loveLife’s Office Manager, Thembisile, has quickly become like a mother figure to me. She came to pick me up from the airport, made sure I had groceries and a new cell phone, finds me drivers, buys me lunch - essentially ensures that I’m taken care of. Today we were chatting about the electricity issues of SA, which turned into a conversation about Oprah, which turned into a conversation about Mandela.
To hear her speak about Nelson Mandela seriously brought tears to my eyes – the power, passion, and conviction of her love for him was incredible.
Thembisile told me about her days as an ANC organizer in Durban and about how when she was jailed and tortured for over a month by the government (simply for organizing) she wasn’t phased because Mandela had been in jail (then 20 years) for her. She told me that her then 14-year old nephew was the sole survivor of a government raid in her town, where he was miraculously shot only in the leg, while witnessing his three friends being shot in the head. She said the government feared masses at funerals and thus wouldn’t allow more than 200 attendees per plot. (She said the police would count each person as they walked in.) So she asked for the three plots of her nephew’s friends to be laid side by said so 600 people could surround the boys.
She said through all of this Mandela gave her strength. She said he was always a beacon of generosity. She said when he was released from prison, he came to Durban and the first words out of his mouth were to thank the people. “I am free today because of each of you.” she said he said.
Years later Thembisile met Mandela at a loveLife event. She said Mandela saw her looking at him and he asked if he could shake her hand. And then after doing so, Mandela said to her, “Thank you for allowing me to shake your hand.” Thembisile said she never wanted to wash that hand again.
Later in the conversation, I asked Thembisile how she sees the struggle in South Africa today, thirteen years after the end of apartheid. I asked her if she felt things were getting better. She said, “Yes, many things are better, but there are still many serious problems.” She then quoted the title of Nelson Mandela’s autobiography and said, “It’s a long walk to freedom.”
Disclaimer: I was so filled with emotion after talking to Thembisile that I had to sit down to just write and write. I’ve read about many stories like hers, but to hear a first hand account is a whole other thing. And as I now try to edit my previous stream-of-consciousness, I realize I can’t do her stories justice.
I also can’t help but ask myself: How many leaders today would do the same as Mandela did? How many others show that type of grace and generosity? How many prioritize the gift of giving rather than the gratification of power?
I know the answers to those questions. And I know hoping for more Mandelas in the world isn’t a sustainable solution. I know we need to create systems and institutions that propel progressive change. But damn… generosity, spirit, and inspiration within the slow moving revolution certainly wouldn’t hurt.