The Mandela man.

I remember the first time I ever heard of a man called Mandela.  I was watching Kideo on TV and the kitchen radio was going crazy with the news of this man’s release.  I wasn’t quite sure who had tied him up or why, but my nanny Lizzy had tears in her eyes and while rubbing both my head and her tear-stained cheeks, she told me that it meant black people would now be free.  And that white people would be even more free, not having to lie about where they were from when abroad.  Of course, I didn’t understand how or even why this man Mandela was going to free everybody just like that, especially when everybody already looked pretty free to me, walking around without ropes and handcuffs.

It would be a few years later when I made my first black friend at school.  His name was Sabelo, I’ve written about him before.  Sabelo told me, while holding my hand and calling us Top Deck, that we were going to change the country one day, together, and that I would be his wife.  I suspected that he only said these things because I had bigger boobs than all the rest of my class, but maybe also because I had freckles – he said he liked freckles, but mostly I thought he liked me because I could speak isiZulu.  Nanny Lizzy had taught us all to speak her language from a young age, and I’d taken it through with me most of my life.  It was when I reached high school and chose to take Zulu as my second language instead of Afrikaans that things really started getting nasty.

By that stage, that Mandela man was our president.  And we had more black kids in our school every year – which was fantastic to me, because they were a hell of a lot less stuck up than most of my white friends, plus they could gyrate and groove better than anyone else in our Drama class, and I have always been all about the drama.  Sabelo asked me to accompany him to the Debs Ball for Matrics, and I was too excited to be the only standard six girl going along as “a date”.  My mom and I hurriedly decided which dress colour I would go in, and I made Subs promise me that I would get the biggest, flashiest corsage around, to match my flaming ego.  It was only a few days before the Debs ball came around that our group of friends got a little rowdy one night and ended up skinny dipping in our pool that my step father turned on the bright lights outside, shouted blue bloody murder and had all the boys running for their dear life outside the gate, up the road and into the distance.

It wasn’t the hour he was mad at.  It wasn’t the fact that we were swimming naked.  It wasn’t the presence of boys.  It was the fact that I had dared to let a black boy inside his swimming pool.  And for the first time in my life I realised how far our country had come.  It hadn’t even occurred to me that my dear life long friend Sabelo could ever be offensive just because of the colour his skin was, especially not in my family pool.  The outside world was still cruel, yes, but in my family home?  That was where things were meant to be safe, sacred and treasured – my friends most of all.

I remember being grounded for being insolent.  I remember fighting until I was blue in the face, defending my friendship, screaming in frustration that I was no longer allowed to attend the Debs Ball just because my date was a black man.  It didn’t matter that he had been my friend for ten years.  It didn’t matter that he was considered what we called “a coconut”.  It didn’t even matter that it was Sabelo, my funny friend who called us whitey’s weird and insisted on making me eat phuti with my hands.  No.  All that mattered was that he was black and I was white.  A Top Deck we did make, but in they eyes of my step dad, for all the wrong reasons.

That Mandela man did something though.  He earned the trust of all the guilty white people who expected revenge but didn’t get it from him.  All they got was change, calm and a silent strength that radiated through our TV screens every time we saw him.  That Mandela man changed our lives, for the better and for the greater good.  That Mandela man makes me proud of my heritage, and proud to be one half of a Top Deck.

Eventually my family came round and opened their minds.  At some point in our lives, all of us children had black friends.  My step dad had to change his attitude, and he tried his very best at least.  Things started to change.  And Subs knew it all along.  Because he believed in that Mandela man, and so did I.

Happy 20 years of freedom, South Africa.


  1. aasia says:

    Brilliant Shebee! If it helps, I didn’t realise I was opressed until that day! My dad kept us away from anything resembling conflict. and I was very surprised to hear, that I was now free!

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