When I was about ten years old, my mother and I visited the Pretoria Zoo. We were half way through our tour when we heard cheers somewhere in the distance. A few moments later, Nelson Mandela, seated on the back of a golf-cart, taller than I had ever pictured him, whizzed past as we stood on a quiet bridge on this weekday morning as we were looking at crocodiles. He smiled brightly, gave one jolly wave and was gone. I did not know him, and did not understand at that age the significance of his life or his work, this man who had led a revolution and changed the world. But in a very powerful and peculiar way, in that one fleeting moment, I felt embraced, acknowledged, blessed.
Every South African, I bet, has a similar story.
Still, I surprised myself yesterday morning when, after turning on the television to the news that Nelson Mandela had passed away, I began to cry. I am not naturally an emotional person or even a sentimental one. I had never thought that this moment in history, this death of one of the world’s greatest men, would affect me like it did, so suddenly and so purely. I had never really thought about what his legacy meant to me, how it had affected my life, about the debt that I personally owed the man so affectionately known as Tata (father).
He is obviously, and rightly, remembered as the incorruptible hero of the Anti-Apartheid Movement – the man who brought an end to the draconian racist rule of one injudicious regime and ushered in one of the most liberal democracies in the world. But his legacy needs to be recognised as something that stretches further than just that one struggle. It is something astonishing, something that is defined by so much more than just the fight against racism.
It didn’t occur to me until I stood in front of that television crying that the fact that I have never, not once in my life, feared or felt discriminated against because I was gay, was thanks to Nelson Mandela. I admit that it is something that I have taken for granted, living in a country where who I slept with wasn’t something that was controlled, legislated, derided, punished, wasn’t even necessarily interesting. It was just something that was.
The fact that in 1994, when he became the president of a free South Africa, it became the first country in the world to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation in its constitution and eventually became only the fifth country in the world to legalise gay marriage (behind only Denmark, Belgium, Canada and Spain), was something that I had never fully considered. But it stands as a true testament to his message.
It was a message of equality and inclusion, tolerance, peace and forgiveness; a message that began as a fight against racial prejudice, was forged in the face of unspeakable hatred and became something that spoke of unconditional equality. It is a fragile and difficult thing, trying to separate the myth from the man, trying to know the mind behind the message, because he is so much a part of us all. Nelson Mandela is intrinsically linked to the identity of every person in South Africa, the embodiment of a nation trying to be its best. But he is also the living embodiment of acceptance and equality for all people of the world. He is hope.
I am not deluded enough to think that there aren’t still people who are discriminated against or abused because of their sexual orientation or that the constitutional ideals that were born from Nelson Mandela’s message have somehow magically been translated into widespread public acceptance. Nor do I forget that I live on a continent where, in some places, homosexuality is punishable by death, but I do know that I am free. Here, today, I am free.
My rights as a gay man are enshrined and protected. Every time I walk freely, every time I am allowed to be me, the day I decide to get married or have children, it will be due in no small part to this one man and his message of peace. He has set me free. He set us free. I will never take that for granted again. We owe Nelson Mandela a debt, you and me: to be better, to do better, to strive harder, to be as kind and wise as possible, to fiercely protect the liberty he gave us and to fight for those who have yet to gain it. He was, he is, the best of us all.
Thank you, Mr Mandela. Thank you, Tata.