It popped up quickly on the news Sunday evening in Eastern Canada: Mandela in critical condition. The wording and language choice was noteworthy, little talk of a positive prognosis and words like “making him comfortable” creeping in to the coverage. It is time to consider the future of South Africa without its unifying force, Nelson Mandela.

For people of a certain age, Nelson Mandela is the one of the most remarkable individuals of our lifetime. His journey is well-documented by many, including himself in Long Walk to Freedom, so I’ll skip the summary. For those planning a trip to South Africa, I consider Long Walk to Freedom as essential a read as any travel guide. It was Nelson Mandela who brought me to South Africa.

Nelson Mandela release from prison
Source: BBC News

I’ve wanted to go to South Africa since the 1990s. I waited in breathless anticipation as Mandela emerged a free man after 28 years in prison, the day I decided I could go to a freer South Africa. Around the same time, I wrote a paper for my International Baccalaureate History class about South Africa. I learned about the country’s history of conflict, the cruelty of the apartheid regime, and even found an Amnesty International reproduction of a race identity card. The research nicely coincided with current events, perfect for leaving impressions on a teenager.

For years, I contemplated the trip generally, but did little about it beyond that. In 2012, I started searching airfares one night, and a trip went from idea to execution in about four months. October 2012, twenty-two years after making the decision, I touched down in Johannesburg on a warm spring night. It was a moment of complete selfishness, feeling the immense satisfaction of fulfilling the only thing I’ve wanted to do my entire life.

I’m in South Africa, now what?

South Africa is about so much more than Mandela, and my travels there were magnificent and exceeded every expectation. Every day was a learning experience about the country, its glories and its troubles. That said, in his lifetime, and particularly in recent years, Mandela has reached almost mythic proportions, near-saint, post-human.

You cannot escape the name Mandela in South Africa. It is spoken with reverence.  Highways are named after him, bodies of water, buildings, parks, his image and presence is felt everywhere. So much so, I can’t help but wonder if he would find it all very embarrassing.

And I was all-in. While I was there, new currency rolled out with Mandela’s image, I repeatedly cheered my good luck to be visiting during such a time, every time I got one of the new notes at the ABM. In very practical terms, having Madiba notes in my wallet was as close to Mandela as I would get.

South Africa Nelson Mandela 50 rand

Sitting in Madiba’s driveway

The recurring theme in my conversations with South Africans was the question of what happens after Mandela passes. There is fear about the uncontested power of the ANC, its vigorous youth wing, scattered opposition and the complex structure of favours and money that fuels local politics. With so much political churn, you simply can’t help but ask, “What’s next?” Poverty, corruption and race do make me worry about the future of the county. But that’s not all I feel, with so many reminders of Mandela’s presence and influence, it’s just as easy to feel hopeful.

Hope was the only thing on my mind when I found myself sitting in Madiba’s driveway.

After a long, hot day in the Eastern Cape province, we found ourselves in Mthatha with a broke-down van. This meant we missed our opportunity to visit the Nelson Mandela museums in Mthatha and the one in Qunu, the village best known for where Mandela spent his childhood.

On the road out of Qunu, our driver Lulo waved at a pink house behind an impressive gate, “Oh, that’s where Madiba lives.” We convinced him to turn around and we pulled into his driveway to look at the gate:

South Africa Nelson Mandela gate

We sat there is silence, just taking in the group of people exiting the house, smiling and laughing with one another. After they left, our guide went over to the guard house to say hello. They joked about whether our contingent of Germans and Canadians had an appointment. Appointment? “Oh yes, Madiba is home. He just had his dinner and is resting.” HE WAS HOME. I was there and he was home.

More than six months later, I continue to process how I feel about being 30 metres away from him – after you get through the guard house, the gate, several more doors and a flight of stairs. I didn’t have an audience, or even see his face, but to simply know he was there reaffirmed my faith and optimism for the future of the country. It’s as close to a religious experience as I’m likely to experience.

What’s next?

Out of curiosity, I read South African trending hashtags on Twitter, and I get the sense many people have accepted Mandela’s passing as inevitable, and younger people are not comfortable with the amount of public and media hand-wringing about his health. After all, he is 94 years old, has suffered many health effects from his imprisonment and has been in ill health for some time. South Africa is a young country, with a growing number of people who were not alive during Mandela’s imprisonment, release or presidency. They are looking to the future, not the past.

Mandela’s presence will be felt after his passing, but it won’t be in the troubled political structure. South Africa’s greatest strength is and will continue to be her people. Come what may after Mandela passes, South Africa’s people will carry the grace and strength best exemplified by Mandela’s courage of conviction and this character will always exceed the country’s political troubles. And, for me, that is where Mandela’s legacy is found.

No doubt, South Africa will be a different country when I return, but I can’t help but feel it will be one that continues to fascinate, grow and exceed expectations.

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