In South Africa, saying goodbye to a hero — and the idea of needing a hero

December 13, 2013

I remember the first time I met my Uncle Stan. It was 1985. A man I’d never seen — my father didn’t have any photos of his family, he had fled South Africa with only the clothes on his back — walked into our house in Hoboken, N.J.

He wore a long, tan trench coat and looked much taller than my father, who walked in behind him. I was busy playing, pushing a little boat that I’d made out of toothpicks in a bowl of water on the floor of our kitchen. He had a broad mustache and a smile I’ll never forget. He was the first person I’d met who had come directly from South Africa, the place where my father came from. My “other” home. The place where, I’d been told, bad things might happen to my political-activist father if we went back.

A few years later, I was watching an episode of “A Different World,” a spinoff of “The Cosby Show,” in which the song “Free Nelson Mandela” was played. I was surprised that they knew who Nelson Mandela was on this show. To me, his was just one of several names that floated around my house.

My parents were both very political. They — my mom a Greek American and my dad a Zulu — would talk a lot about South Africa at dinner, and my brother and I would try to follow their conversations. They often didn’t explain what they were talking about to us — and we would either get bored or try to interrupt them with questions. My favorite question had to do with understanding who the good guys were and who the bad guys were.

I paid a lot of attention to the good guys. There was Adelaide and O.R. Tambo, Robert Sobukwe, the Mbekis, the Sisulus and others, including my Uncle Stan, who himself had been a political prisoner. My father spoke of these people as his mentors and colleagues. He spoke about them with familiarity and reverence, but they were also just people who were part of the conversation.

By 1989, we had moved from the United States to Zimbabwe, hoping that we would one day be able to go “home” — South Africa. We watched Mandela’s release on television in our house in Harare the following year. I was sitting on the floor in front of the TV, and I looked up at my father, who sat behind me on a chair.

During the broadcast, as Mandela walked out of Victor Verster prison, Winnie by his side, my dad got up to make a phone call to my mom who was in New York. The timing of all this made me take Mandela’s salutes and waves to the crowd as a personal signal to our family that, “It’s okay, you can come home now.”

Two years later, we did.

By then, I had come to see Mandela as an important figure, a symbol of the story of the apartheid struggle. But he was not — to me, at least — in any sense the protagonist. My father and mother, their friends and mentors, were.

When we came to South Africa in 1992, I understood that some people thought and spoke about Mandela as a sort of savior. Not just a man who fought against injustice, but a hero. And even more than that, the hero.

That remains true to this day, even as the country bids a final farewell to Mandela. And it is in some ways problematic, as there is still so much “saving” to be done.

That’s the challenge with a single-hero story, a kind of story I have never liked. I was brought up in an atheist and feminist household, where there was no single male figure who was revered or worshiped. There were “good guys” and “bad guys,” and sometimes people who fell into categories like “good guys who’ve done some bad things.”

And the “good guys” were both women and men. I loved the stories my mother told me about my fearless great-aunt Domna, a hunchbacked revolutionary, and my great-uncle Dionysis, both of whom had fought against the Nazis and fascists in Greece. I met my uncle Dionysis when I was 7. We sat in the back seat of a car together with my brother Mandla, driving through Pireaus, and I played with his hand which had no fingernails on it. The seamlessness of the skin where the nail should’ve been looked oddly beautiful to me. My mother later told me that the Nazis had pulled them out while he was a POW in the 1940s during the Nazi occupation of Greece.

Maybe this is where it started. I had heroic characters in my own family. They were people I could relate to, loved and sometimes argued with. They were not untouchable; they were not perfect. But they fought against what they believed to be unjust — and sometimes paid a high price.

I feel concerned that in the midst of the celebrating and mourning of Mandela — celebrating what was and mourning the fact that we’ll never find it again — we are forgetting something about this country and about ourselves.

I am curious about what Mandela’s death makes us feel about ourselves, as South Africans. What have we invested in Mandela that is now lost with his death? I fear that when we invest our hope in some figure, some savior, alive or dead, we risk absolving ourselves of contributing, of acting or making change.

This week, I spoke with a young artist and community organizer named Pilot Biller — someone I mentor — who lives in the struggling town of Musina, the last stop before the border with Zimbabwe. Musina is a place you can point to when looking at the complex nature of Mandela’s legacy. I asked Pilot what he thought of the way we, and the world, were memorializing Mandela. He was conflicted. “What about our fathers?” he asked. “Are they not heroes, too?”

I repeated Pilot’s question to Rangoato Hlasane, a friend and member of Keleketla Library, an independent library in downtown Johannesburg. He knows Pilot well. This inspired us to speak about some of the uncritical ways in which Mandela was being celebrated. But our conversation ended on a forward-looking note.

I told him I hoped that amid the noise of the international news frenzy, this could be a moment where we start to listen to each other, where we look at where we are as a nation, and as segregated communities within this nation.

“We have to start speaking among ourselves,” he agreed. “We have to use our imaginations.”

Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi is an artist based in Johannesburg.

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