rest in peace

Tonight, at about 7pm, I was walking through central London to meet my brother and cousins for dinner. When I got to Leicester Square, I couldn’t move for the crowds, and I realised I had accidentally stumbled across the London premiere of the new Mandela film, “Long Walk to Freedom”. Nelson Mandela’s daughter, Zindzi Mandela, was in attendance, as were Prince William and Kate. Little did anyone know that by the time the film had ended, the news would have broken that Mr Mandela had passed away.

We heard the news a couple of hours later, as we were finishing our dinner. When I checked Facebook and Twitter, almost every status and tweet was about Nelson Mandela.

It goes without saying, but he really was an extraordinary man. He spent 27 years in prison, which is as long as I have been alive. I can’t even begin to comprehend how that must feel, particularly for someone who has done nothing wrong. He spent all that time behind bars, and yet he didn’t let it break his spirit. He went on to become South Africa’s first black president, just a few short years after the end of apartheid.

When I was 15, I visited South Africa with my family. It was the most beautiful country I had ever been to, with breathtaking mountain scenery, vineyards, endless coastline and penguins on the beach in the middle of summer. We had an incredible time, but it was clear that the country still had a lot of problems, and a long way to go in achieving true equality. We still heard racist remarks from white people, which came across oddly, as though there was no real malice behind what they were saying, but that certain ideas were deeply ingrained. Some prejudices can take generations to shift. There were also the miles and miles of slums by the side of the motorway, filled with refugees from Zimbabwe and Mozambique. Yet, despite its obvious flaws, South Africa felt like a country on the mend, brimming with hope and optimism.

During our trip we took the boat to Robben Island, and visited the prison where Mandela was held in captivity. Our tour guide was an elderly black man, and, as it turned out, a former prisoner himself. When my little brother asked, “Did you ever meet Nelson Mandela?” he chuckled and said, “Meet him? I used to play chess with him… right over there!”

I don’t have the words to pay tribute to such a great man, but it would be wrong not to mention his passing. I’m inclined to think it was a rather lovely twist of fate that the London premiere was taking place at the time of his death, and that so many people were thinking of him as he departed this world. However, I hope that whoever was responsible for breaking the news to his daughter did so with sensitivity and discretion, and helped her find a moment of privacy, away from the prying eyes of the press.

Rest in peace, Nelson Mandela. Your lifelong fight for freedom and equality changed the world. You were brave, inspirational, and a true leader who will never be forgotten.

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