In the months just before Nelson Mandela was released, I was working for World Vision in Lesotho and Botswana. Lesotho was in effect a ‘hostage state’ in South Africa, home to many of Mandela’s supporters who had been hounded out of South Africa because of their political views.
There was a strong feeling that things had to change and possibly were about to change, but never did I feel this more than when I went on a short trip to Johannesburg. As I drove into the city, I asked my friend why – if the white South Africans were relatively wealthy – did they all have outside toilets. He looked embarrassed. ‘They’re not outside toilets,’ he said, ‘They’re the maid’s quarters. The white South Africans do not want the maids living under the same roof.’
I was appalled. There must have been barely enough room for them to lie down.
One day I went out and just walked around on my own in what the people I was staying with considered was a ‘safe’ area. There were some nice coffee shops, and I was just walking along enjoying the sights when a smartly dressed, very elderly man approached me. He asked me what I was doing in Johannesburg and we chatted for a short while, and then he said:
“Can I ask a favour of you?”
“Of course,” I said.
It turned out that he wanted to buy me a coffee. He said that times were about to change and that he wanted to make a gesture, and to take a young white woman into a coffee shop and buy her a coffee would be that gesture. He said that he was asking me respectfully, and that he was of course old enough to be my grandfather.
We went into the coffee shop and there was immediately a collective intake of breath. There was an huge atmosphere of disapproval. The waitress (who incidentally was not white) slammed our coffees down in front of us so that the coffee spilled on to the table, she was muttering angrily.
It was very clear that we had broken the rules and everybody was unhappy about it. Looking back I am now wondering if there was an unwritten (or written?) rule that this was a whites only coffee shop, certainly all the customers were white. Maybe the man knew that if he went in with me they would not want to make a scene and kick him out, who knows.
I just know that multi-racial coffee was too much at that moment in time in December 1989.
The old man grinned, enjoying every minute of it. It turned out that he was quite a well known jazz musician. I should have known because he was wearing a very cool hat. I was uncomfortable because of all the glares, but then I realised that in that moment I was part of something important.
He paid for the coffee, and outside the coffee shop we shook hands and he wished me well in my life.
I had to fly back to Lesotho, and in the airport I saw Winnie Mandela, in full military regalia. The atmosphere was charged, apparently she had met with Walter Sisulu (who had just been released from prison that October, after 26 years in prison). There was a feeling of euphoria, a tangible excitement. When I asked if they thought that Mandela would be freed, people said that it was only a matter of time.
I was only a few weeks back in the UK when I was glued to the TV screen like millions of others, watching Mandela walk out of prison as a free man. Like many others who had gone to concerts to support the campaign for his freedom, and drunk in student bars named after him, and worn the badge saying ‘FREE NELSON MANDELA’, I wept.
Everything changed in South Africa, and I am certain that if I went back to that same coffee shop and had a ‘multi racial’ coffee, nobody would blink. The slavery and prejudice is over. There are still tough times, but apartheid is, thankfully, dead.
Now Nelson Mandela is in hospital, and it is exactly how it was with my mum. The lungs, and repeated hospitalisations. So I know what is going on, and that it is realistically just a matter of time.
But what a legacy that man is leaving. To have been an agent of such an important change, to have gone from a prisoner, seen as a terrorist, to the President of South Africa. To be loved by so many people. His family, his country who see him as a father, and by strangers like me – on the other side of the world, choked up because of a news report saying that he ‘deteriorated’ this morning.
I hope that he pulls through this time, but we have to face the fact that he is very frail now. The world will be a much poorer place without Nelson Mandela in it, but there is so much to celebrate about what he achieved.
“For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”
– Nelson Mandela