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.