Kevin Bakhurst: From a dark place into a brighter future
Kevin Bakhurst recalls how Nelson Mandela's influence has spanned generations and still inspires hope
Published 07/12/2013 | 02:30
MY mother took me and my family back to Cape Town for her 70th birthday. She wanted to show my children where she had been born and had grown up until the age of 19, when she left South Africa for a new life in England. Standing at the top of Table Mountain, she showed my children what she had shown me 40 years before. Far across the bay on a clear day you can see Robben Island – the Island where Nelson Mandela spent 20 years in prison.
As a six-year-old, I had stood in the same spot. In her still clear South African accent, my mother told me about Mandela. How he had stood up for his people and his beliefs; why he had hated apartheid and what that terrible system meant for black people in South Africa; how he had faced the death penalty but was instead sent to prison on that island where he was destined to spend the rest of his life.
When we returned to our home in England, she showed me the one black-and-white photograph of a well-built, bearded black man: that was the face of Nelson Mandela and the only image we knew for many years.
My grandparents had a Cape-coloured "maid" called Sarah. She was a beautiful woman in every way who lived well into her 80s.
She had suffered a stroke when I last returned to see her as an adult and could no longer speak but she still had the smile of an angel. As a six year old, I would walk along the seafront in Cape Town, holding her hand but unable to visit the beach with Sarah; unable to sit on a bench with her or ride on a bus with her. That was my own childhood experience of apartheid. Of course, Sarah couldn't explain it all to me but as I grew older I understood exactly what Mandela had fought against and how he had stood for human dignity.
My own family was split by apartheid: my cousin, David Rabkin, was imprisoned in South Africa for nearly 10 years for his membership of the ANC, becoming one of the handful of white political prisoners there.
Soon after his release, he died on an ANC training exercise in Angola. On the other side, close relatives stayed in South Africa and complained that David had brought shame on the family. White and black people were different, they said, and should simply live apart.
Many years later, when I visited those relatives who had remained in Cape Town and prospered under apartheid, they professed their love for Mandela. He was the man who built a more tolerant and prosperous South Africa. We didn't discuss their old views.
During the '70s, my mum and dad were friendly with Oliver and Adelaide Tambo. I had no idea quite how important they were. We would sometimes go to their north London house for tea. I was blissfully unaware that Oliver was Mandela's close friend and legal partner and the most important ANC leader in exile.
It was just another part of the anti-apartheid social circuit of my childhood. The ANC's representative in London at that time was Ruth Momparti, who became a dear and close friend and who is now living out her old age back in South Africa.
She had worked very closely with Mandela – as his personal assistant – and sometimes spoke of him, so I would hear stories of his real human side and his steely bravery. It helped put a personality to that black-and-white photo.
On the occasion of my mum's 70th birthday, I made my first visit to Robben Island and Mandela's tiny cell.
Later, for the BBC, I visited Mandela's home village Qunu, where he tended herds as a boy.
There's a Mandela museum where today's young South Africans learn about Madiba, as he's known to them. There's his own house and, across the road, the small village graveyard with generations of Mandelas marked by small headstones. It's a beautiful, quiet spot where it's thought South Africa's first black president wanted to end his days.
Recent visits to South Africa show all too clearly that Mandela's dream of a fair, peaceful, equal and prosperous country is yet to be fulfilled. There is crime and violence and still appalling inequality; his successors in government have failed to build the country he hoped to see.
I still have high hopes for the future. And, like most of my generation, Mandela is a figure who touched my life but also touched the lives of my parents and of my children.
Mandela represented the hope of something better; he showed us eternal values we could learn from and only aspire to; he led by example and delivered his people from a dark place where they could believe in a brighter future.
Now he is gone, the job of building that future rests in the hands of the next generation.
* Kevin Bakhurst is RTE Managing Director of News and Current Affairs