Death of a Champion

Death of a Champion


I cannot get the national anthem of South Africa out of my head.  I learned it for choir as a young girl and have never forgotten the 4 verses, all in different languages.  Nkosi sikel’ iAfrika… God Bless Africa.

God bless indeed, for today the man who united the country and prevented a bloody civil war has passed away.  It is difficult to describe the feelings of loss, grief and anxiety I feel as a South African living abroad.  Unless you are South African, or have lived closely with one, it is very difficult to truly comprehend what the death of this man means.  So much is connected to the history and symbolism of Madiba. He was the great, unifying force and beacon of hope and one cannot help but feel a great complexity of emotions at the news of his passing.

For decades, countries worldwide have turned to the example of South Africa in attempts to find peaceful resolutions to conflict.  Our country overcame extraordinary horrors and hardships and emerged a wounded, but healing nation, taking its first tentative steps into the sunlight.  I still marvel at how much we managed to put behind us, how special it was for races, once so divided, to come together for a shared dream – the dream that was championed by Mandela.  I lived with the beautiful consequences of this dream and grew up in the golden years of the New South Africa.

This dream also bore the world’s most progressive constitution, specifically in regards to human rights.  I certainly benefited from living under this constitution and the revolutionary changes made to women’s rights.  I recall how women were so celebrated on National Women’s Day, in our history classes, in our media and our politics.  People turned up in the tens of thousands for big days like NWD.  The faces of women appeared everywhere, as great efforts were made to give them the place and voice in society they were largely deprived of under the racist, patriarchal regime of Apartheid.  Women of all colours shone in prominent roles and it became the norm to see them as news anchors, ministers and activists. Nelson Mandela himself stated that “freedom cannot be achieved unless the women have been emancipated from all forms of oppression.”

I was fortunate enough to live during this unique time period in South Africa.  I can recall my first year at school, which was right after they opened up educational institutions to all races.  My best friends were a Zulu girl named Patricia and an Indian girl named Hashmita and even as a 6 year old, I had some vague notion that something special had happened on this front.  The playgrounds I used to frequent were now open to the general public and I found myself playing with children of various colours and creeds.  Zulu was introduced into the curriculum and some of our teachers were black and Indian. Additionally, big speeches were made at school assemblies about the crucial role women played in ending apartheid.  It was a strange, complex situation in where I knew, as a woman, I had a high chance of being raped and assaulted; however, because of the emphasis placed on the importance of women, I grew up with a sense of entitlement to all the opportunities that men enjoyed.  I matured feeling as if I was viewed, in the eyes of my nation’s leader and my government, as an equal.  I credit this feeling as a major driving force in my feminism today.

Living abroad for the past 9 years has opened my eyes to so much.  I have realised how enormously privileged I am, in so many ways.  I realised the privilege of my race, and also what it feels like to be a racial minority.  I have realised how lucky I am to be friends with, and to have been taught by so many amazing women of colour.  I understand how rare it is in many western countries to see women, especially black women, in prominent positions; their absence on British and Australian TV and radio is stark in my eyes. Additionally, I’ve been stunned by the gender inequality of countries supposedly more advanced than my own.  Having just watched a foetal personhood bill get passed in the state of New South Wales, where abortion is still illegal, I comprehend, now, just how unique and special my country’s constitution is.  For this reason, among many, I am tremendously proud to be a South African, and I am so grateful to have lived several years of my life under the leadership of such an extraordinary man as Nelson Mandela.

In all the eulogies that are sure to follow news of Mandela’s death, certain aspects about his character may be missed or ignored. Nelson was not faultless; his romantic and emotional record with the women in his life, specifically the neglectful treatment and abandonment of his first wife and children, leaves much to be desired. Acknowledging his faults is important, and as a feminist I’d be remiss not to address them. Although he wasn’t perfect as a man, as a leader he was iconic in all the right ways.

I know that today I grieve with many South Africans around the globe.  My hope is that the world follows his example, and that the vision he had for a peaceful, united nation is maintained by the generations of South Africans to come.  I take comfort in that his legacy lives on in all the activists he has inspired, myself included.  Nelson Mandela, leader of the free South Africa, will always hold a profoundly special place in my heart.

Nkosi sikelela, thina lusapho lwayo.

Lord bless us, we are the family of Africa.





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  1. 1
    Jennifer Neal

    Damnit Tess…I was doing such a good job of not crying, but you just ruined me for the day!

    AND! Can I say, I was secretly hoping that you would writing something (although I didn’t expect it to be so soon?). Thank you for writing this beautiful piece from the perspective of someone who calls SA her home. The description of growing up in the new South Africa is a wonderfully honest testament to the progress that came about as a direct result of Mandela’s efforts and struggles. What an incredible revolution of the human spirit!

    I’m also glad that you pointed out that the man we all love and admire was also deeply flawed in his personal relationships. Isn’t that the way? Why is it great leaders, male and female alike, always suffer so deeply in their personal lives?

    Today, I’m grieving with you. And I’m sharing your piece on FB.

  2. 3
    Tessa Barratt

    Thank you for your feedback, Jennifer. I know this article is rather sudden, but I was crying so hard, I NEEDED to write. Writing is cathartic for me, and getting this piece off my chest/out of my mind, was healing.

    It struck so many tender spots for me. I miss my country greatly; a major figure of my childhood is gone; my father was an anti-apartheid fighter who knew Mandela and worked with his allies; my father is dead, too.

    Again, thank you for your kind words and sharing your feelings. It means a lot to me.

  3. 4
    Jennifer Neal

    I’m glad you did write it. Putting the pain to work is one of the most effective ways of dealing with it. It must be incredibly difficult for you to be so far away from home right now. This is obviously a trying moment on multiple levels, and that comes across in your beautiful writing.

    I take great solace in knowing that his life was almost as long as it was meaningful. That’s exactly the way anyone would want it to be, and it’s no less than what he deserved.

  4. 5
    Rage Girl

    Thank you so much for writing this.

    It made me teary too. I really haven’t been able to connect with much of the sorrow surrounding Nelson Mandella’s death today. Not that his work isn’t inspiring, but it just wasn’t in me to connect….Until I read this. This is so important to share with people, so thank you for putting it down into words.

  5. 7
    Kathryn Lowe

    Beautiful Tessa,
    It was so lovely to read what he meant to someone on such a personal level. And to hear you speak about SA’s politics about women and human rights was so great too. It’s not something we often get to hear or think about here in Australia. We just assume that Australia is streets ahead in such things…. clearly, we are not.

    Thank you.

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