The 10th of May 1994 began early for me. I had a student job as a limousine driver and at dawn on that day, my colleagues and I, suited and booted, drove our BMWs through the security cordon at what was then Jan Smuts International airport in Johannesburg. On the airport tarmac we were shown to positions in strict formation, long queues of similarly smart, shiny vehicles in their dozens.
There we waited as planes landed in quick succession, world leaders and their retinue stepping off into their waiting convoys.
I was waiting for the Nigerians. The foreign minister stepped into my car, third from the front, and off we went, a 37-vehicle convoy under police escort to the Union Buildings in Pretoria. It was the largest national delegation of the day – there were concerns the Nigerians had sent too many people, that there wouldn’t be enough seats at lunch.
That was the day of Nelson Mandela’s inauguration as the first president of a democratic South Africa. I imagine similar scenes will be unfolding now at various airports. This time, following Nelson Mandela’s death. This time even more will come. This time, of course, I’m not driving cars for a living.
A loss of hope
These days have passed very quickly, and the next few will as well, I imagine. In the focus on events marking Madiba’s death and the nation’s reaction to it, there’s barely been time to reflect on what it means to me. That will come, and it’s complicated. I think it is for a lot of South Africans, like Carol Pule, who I met on Saturday in Alexandra township on the edge of the glitzy Johannesburg commercial hub, Sandton.
Impassioned and articulate, 28-year-old Carol, an unemployed mother of two, told me many South Africans lost hope the night Madiba died: hope that promises would ever be delivered, of decent houses and jobs, proper health care, services and pensions. Hope of a better life.
It all went to pot after Mandela retired, she told me, after he “fell down” as Carol put it. Now, in her eyes, after years without the ailing Mandela’s guidance and counsel, his cherished ANC has become a tragic disappointment. Put simply, in Carol’s words, it’s no longer about the people, it’s all about greed.
Carol may be right that the ANC has fallen out of favour. Or, with an election round the corner, it may be that a South Africa without its ‘Tata’ turns for comfort to the party it has known best, the ANC he loved, able again to embrace the ideals and values he worked so tirelessly to uphold.
An epic man
For now, we maintain our focus on events: a memorial service of epic proportions befitting an epic man a burial in the hills of his beloved Qunu.
I think of the drivers in all of those cars. They’re going to witness history.
On the 10th of May 1994, my security clearance as a pimply law student, part-time limo driver gave me access to the Union Buildings and the amphitheatre itself, where Nelson Mandela’s body will this week lie in state.
On that day in the amphitheatre, however, I watched Madiba take the oath. I heard him declare: “Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another.”