Brent Stirton: A Native Son’s Ode To Nelson Mandela

I am a South African who lives abroad, based in a place far from my own country. They say you carry your land in your heart, but it’s not true—you forget what makes your country unique if you spend too much time away.

I experienced that with bittersweet clarity this week, watching an endless flow of united South Africans make their way to places of tribute all over this land. Determined people traveling to ensure that they paid respects to a man they call the father of our nation, the man who pioneered the new patriotism in this unique country. It was enchanting—people of every shade and persuasion making their way to these points to ensure a last, lingering connection to the unifier that was Nelson Mandela.

We have not witnessed a massive outpouring of grief but rather a celebration of a remarkable life. There’s dancing and singing—people experience grief differently here, suffering is routine and its given Africans the greatest capacity for happiness on earth. They are dealing with Mandela’s departure through the channel they know best. It’s appropriate, and he would have been dancing with them. At first I struggled with this, constantly looking for an image of appropriate weight, but I realized that’s in my outsider’s heart, not in the hearts of the people who saw their best selves in this man.

On the subject of photography and spirit—I arrived in Soweto and the first photographer I saw was Joao Silva. Silva is a famous NY Times war photographer who lost his legs in Afghanistan to a landmine blast three years ago. There he was, standing on his prosthetics, doing his job amidst the heaving crowd.

This country can be very humbling.

Nelson Mandela made many great speeches but the immortal words he burnt into my brain spoke of how people had no right to be less than all that they are—that your light needed to shine as brightly as it could so that you might illuminate the way for others to follow. I was thinking of that when I photographed three Zimbabwean men saying prayers for Mandela on a hilltop overlooking Johannesburg. They told me how they wished Mugabe could be more like Mandela. Their ruined land meant they they had no choice but to make their own long walk to South Africa to survive. That brought to mind Mandela’s most famous quote, the words he used when he stood in the dock at the Rivonia trial testifying for his life.

“During my lifetime I have dedicated my life to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realized. But, My Lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”—Nelson Mandela

 The real tragedy is that he was not released as a younger man. Who knows what a man like Mandela could have done with those extra years? The specter of the Cold War loomed large in the state of geo-politics at the time: The wars in Angola, Namibia and Mozambique; the war of independence in Zimbabwe; behind it all, the ghost of capitalism versus communism. How petty it all seems now, when you see what one man could achieve when he tapped into what exists in all of us, that element of being commonly human.

At his memorial service at FNB stadium people walked for miles and then sat in the pouring rain to commemorate his life and feel their own place in history. When current South African president Jacob Zuma appeared, the crowd booed him as one. They continued to boo whenever his face appeared on the screens around the stadium. Only when Bishop Tutu scolded them did they calm down. There is the matter of Zuma’s house—costing more than $20 million— funded by taxpayer’s money in another splash of inappropriate opulence. Mandela’s own home in Houghton cost less than $600,000 at time of purchase but Mandela’s  thinking has not reached many of South Africa’s power players. Upon seeing Zuma, a man in the crowd shouted in my ear, “We have swapped one elite for another.”

How refreshing to hear Obama’s voice echo in that stadium and to see the crowd fall respectfully silent. He opened with the following:

“To the people of South Africa—people of every race and walk of life—the world thanks you for sharing Nelson Mandela with us. His struggle was your struggle. His triumph was your triumph. Your dignity and hope found expression in his life. And your freedom, your democracy, is his cherished legacy.”—Barack Obama

 The crowd watched Obama like they were watching a younger Mandela, sensing that they were witnessing that most rare of things—a great statesman in the act of praising another great statesman. It seems we have had precious few of those. Mandela’s widow Graca Machel sat quietly amongst the dignitaries. This remarkable woman has lost not one, but two legendary freedom fighters. She now finds herself on the margins of the Mandela machine. As the man becomes a brand, I found myself feeling great empathy for her. I’d like to think she took comfort looking out at a country unified beyond race and class by the intentional life of Nelson Mandela. Surely his, if any, was a life well lived.

Brent Stirton is a senior staff photographer for Reportage by Getty Images. View more work on his website and watch a video interview on Proof.

Read more on Proof:  A Conversation with Nick Nichols and Brent Stirton

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