For our physical education classes, we were supposed to wear white. One day, my usual white T-shirt was dirty, or lost, and I raided my father's closet for a replacement—I liked to wear his clothes, even if they were a little baggy, because they helped me pretend I was also an important, smart journalist. This T-shirt was emblazoned with the smiling, gentle face of a black man. I put it on for the weekly class and was immediately pulled aside by the teacher. What was I doing, he demanded? Did I know that I was wearing the face of a terrorist? I had no idea what he meant, nor why the smiling black man and the words "Free Mandela" might make my teacher so very angry. I put the shirt back in my dad's cupboard and never told him the story.
Four years later, I watched a different teacher weep as he tried to explain to an assembly of bewildered primary school pupils why it mattered so deeply that the man from my father's old T-shirt was about to become our president.
I've never met a South African who is ambivalent about Nelson Mandela.
To those who cling to him as a sort of talisman, he is an icon, a deity sent down to save us from ourselves. He is Jesus Christ returned, walking among South Africans of all races and guiding us through the frightening dying days of apartheid. Just more than 20 years ago, he was weeks from becoming president and one of his closest allies, South African Communist Party Secretary General Chris Hani, was assassinated at his Gauteng home by a white right-winger. Tens of thousands of South Africans, most of them black, took to the streets of major cities in an outpouring of public grief and rage. Mandela went on national television and told South Africans about Hani's white neighbor who phoned the police to describe the gunman. He called for calm. It worked. This is the Mandela who is invoked by the faithful, the devotees who insist he alone averted a civil war and saved countless white lives.
To others, Mandela is no Jesus. He's more like Judas, betraying his cause and his people for the 30 silver pieces of power. Mandela is the man, his detractors argue, who let the National Party politicians and their brutal lackeys in the police, army, and civil service get away cleanly after their apartheid policies had driven the country to the brink of war.
The detractors loathe those who believe, fervently, that Mandela is the only thing standing between white South Africans and marauding black South Africans determined to take homes, jobs, plots of land, and our lives by force.
So who, and what, was Nelson Mandela, really? His 96th birthday would have been on July 18, but he spent a lot of time in the hospital since last December, his health badly damaged by a bout of pneumonia some years ago. Every time he was admitted to the hospital, the nation immediately divided: some held their breath, praying desperately for just a few more months or days, taking to Twitter to implore him to live to 100. Some of this was, I believe, driven by genuine affection for the old statesman. A lot of it is about symbolism: Mandela is the face of democracy in South Africa—nevermind the many who worked alongside him, both publicly and in the shadows—and his death will force us to face up to what the changes and gains of the past two decades mean to the average South African. For many, it's about fear. What if the right wing has been telling the truth all along? What if we're all slaughtered in our beds? Recently I had a furious debate with an old friend I'd always thought to be quite level-headed. He was amassing a substantial gun collection in preparation for Mandela's death. He felt absolutely certain that Mandela's death would doom the white minority. He planned to emigrate to Australia with his family, but if he can't manage to get there before Madiba's wake, his weapons are loaded and within easy reach.