Joanne explores the impact Mandela has had on her.

joanne fedlerJoanne Fedler

I’m not one to mourn celebrities. They die, just like ordinary people. But in the past while, the thought of Mandela dying, catches me under the ribs and at the back of the throat. It feels personal, though I’ve never met him. I don’t even own a set of those Andy Warhol-type Art Africa coasters or fridge magnets with his face on them you find in every South African immigrant home in Australia along with the beaded flowers and wooden giraffes.

By the time I was born in Johannesburg, in 1967, Mandela had already been in prison for three years on Robben Island. I don’t remember when first I heard his name, but it was probably as a kid, sitting around the family dinner table. My dad, a political cartoonist would talk about his leader page cartoons. He always claimed the Apartheid government did his job for him. ‘You couldn’t make that stuff up,’ he’d say. Back then, Mandela’s name was a story or heroism, like Rosa Parks or Sojourner Truth. Locked away, he was a political Rapunzel, a ‘terrorist,’ by government accounts.

I wanted to be a human rights lawyer and began university in giddy times, in a vortex of Apartheid hubris and violence. On campus security police stormed our ‘politically undesirable’ rallies. Students were beaten with sjamboks and arrested. Through my uni years, Mandela’s name was a wish, a secret we whispered; a battle-cry we chanted at student meetings on campus along with Long-live ANC, long-live,’ ‘Forward with people’s education, forward!’ Mandela was mythical, beloved, larger-than-human. It was illegal to own a picture of him. In a ‘banned’ pamphlet on campus, I found a picture of a young Mandela. I pasted it into a diary I kept under my mattress along with newspaper clippings about state violence – the ones that weren’t censored.

In 1985, PW Botha made his famous ‘Rubicon’ speech, in which he warned the world ‘not to push us too far,’ and barked that South Africa would not give in to hostile pressure and agitation from abroad. I’d been taking medication for migraine headaches and stomach cramps for years but there was no medication to help cure what I felt. My identity had become a psoriasis of self-loathing. When travelling, I’d lie and say I was Australian when people asked about my accent.

But the adrenalin of those times was addictive. To care that much about anything is thrilling; fighting for something together with others sharpens your sense of purpose in the world. I felt part of a symphony of human aspiration. Those university years were like the first rush of lust in a relationship. You can become addicted to the passion, maybe even becoming spoiled for ordinary life which by comparison feels bleached and pale with meaning.

PW Botha then suffered a stroke, leaving a gap for FW De Klerk to take his place. With a slow steady hand, he began to shift South Africa’s future. I was driving home from university on 2nd February 1990 with the radio on when I heard Mandela was to be released. Friends and I watched Madiba walk out of prison on 11 February 1990 as we sat crowded around a small screen television, at the Vaal dam. We cheered til our throats ached. We broke open champagne. We got drunk on the future we could almost taste.

Soon after his release, Mandela came to address the student body at my university. He took questions from students. A Jewish student asked him why he’d embraced Gadaffi. ‘Your enemies are not my enemies,’ Mandela said in his slow, patient way. That day, I learned something about the complexity of my white Jewish South African identity and the naivety of simplifying the world into good and bad.

In 1993, Chris Hani, head of the South African Communist Party was assassinated. Predictions of civil war and bloodbaths haunted the media and my nightmares. But Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu spoke only the language of forgiveness and peace. A modern-day Buddha, Mandela would say things like, ‘Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.’ Later that year, when Mandela and De Klerk were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and South Africa inched closer to democracy, the migraine of my white South African identity slowly began to lift, as if finally properly medicated.

Over the next ten years, I had children. I watched Madiba weave his ‘Madiba magic.’ I also watched disappointment, disillusionment and frustration bear down in the poorest of communities. Violence escalated. It came too close to my family.

On my recent trip back to South Africa, Mandela was lying in hospital on life-support and I knew it was probably the last time I’d be standing on the same soil as him. I don’t know if that accounts for some of the deep sadness I felt while I was there, a grief I never even knew I had in me. But I suppose it makes sense.


Cartoon by Dov Fedler

Mandela is part of all that was the best in my life in South Africa – as a legendary figure, he loomed large in my decision to study law and fight for human rights. He symbolizes for me a time before exile, when I believed one good man could sustain the destiny of a country. He was the antidote to Mugabe. Africa’s answer to the Dalai Lama. He inspired hope at a time when South Africa needed it most. He set the bar for forgiveness, in his words: ‘As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.’

Like many South Africans who left our country, I did so brokenly. Desperately. Half a heart left in my homeland.

When he leaves and returns to spirit, so poignantly depicted in my dad’s most recent cartoon of him, I will feel a part of my history slip into the ocean of memory. But he proved that the mangled inhumanity of Apartheid could produce masterpieces of humanity. His presence in the world gave me courage and hope.

So I grieve. I have Mandelache: (n) personal grief at the prospect of the death of Nelson Mandela, a man I never met one-on-one, but with whom I feel as if I shared an intimate history, unknown to anyone else, like a favourite uncle who sees something in you no-one else does. (n) The impending loss associated with the ending of any epic story, in which the hero must die and the world will be left stunned as if in the wake of a passing miracle (with apologies to John Koenig, author of The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows).

Joanne Fedler –  Women’s Voices
Joanne is the author of six books including the international bestseller Secret Mothers’ Business. During her years as a women’s rights advocate, she was made Asshole of the Month by Hustler magazine (one of her proudest achievements). She is a motivational speaker, writing mentor and facilitator and takes women on writing adventures to Bali and Tuscany with Womens Own Adventures. Joanne can be contacted at:
Life Balance = Exercise. Solitude. Cuddles.

Joanne Fedler offers writing retreats for groups of up to 10 women. Her next retreat will be in Fiji in February 2014. For more information please email Katrina at . For further details or early bird specials, you can sign up for her newsletter here: