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I was born within a few miles of Nelson Mandela‘s home. At the beginning of the Eighties my parents worked in a rural hospital in what was then the “Bantustan” of Transkei, the strange semi-nation that the Apartheid South African regime created as a “homeland” for black Africans in its east, and which no other countries recognised as a political entity. Mandela was born into a royal family in the Xhosa tribe near Mthatha, not far from the hospital my parents went to for my birth.
Years later, long after my parents and I had come back to Britain, the world watched in awe as Mandela walked free from prison. I was still a child, far too young to understand the moral complexities of the world, so I remember the day with strange clarity, because it was one of the few times when the adults around me were clear and unambiguous: this is one of the good guys. This is a good day for the world; this is one of those events when the world has got better. I didn’t understand why, or who this man was, but I understood that he mattered, that this was someone great.
That simplicity was false, of course. Mandela was a man, and in the years that followed the messier aspects of his life became known to me, and I associate them in my memory with growing up: the realisation that there are no “good guys” and “bad guys” in the stark, pure, children’s television sense, but complex creatures with good intentions and human weaknesses. It is probably fair to say, though, that among us flawed humans, Mandela was one of the closest to what children would understand as one of the goodies; there was something different and special about him. What he achieved – showing a divided country how to forgive in the face of the most brutal treatment – was uniquely powerful and beautiful.
Two years ago I went back to South Africa, for the first time since I was a baby. Transkei is now a full part of that strange, beautiful and still troubled country; it’s called the “Wild Coast”, and if you drive as I did the thousand miles up from Cape Town to Durban, across the Kei river, it is a strange sense of leaving the very European, Mediterranean south of the country, all stuccoed villas and beachside bungalows (yards from the terrible poverty of the townships), and entering an African tribal land of circular mud huts, wild untouched beaches, chaotic city streets, and goats wandering across the highway.
On the way, we drove through Mthatha. It’s not a rich city by any means – not modern, like Johannesburg and Cape Town – but proud and friendly, and the old hospital in which I was born is still there. Now, though, it’s known by a new name: the Nelson Mandela Academic Hospital.
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