A Year Without Him

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela 1918 – 2013

It is one year since the day we woke up to a world without Nelson Mandela. I feel about him like I feel about my late grandmother. Conversations and dreams catch me by surprise as if they are just in another room. I tell them how much I miss them especially when things are not going so well here…

My grandmother died the year Madiba was released from jail. To this day I find myself thinking about her, even if it’s only for a fraction of a second, as if she were still alive. By those standards it’s going to take a long time to adjust to the fact that the father of the new South Africa is now an ancestor.

One day shortly before Madiba became seriously ill I took a photo of a picture on my wall. It was an impulse I understood only afterwards when I heard that he’d been taken to hospital. An impulse that came out of a dream. In the photo I am interviewing Nelson Mandela at the Haga Slott Castle in Sweden soon after his release in 1990.

Interviewing Mandela Sweden 1990

Interviewing Mandela Sweden 1990

Sylvia Vollenhoven and Mandela Couple. Sweden 1990

Sylvia Vollenhoven and Mandela Couple. Sweden 1990

Departing & Parting

The dream, a short while after Madiba was admitted to hospital last year, was detailed and upsetting. From my journal of July 2013:

I am walking along. I see Madiba sitting on the back of a huge truck, ready to be taken somewhere. Most people and the media have left. I climb on the truck happy to be given this opportunity to be alone with him. At first he doesn’t recognise me. He is confused. He thinks I’ve written and performed a song that he likes. A great tenderness overwhelms me. I have a friend with me who takes my mobile out of my bag and starts taking photos. Each of us is sitting in a different corner of the truck.

From somewhere music starts to play. A slow, old-fashioned tune that I don’t know. Madiba gets up and we begin to dance, but in the strangest way. He puts his arms around me and his feet are on top of mine. Like children sometimes do when they dance with adults. Although we move in this way, me carrying him with my feet, he is still steering. I’m grateful because I don’t know this slow dance we are doing.

Someone arrives and tells us to move because Madiba has to climb off this vehicle and onto a bus. When we were dancing he was light but getting him onto the bus is a huge struggle because he has become heavy.

He sits in the front seat of the bus. The only passenger. Suddenly I have a desperate need to use the toilet but I don’t want to leave Madiba alone on the bus.

The scene changes dramatically. Madiba and the bus disappear and I am walking down the road, making my way home.

Letting Go

When I woke up I knew that despite what the media, family members and a gaggle of spokespersons were saying the Nelson Mandela we knew had left us. I told my Sangoma, Niall Campbell, about the dream and he said:

“You can’t be on the bus to the place where Mandela is headed. People all over South Africa are carrying him right now, lifting him up. Carrying him in our hearts and raising him to his rightful place.”

It made me feel a bit better. But almost half a year later when the people around him conceded a physical death, I was taken aback by how intense my reaction was. I was in bed for a few days. Physically exhausted. A friend whose intuitive powers are finely honed said:

“When a great man passes he takes away something from all of us. We feel it physically too.”

Looking at that photo taken in Sweden I thought about how Tata changed the framework of my life. I was at primary school when he was jailed in the 60s, we whispered his name on the underground when I awakened to the politics of Black Consciousness in the 70s, he was the pinnacle of our hopes in the violent 80s and I was delirious with joy when he threw his arms around me soon after his release in 1990 and said:

“I followed your stories when I was in jail.”

And now we’ve lived a whole year without him.

The rough framework for our relationship, Madiba and I, was simple. Like all truly great people he could make each of us feel we had a special connection with him. Now my connections reside in my dreams, memories and the precious memorabilia I collected over the years.

Same doorway of notebook signing

Vilakazi Street

In the days after his release in 1990 we followed him around like a Messiah, writing down every word and asking questions with far too much respect for efficient journalism. Along with a group of media people, ANC officials, family and friends I was invited to his home in Soweto. We could just about manage to squeeze into the small house in Vilakazi Street. I stood in the backyard next to a huge pot plant waiting my turn with a journalist friend.

“I followed your stories when I was in jail.”

Nelson Mandela was standing in the doorway, looking directly us. The handlers and officials gave way and rival journalists fell back. At first I assumed he was talking with somebody else. But then he walked in my direction. I knew this moment would not last, so I grabbed my notebook and held it out towards him.

“Please sign it,” I said to looks of disapproval from some and envy from others.

He hugged me then wrote: “To Sylvia with my compliments and best wishes.”

The exchange on the steps at the back door to the tiny house in Soweto’s Orlando West provided a new framework for our relationship. He had put a face to the name he had read in newspapers and I had acquired a personal touch for the icon I’d worshipped since my teenage years.

Recently I was shooting a biographical documentary film for NHK, the Japanese public broadcaster. I found myself on those very same steps of the house in Vilakazi Street, now a museum. I had to excuse myself from the crew and breathe deeply outside as a mixture of sadness, nostalgia and intense longing squeezed the air out of my lungs.

Greatness Underpinned with Warmth

In my family people joked about Madiba’s Khoisan features. The silly humour was our way of claiming him. Marginalised people claiming with humour a connection.

Covering the Mandela era – the years leading up to his release from prison, through the CODESA negotiations until his Presidency and beyond –defined my life and career.

As I wrote about these things it came to me, how to frame Nelson Mandela… how to put him in an appropriate place in my professional life that started with the Soweto uprisings of June 1976, reached a peak with his release in the Nineties and that is slowing down as I adjust to a world without him.

Madiba helped me understand that true greatness is underpinned with genuine warmth. That glorious moments are framed with the detail of loopy writing in a lined notebook. He made me feel proud for the very first time to be a South African… the heart-expanding thrill of being part of something so momentous it will never be repeated in my lifetime.

We miss him with sadness and even anger that our liberation road, the road we walked with Madiba, has taken such painful twists and turns. But we are comforted by the joy of our memories.

Tata, I sometimes still weep for you but it is tears of pure gratitude for the gift of Nelson Rolihlala Mandela in my lifetime.

The Nelson Mandela Foundation will host a tribute in Johannesburg on Friday 4 December.
The invitation says: “For much of 2013 Nelson Mandela’s health was failing and he passed away on 5 December. The world watched, waited and expressed its feelings in many forms and media through this painful period. The Nelson Mandela Foundation has become a repository for a myriad messages of solidarity, grief, condolence and tribute.”