gauteng is the heart of South Africa's gold mining. Every coca pan of dirt brought to the surface from deep beneath earth's crust weighs about one metric tonne. From that pile of dirt comes but a small gold yield. It's about three or four grams per tonne. In such small ratio it may seem hardly worth the effort mining all that dirt for such a small reward but gold is very precious. Suffering seems to be the dirt from which we mine our wisdom. Wisdom cannot be bought for any price and is not for sale yet it seems to come often from the difficulties we have to face. Mandela's incarceration was the fertile soil from which grew an immense propensity for kindness and selfless service, just as it had been for me.
The aircraft formation rumbled past and slowly disappeared behind the tall trees. I remained riveted to the spot, hands clasped instinctively over my heart, in thankfulness, as the roar of jet engines slowly faded. Farewell Madiba. Let your remarkable spirit continue to linger in our hearts forever. Let the generations that follow always remember your magnificent example. May I continue to be inspired by you and may I find the bravery to make a difference to those around me. Let your life's endeavours be the catalyst that transforms our collective consciousness so that it might embrace a new world that is now so perfectly poised for change.
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Photograph rendered from an image © AFP/Getty Images