The Long Morning after Mandela

Today, 5 December, marks exactly one year since the passing of former South African president Nelson Mandela at age 95. In death, as in life, Mandela — arguably the greatest statesman of our time — seems to have left his own special mark on the world, and he most certainly has not been forgotten.

Has it really been one year already? These past 12 months have sped by, almost like they were one long morning after Mandela’s final rest. And who could ever forget the dramatic scenes we saw coming out of South Africa in the world’s media back then?

At the initial news of Mandela’s passing a year ago today, the whole world seemed to pause in unison, and turn its attention to the southernmost nation on the African continent. Coverage from literally every nation around the globe dominated the news pages and airwaves. South Africans poured out into the streets by the thousands to grieve and also to celebrate their beloved former president, Tata Madiba, the father of the nation.

Ten days of mourning for Mandela was officially announced by the South African government, which seemed to me — and probably most South Africans — as way too short a time for such a towering figure. The big memorial service for Mandela at the soccer stadium in Soweto township on 10 December was broadcast across the planet, and the scale of the event and the love and respect that poured out from both the South African people and the visiting dignitaries just took my breath away.

Mandela’s body lay in state for three days from 11-13 December, followed by the formal state funeral on 15 December with full military honors. It was, without question, the funeral of the century. There has never been one like it, at least not in modern times, and there is not likely to be a state funeral that ever equals it. It was deeply moving, and as I watched, I too could not help but join South Africans in shedding some tears.

The South African Broadcasting Corporation, the nation’s public broadcaster, was reporting around the clock, and I have to say that the SABC really outdid itself in its coverage. I followed as much of the SABC’s reporting of Mandela’s passing that I could on the Internet, hardly able to break away from it for even a minute.

Actually, for me, the SABC in itself was something to marvel at. I had to constantly remind myself that, yes, I was now watching public television in a democratic and free South Africa. That was because 20 years ago, when Mandela was still in prison, it was a much different story: The SABC was tightly controlled back then by the country’s small, white minority government and the public broadcaster served as little more than a shameless propaganda organ for promoting and perpetuating an illegitimate, mad-dog apartheid regime.

Now, under the Rainbow Nation of Mandela, the SABC announcers and reporters were from all the country’s races and backgrounds, they spoke in English, Xhosa and other South African languages, and without exception, they all did their jobs professionally and well. As a fellow journalist, I was feeling extremely proud of them.

By the time the formal state funeral wound to a close late in the day, with the cannon/21-gun salutes, military plane flyover and the lowering of Mandela’s casket into his family’s modest burial plot in the South African countryside of Qunu, I felt emotionally drained. I could just imagine how hard it was for South Africans to deal with it all.

During the 1980s and 1990s in Japan, I had joined South Africans and other persons of good conscience the world over in raising a voice — or in my case, using the power of the pen — to denounce apartheid, an evil that Mandela once accurately called an “indelible blight on human history”. With South Africa, I found my political voice and a renewed sense of higher purpose for using my writing as something other than just to make money. And this sense of purpose wasn’t only about South Africa: It also applied to human rights issues the world over — especially in my own country, the United States, which had (and still has) its own brand of apartheid to overcome.

Late into the evening (Japan time) when Mandela’s funeral day had come to an end, I knew I would not be able to sleep for a few more hours, at least. So I slipped out of the house and took a midnight walk alone, amid the brisk autumn chill, down the hill to a small farming community nearby where a traditional, unassuming Japanese Shinto shrine was nestled among the trees. There, I made my offering and prayers for Mandela’s spirit and for the good journey that he would be taking from here.

I remember that the next day, a Monday, when I stepped out into the warm bright morning, the world seemed to me an emptier place, a lonelier place, now that someone of Nelson Mandela’s high stature was no longer here in it. That same evening though, something unusual struck me as I scanned the night sky, lost in my thoughts: The dark sky was more illuminated by starlight than before, as if there more stars in the heavens at night after Mandela’s passing than there had been before.

My imagination at work? Probably so. But it was somehow comforting to think that perhaps Mandela, in his journey, was responsible for adding a few more extra stars up there in the panorama of night sky. And tonight, one year after his departure, as I again gaze at the sky on a very chilly autumn evening, I still feel that way. The days have somehow seemed emptier since Mandela bid us all farewell on his spiritual journey, but the nights have seemed to me so much fuller.

All of which leaves but only one thing to say to Baba Nelson Mandela after this past one year — the same thing I said alone at midnight at that Shinto shrine a year ago: Hamba Kahle, as South Africans put it — Go well. May we meet again. And may you keep those stars shining brightly up there in the heavens for a long, long time to come.

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