Cape Town’s opera house was crowded that night. White European faces were up-lit from the reflections of the stage. Their eyes danced and the notes of Die Fledermaus rang out. My eyes were pinned to a man in a cage on stage. The prisoner was cowering as the tenors and baritones taunted him. I whispered to the person next to me,“Who’s that in the cage?” “That’s Nelson Mandela, a bit of fun, you know,” he smiled. The large white faces around me began to expand and guffaw raucously at the performance. My body began to freeze over and I watched in horror. The laughter got louder. I could only hear a ringing.
Intermission came and I walked out. “What was that?!” I asked my host. “The election is coming. People are nervous. So they blow off steam putting a little humor in the performance with a Mandela in a cage.” “I want to leave,” I said. “You can’t. You can’t go alone at night it’s too dangerous. You could get shot.”
This was the South Africa I met for the first time in 1993 just a few months before Nelson Mandela would win a historical election. We all waited for him, as if he was a guest coming to dinner. It was such an intimate feeling in this place. Zulu leaders visited my cousin at night to talk. He was a Baptist missionary and a leader in the Church. His sons, all teachers, were readying for the integration of their schools and universities. I snuck out to the townships with my cousin. We entered a simple house next to the slums and helped a woman dump waste and excrement out of her window. Kids with rifles hung on the bridges and I could feel bullets ricocheting off the hood of the Jeep. On other days, we would drive to wine country. Rose bushes planted next to the vines to keep off a certain insect cascades down a mountain like the Garden of Eden. It was the first time in my life I looked at the view below, to Cape Town and the ocean, and said, “This is a place that God made.” And the whales. In Hermanus one morning, there among the rocks by the shore basked a mother and her calf. Breathtaking. All the time I wondered, did Nelson Mandela see this? Did Nelson Mandela see that? What did a man see who had been in prison for so long?
One morning, we drove down to the Cape of Good Hope. As the car pulled up to the parking area, I saw large buses stop nearby. Women in all sorts of Western and African dress began to decamp. There was an energy about the place. It was a violently blustery, sparkly day that seemed capable of its history of shipwrecks. The women seemed to trek together like this was a great pilgrimage. As I got closer, I heard their American accents. And I began to see their tears. They raised their arms ceremoniously. I began to feel our American history catch up with a South African present. We were entering the fort where iron bolts still protruded from the stone. We were standing in the heart of the slave trade. It was easy to imagine being chained to that stonewall, crouching, looking out on that treacherous corner of water. I will never forget the women’s mourning, or that morning. And I know Nelson Mandela saw this. The Cape of Good Hope was a cornerstone of his victory speech in May 1994 as was that famous American ideal: democracy.
A giant of a man who asked only to be a servant is now gone. It is his time to rest. There is much more work to be done. Should you get a chance to visit South Africa, go.
Featured image courtesy of Telegraph