Eyewitness to South African History Recalls the Majesty of Mandela


A native South African, now working for the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, recalls her childhood and her longtime fascination with the late Nelson Mandela.

Johannesburg, South Af­rica, 1973. I am 4 years old. I’ve woken up from a nap and am walking to the kitchen in search of Tina, my beloved black nanny. I walk out the kitchen door to her little room in our backyard. I can smell the smoke of her Lexington cigarette as I gently push open her door. She is sitting in her pink maid’s uniform at her wooden table. Next to her is her twin bed raised on bricks to ward off the Toko­loshe, a much-feared evil spirit. She is gazing at a weathered photo of her three young children.

“Chocho,” she says, noticing me suddenly, “what are you doing here?” And in my tiny 4-year-old brain, I think, “What are you doing here, Tina, living in our backyard, raising me and my brothers instead of your own children? Why does your husband not live with you?” In that moment, despite my young age, I sensed that something was inherently wrong in this situation, abnormal and unfair.

Sunday, Feb. 11, 1990. All over South Africa, people of all races are crowded around television sets and radios awaiting the release of Nelson Mandela from prison. There is a sense of intense anticipation. You can feel it. That morning, the Sunday Star newspaper had published the first photo of Mandela in 27 years. I had grown up hearing that Mandela was a terrorist and a communist who blew up fast food restaurants and killed white innocents in an effort to force black majority rule. That is what the South African government wanted us to believe.

Under apartheid, everything was rigorously controlled by the Nationalist government and we were constantly bombarded with propaganda calculated to scare whites into believing we would all be murdered in our beds by machete-wielding hordes of angry black people (“swart gevaar”) bent on imposing communism upon us all (“rooi gevaar”) if the government relinquished an ounce of control.

On the other hand, I had read parts of the Rivonia Trial reports where Mandela had been found guilty of treason in 1962 and imprisoned for life. I had admired the conviction of his words and recognized the legitimacy of his struggle for his people. I had also traveled alone to Vancouver at age 15 to visit a friend who had emigrated there with her family after the 1976 uprisings, when so many of my friends left the country.

I saw how the world outside South Africa admired Mandela and believed in his struggle. I saw what a normal, non-racial society looked like — black people moving about freely, eating in restaurants, going to movies, sitting on beaches. Black children and white children going to school together. It amazed me that such a society was indeed possible.

Seeing Mandela walk out of prison gave me hope. It was the first glimmer of optimism that perhaps we had a chance of becoming a normal society after all. I looked at this stooped, old man smiling and pumping his fist in the air and I remember praying, ‘Please God, let nothing happen to him. Please let him lead us out of the darkness into a free society.’ ”

He never let us down.

It is April 27, 1994, and I am standing in a long line waiting to vote in the first non-racial, democratic election. Next to me is Tina. She is 59 and voting for the first time in her life. It is my first time voting, too — not because I couldn’t vote in prior elections, but because I saw no point in doing so when it excluded the majority of South Af­ricans.

All over South Africa there are reports of long lines of patient South Africans awaiting their turn to vote. There is a feeling of utter euphoria around the polling stations, people of all races chatting and smiling. All the anxiety and fear of the weeks and months leading up to this historic day have vanished. Up until that morning, there were intense fears that right-wing Afrikaners would live up to their promises of using whatever means necessary to derail these elections.

It’s Tina’s turn. She looks at me. “Chocho, come with me!” She is afraid she won’t know what to do with the ballot. The election officer will not let me go in with her. I reassure her she will be fine. I give her a thumbs up. A few minutes later, she emerges, smiling. “Pom­poman­zi!” she yells jubilantly in her native Tswana, and envelops me in a huge hug. We both cry.

Almost 20 years have passed since that memorable day. Tina has passed away. Some of her grandchildren have graduated from college and will not be unskilled laborers or servants like the generations before them. One of them bears the name of my father.

I am leaving my office on a dreary Thursday afternoon in Phila­delphia when my colleague yells, “Daniella, CNN is saying Mandela has died!” I freeze. I am awash in sadness. I turn around, go back to my office and tune into the CNN live stream where I see President Zuma, in so many ways Mandela’s complete antithesis, announcing his death.

When I get home, I hang my South African flag in my window and light a candle. I feel so homesick. Despite such a strong sense of loss, I am consoled by my feelings of intense gratitude and admiration for Mandela, the indomitable, extraordinary man who saved South Africa from bloody civil war through his words and actions of forgiveness and reconciliation.

Hamba Kahle Madiba.

Daniella Slon is the digital marketing manager at the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. She left South Africa in 1995 for Israel and moved to Philadelphia in 2002.


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