Nelson Mandela has been fragile and ill for some time and died at what we’d call a ‘proud age’ in German. And though he was most certainly not a proud man he could have taken some pride in the huge achievements he inspired and contributed to – taken his own words ‘What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead‘ he has lived a truly significant life.
I’m deeply saddened by his death and really feel the loss of an exceptional world leader who seemed at the same time so very small, fragile and human and yet of such greatness, goodness and vision that transcended beyond any boundaries of race, country or time. Yes, he leaves behind a powerful legacy but I fear also a massive hole: his capacity to inspire hope, to give direction and to be a moral conscience I do not see in the politicians around me.
The other painful point his death brings up for me is probably also the end of a youthful hope in social change: I remember clearly my primary school teacher Frau Bierman introducing us to an anti-apartheid campaign in the 1980s, the first political education I got (and would get for some time given that I grew up in a very apolitical family). It came with a black-and-white cartoon in which ‘apartheid’ was depicted as this big white ghost, ‘the ghost of apartheid’ that destroyed lives and communities and that I would speak out against fervently over lunch at home.
In 1990, in my excitable late teens my sister and I went to a festival in Berlin which had just seen the fall of the wall and where an incredible sense of everything-is-possible was present. We went to a Miriam Makeba gig and celebrated the end of Nelson Mandela’s imprisonment and the hope for a new South Africa and a new world beyond an East-West divide. Shortly after that I was accepted into a 1-year volunteer programme with a choice of going either to Belize or South Africa and I didn’t think twice about where I wanted to go. I arrived in South Africa on my 20th birthday and it was incredible to experience such radical political changes and such hope and commitment so very close everywhere around me.
In a sense my late teens and initiation into my 20s felt like one big festival of possibility and hope, of overcoming separation and creating a new world.
Some 20 years on I stood on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral last week, the first time I was there since Occupy. In the world around me lots has changed and very little. I’m still someone who fervently speaks out against social injustice but maybe not so often and not so loud and not so clear; the sense of possibility seems a bit confused and inspiration is a fragile place…