Nelson Mandela’s death has touched so many people across the world this December of 2013. It has reminded people of that moment in South Africa’s history when the future was a rainbow – symbolic to those of us there not just of a new interracial land, but of hope itself.
In 1990 I was, like my homeland, on the cusp of something new. I was about to become a teenager and was witnessing consciously for the first time a profound shift (the change from toddler to child was marked by a similar change – then, living in Zimbabwe, it was a similar message of hope, but one I was too young to comprehend). I now live in yet another country, a choice made for many reasons, but not because I had lost that hope that we all saw as Apartheid crumbled. There are plenty of South Africans (and Zimbabweans) who have lost hope in their motherland, and who have chosen a new life in a new place for a multitude of reasons, some wrought from fear, some from despair. An English husband, a good job, a lovely home, and many other great things keep me here, although I wasn’t intending to stay for more than a year. But a corner of my consciousness is always slightly distant – a stranger to my everyday existence.
This week, it was expressed most profoundly for me in the sight of one thing: in amongst the many shots of Qunu and the Eastern Cape, my home for more years than than other place, was one of a hillside dotted with aloes, and then, a lingering shot of one aloe, standing as if a sentry at Madiba’s gravesite. I was moved many times in the last two weeks by the footage of the man, memories of him coming to my home town on more than one occasion – once I waited on a hillside with student friends, joining the screams and ululations as he passed; once, before he was president, shaking his hand, cool and dry. But it was the aloe that broke me. Spiky, indifferent to the heat, proudly growing, often amidst the dust and thorns of a barren hillside, the aloe bursts into life in Spring to show a flame of colour visible from miles away.
Sometimes I feel like I’ve been transplanted. Instead of dry, sandy soil, the blasting heat of a berg wind coming down across the Karoo, I am waterlogged, dazzled by endless green, the horizon brought close by the gentle curves of hills, neatly segmented by hedgerows. There are no deep dongas from the last rainfall of endless views, barely punctuated by a spindly, rusted fence. But perhaps I should look to the aloe, and stand proud and blazing red against the greens and greys of my daily existence, and remember:
I am an African.
Even here, even with my pallid skin and Celtic hair, to look at me you might not know, but my heart burns with the heat of my homeland, and I am an African wherever I live.