On this, Mandela’s birthday, I thought I’d repost a piece I wrote for Original Plumbing about his legacy in my own life. Enjoy.
In Mandela’s Wake
Nelson Mandela was more than a black man with an axe to grind against an oppressive white minority government. His long imprisonment and subsequent rise to the presidency is well documented, his words of inspiration scattered across the internet. Mandela was an icon, symbolizing freedom and the power of persistence in the face of unbearable hardship. He was father and child to a nation that needed him. And to me, he is the man who set into motion my political – and personal – awakening.
I was born in Pretoria, South Africa’s capital, at the height of Apartheid and lived in the country briefly before my family sought adventure in the Canadian hinterlands. We lived in Canada off and on for the next decade, safely removed from the political turmoil back home. I was eleven when I again set foot in South Africa – it was 1990. That was the same year Mandela was finally released after 27 years behind bars. To my child’s eyes the mayhem his release triggered meant little at first. I was more concerned with what was on TV than with the political machinations of a corrupt regime. But I knew that something historic was afoot – even if I didn’t fully understand it. I could feel it in the electric tension I absorbed all around me. I witnessed it in the vague terror among my parents’ white South African friends.
By 1994, my predilection for watching television collided with the political realities of my time. In May of that year, I sat on my parent’s brown leather couch and watched the presidential inauguration of a man who was once branded a terrorist. Here he was, the first black president of South Africa. What to make of it all? I was 14 years old by then, old enough to have some understanding of the atrocities too many innocent civilians had endured at the hands of a trigger-happy and violently racist white regime. But still too young to believe that anything I could do could make a difference.
I had to reconcile my own percolating opinions with the reality of my parents’ political affiliations. Never strongly active politically speaking, my father was still a self-professed supporter of what he believed was a fair and equitable political ideology. Apartheid was, in his view, a sound concept that had been poorly executed. To him Apartheid meant creating space for separate but equal nations to co-exist. And he continued to vote in support of it until the day he died, in 2005.
This split, between wanting to honour my culture, my parents, and their beliefs, and the awakening of my own individual consciousness, was difficult to resolve. Sometimes it still is. And had I been anyone other than who I was, I may well have simply followed in my parents’ mostly apathetic footsteps. But apathy is a luxury you can only afford when you are not personally impacted by the unfair attitudes and actions of a powerful few.
It took me a long time to make sense of my own murky identity. But at 24, I claimed a label for myself that shifted for good how I engaged with the world around me. Being openly trans forced me to reconsider the relative privilege I had enjoyed as a young person. It opened my eyes to all kinds of inequalities I hadn’t really seen before – whether based in race, gender, sexuality or class. It made me truly appreciate the magnanimity of a man like Mandela, who set aside past grievances to build up a country alongside the same men who had once threatened to execute him.
In death – as he did in life – Mandela reminds us that despite the great burdens we bear, and the unjust treatment we face, life is still worth living, fairness is still worth fighting for, hope is still worth having. If Mandela could leave behind the bitterness he had every right to feel, then surely so can I. Moving forward sometimes means putting aside the past, even a violent past. Mandela did so with dignity and with the quiet determination of a man who understood that the future is built one brick at a time.