Death is no more than passing from one room into another. But there’s a difference for me, you know. Because in that other room I shall be able to see.
– Helen Keller –
Like all South Africans (expats included), Nelson Mandela’s ailing health concerns me. I think what’s happening with us as a Nation, is the coming to terms with the fact that this extraordinary human being is preparing to leave this life behind. Getting to grips with this reality, reminds me of how my own family gathered around my grandfather’s bed in the final days before he passed away. And similar to back then, I find myself being with the aching thought: Tata* is dying.
It’s difficult to understand why an entire country is holding onto a frail old man with prayers for his recovery, when all the signs are there that it is time for him to go. We all know when the end is near, don’t we? Whether it happens tomorrow or in the next six months, it is bound to happen.
For me, the only prayer in our hearts should be: Thank you for his life and his example and his legacy. Let him go without pain and in peace.
Death brings great uncertainty. When I speak to my friends from across the globe and all walks of life, I notice their apprehension about the future of our country. It doesn’t matter whether we are black, white, coloured or anything in between, our love for South Africa pulses through our veins. As Mandela, our symbol of hope and inspiration, slowly fades away and as we gather around as a ‘family’ to witness the end of his life, it’s only natural that we fear the future.
I recently came across a poem written by the South Africa poet, Jan F Celliers. It was written between 1917–1934, in memory of General Christiaan De Wet — one of the great Boer generals, a rebel leader and politician during the Anglo Boer War. (De Wet is also mentioned in Kipling’s poem Ubique.)
The poem was written in Afrikaans and is titled, Generaal De Wet. I think its essence very much describes how I and my fellow countrymen feel at the moment, which is why I took the liberty of writing an English adaptation of the poem.
Perhaps these words will help.
Be Silent My Brothers
Be silent, my brothers,
a man is passing by,
he bids farewell,
one last time.
None like him will walk these fields again,
so look at him
and take note.
dull and sunken deep,
once blazed with fire and flame —
an eagle’s gaze,
adored and loved;
his stride and proud display,
now weak and frail.
Is this N’kosi*, our father and king?
And as he was,
And as he is.
With fading sight,
he still looks on high
at you and I
as God commands.
Though slow in pace
With downward bend
and weakened heart,
he still remains,
as he did back then,
with every broken beat and sluggish step
loyal till the bitter end.
This pure man
is your child, South Africa!
So what fear is there?
Blessed is our land
with soil and blood and flesh,
that bear such fantastic fruit.
Ubuntu* my brothers,
Always Beloved South Africa!
*Tata – A south African term of endearment for ‘grandfather’
*N’kosi – A South African term of address to a superior; master; chief.
*Ubuntu – I am what I am because of who we all are.
Images: Nelson Mandela – Computer rendering from a photo of Nelson Mandela by Wayne Rose Graphics
Text: FR Lubbe – Translation and adaptation of Jan F Celliers’ poem Generaal De Wet