Students at the Melpark Primary School in Johannesburg sing “Happy Birthday” as they celebrate former president Nelson Mandela’s 95th birthday. Photo by Denis Farrell/The Associated Press

Nelson Mandela, the first black president of South Africa, died on Thursday, December 5. He was 95. The Nieman Foundation has maintained strong ties to South Africa since 1960, when the first fellows from that country were accepted into the program. A South African has joined every class since. This summer, Janet Heard, NF ’10, published the following open letter to Mandela on his 95th birthday:

Dear Madiba*,

* Madiba is Nelson Mandela’s clan name.While you have been hanging on to life, I have traversed the Eastern Cape—through your childhood home of Qunu to and from the South Coast of KwaZulu-Natal—during a two-week road trip.

Relieved that you have now stabilized, I almost postponed the journey from Cape Town when your condition became critical. But I did not want to disappoint a group of American friends after months of holiday planning.

You may be amused to know that one of my guests—whom I met during a year as a Nieman Fellow—said if they followed the travel advisories, they wouldn’t visit South Africa. The US Department of State website warns of public disturbances, strikes and xenophobic attacks, also the risk of being raped or hijacked and robbed at the ATM. Visitors must watch out for muggers when visiting the US consulate or hiking on Table Mountain. The risk of a shark attack is even listed.

Yet all my visitors endured were sore tongue muscles after trying to perfect the Xhosa click in Qunu, avoiding cows, pigs and dogs on the N2 between Butterworth and Mthatha, and unreliable Wi-Fi at otherwise beautiful coastal resorts.

You might chuckle to hear that while staying at a friend’s family cottage in the coastal village of Elysium in KwaZulu-Natal, we slept for six nights with the front door unlocked, disturbed only by cheeky monkeys frolicking in the bushes.

Everywhere we went during our journey, we saw how our divided country has united in their love for you. Your name was on the lips of game rangers, bank tellers, shopkeepers, waiters and petrol attendants. The conversation began just 40 kilometers from Cape Town. “Mandela will not leave without saying something to us,” insisted Bernie, while filling our tank at a Somerset West garage. “He is our leader, we are waiting for his message.”

Your name was also on everyone’s lips at our seaside haunts in Wilderness, Jeffreys Bay, Port Alfred, Port St. Johns, and Chintsa (another Xhosa tongue-twister our visitors tried to master).

On our way to Qunu one morning, we read aloud the Sunday articles on the latest family feud that threatens your dignity.

About 20 kilometers before your childhood home, we passed the fancy new paved road to your birthplace, Mvezo, where your grandson Mandla is reportedly building a Transkei version of Nkandla.

We visited your museum in Qunu. Being a Sunday, it was closed, but security guard Vukile Masinga welcomed us in your honor. Tourists wandered around in awe. Girls played netball nearby. Choral strains from the valley below broke the eerie silence.

Janet Heard and security guard Vukile Masinga walk to Nelson Mandela’s childhood playing field, where he used to create his own “roller coaster” by sliding down smooth rocks. Photo by Lisa Mullins

We strolled down to one of your childhood rocks with a shiny smooth path down the middle. In “Long Walk to Freedom,” you called these rocks your “roller coaster”: “We sat on flat stones and slid down the face of the large rocks. We did this until our backsides were so sore we could hardly sit down.”

We were mesmerized as we imagined you—one of the most famous liberation leaders in history—as a little cattle herder squealing in delight while slipping along a rock in the veld.

Your museum visitors’ book is inscribed with “get well soon” messages and tributes: “We will always love you Tata,” wrote Sabelo Moloi. Lisa Copeland wrote: “I brought my children from Cape Town to be inspired by how a cattle herder could be president of SA.”

The distant sounds of the choir drifted up through the valley. Below, we could see your pink retirement home, guarded by police. We drove toward the source of the singing, to the community center opposite your house. Your neighbors, villagers and family members—including Mandla Mandela—had gathered to sing and pray for you.

You would smile to see how amazed my friends were that they could walk midway into the somber service without a second glance. You may nod sagely when, summing up the mood of my guests, Ashwini Tambe, a women’s studies and history professor, said she hoped on her trip to understand better the “transformation Mandela underwent from being the agitator who contested apartheid by all means necessary to an all-embracing spirit who believed the best in everybody and wagered on it.”

Returning to Cape Town, we drove alongside the False Bay coast on Baden Powell Drive. South Africa’s challenges once again came into sharp focus as we travelled between the vast blue ocean and the cramped informal housing of Enkanini, where marginalized people live in growing frustration.

You warn about the ongoing struggle in your autobiography: “I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb.” When you stood down as president, you filled the country with “a reservoir of goodwill,” wrote Nicholas Haysom, your former presidential legal adviser, at the weekend. “This was a social capital it could draw on as it faced new and difficult challenges—the mountains ahead that Mandela refers to.”

This holiday, while you have been on your sick bed, I swam in this reservoir of goodwill. I was reminded how privileged I am as a middle-class citizen. I felt an immense pride to show charmed visitors our magnificent country. Although unacceptably unequal and in deep pain, South Africa shines with potential.

Amid the white noise of divisiveness, we need to adopt your all-embracing spirit my friend speaks about. We need to learn about each other, to climb mountains together.

Happy 95th birthday.

This article was published in the Cape Times on Mandela’s birthday, July 18, 2013. Heard is assistant editor, head of news at the Cape Times. She is a 2010 Nieman Fellow. Accompanying her on the road trip were 2010 fellows Martha Bebinger, Lisa Mullins, and Shankar Vedantam; affiliates Ashwini Tambe and Steve Pike; and children Eli Bebinger, Anya Vedantambe, and Tyler and Ella Pike.

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