Grieving from Afar

Mourning Madiba.

joanne fedlerJoanne Fedler

I cannot escape the fact that I am now officially middle-aged, and that my dignity hangs on a certain brace of character, a self-editing that involves banishing sentimentality from my emotional repertoire. I’ve come to think of sentimentality as a youthful extravagance much like my desire to argue with anyone about anything.

So Mandela’s death has tested me in the past week.

I made a decision twelve years ago to leave South Africa and move to Australia to get my kids as far away from a terrifying violence that came too close to my family. When I got here, Australians didn’t believe that I personally knew six people who had been murdered and countless who had been raped.  Despite this, I spent five years in Sydney looking back, weepy and fragile with longing. But finally, I surrendered. I accepted that my children would grow up with Australian accents; never knowing the words to Nkosi Sikelela. I made a point of learning the words to ‘Advance Australia Fair.’ I started calling ‘braais’ barbeques and swapped my ‘Ja’ for a ‘yeah.’

In Australia, what I got was a more efficient postal system; much less crime and violence. I got headspace and I began to write. I stopped feeling like it was my job to save the world and everyone in it. I didn’t want to be an activist anymore, just an author who wrote thoughtful books.

Years passed and I got better at fitting in. I realised I didn’t automatically cry every time I heard Toto’s ‘Africa.’ Maturity is coming to terms with your actions; to stop being a victim of your own choices, to resist the effortless sentimentality of a past you cannot retrieve. I knew then, that I’d made it. I’d made a successful transplant.

But then Madiba died.

And all the careful resolve I have spent so long accruing, like pennies in a jar, has come crashing to the ground, scattering my emotions. Everything feels messy again.

Cartoon by Dov Fedler.

Cartoon by Dov Fedler.

Right now, all I want is to be in South Africa. I want to be standing vigil outside Mandela’s home in Houghton and singing in the streets. I want to be part of what is happening so far away.  My longing feels unanchored, my anguish irrational. All the questions I’d stopped asking myself (for the sake of my sanity and my husband’s) like ‘why did we leave?’ and ‘was it the right choice?’ re-accost me like brutal paparazzi.

Perhaps longing is one of those tireless emotional pests, that we can only stave off for periods of time before it finds us again. It seems to be not so far from grief in this way. It’s the ache that keeps on aching. Some days will be better than others. We think we have it under control, and then suddenly we find it waiting on our doorstep, an intermittent stalker we think we’ve dealt with just because we got an Australia passport that was meant to come with an AVO that said, ‘stop trailing me.’

Now I can’t hear Nkosi Sikelela without choking up. Ed Jordan’s new song Miss you Madiba has left me a wreck. Watching Jonny Clegg singing Asimbonanga with Madiba, I remember in my bones my university days, feeling like we were riding the crest of history, giddy with the hope and promise of what Mandela stood for.  What happened to that part of me that believed one person could change the world?

Madiba dies and I have become a sentimental sucker, lump in throat, ears now attuned for South African accents (something I stopped doing years ago). I have regressed. I will have to go into immigration rehab all over again.

I will have to resist the craving to feel moved by feeling part of something large and hopeful. I want so much to be moved by Australia, but our current leadership makes me feel lost. Right now, I don’t know what it means to be Australian, but I have never been more sure of what it means to be South African.

Leaving South Africa has taught me that it’s possible to love more than one place. And I have become adulterous this way. Australia gives me security; South Africa fires my spirit. I live every day inside this paradox. So as not to seem schizophrenic, I suppress the memory of the one that jolts me to life in ways that I have tried hard to forget.

Ironically, in his death, Madiba has made me feel more alive that I’ve felt in a long time.

And I find I am not only mourning Madiba, but the future self I might have become, had I stayed.

For people in Sydney, Australia: Joanne has organised the Nelson Mandela Memorial Ceremony which will take place on the library lawns at UNSW at 3pm on Saturday 14th December (tomorrow). See link for details. 

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.