For weeks and weeks in June, July and August this year, I watched from the outside in, as news of Nelson Mandela’s deteriorating health travelled from a hospital in Pretoria to the rest of the world, including New York, where I now live. I’d never felt farther away from home and yet in the same breathe closer to it.
I remember the warm Sunday afternoon when the Presidency released a statement saying Mandela’s condition had gone from ‘serious’ to ‘critical’. I recall walking in a daze back to my apartment in Manhattan, after having spent the day in the glorious company of friends who were expecting a baby. The fears and hopes my countrymen shared with each other reached me, across the seas, and I kept my own vigil in the Big Apple.
Now, a few months later, I came to Joburg on a much-needed, three-years-overdue holiday. On Thursday night, after gathering together some of my friends who shared a few drinks and stories of their lives now with me, I went back to my friend’s house where I was staying, where we both became worried at the news that President Jacob Zuma was due to address the nation live on TV. We both knew what was coming, and yet, still, hoped against hope, it would not be.
As soon as Zuma began speaking, my knees began knocking together as I held onto Annaleigh’s arm with one hand and used another to tweet. The news truly felt as if it was washing over me. Like so many who’d been aware of his ill health, we’d come to know that this day was going to pass, sooner or later. Somehow, it still was unexpected.
After Zuma’s announcement was over, I couldn’t quite comprehend what to feel. Sadness, a deep sadness, and also a kind of uselessness in my role as journalist. After 3 year away, I had got used to being somewhat of an outsider and now, here I was, right in the heart of the most saddest of news. But I had ‘planned’, if you will, for this day from an outsider’s point of view. I was going to report on the reaction in New York, the first American city Madiba had visited when he was released from prison. During my time in NYC, I’ve been learning a lot about the massive ticker-tape parade that had been held for him in June 1990, the reception at Yankee Stadium Mandela received, where he famously donned the team cap and jacket, and the great ties between Harlem and South Africa along civil rights lines. I knew where I was going to go, who I was going to speak to, exactly which stories I wanted the public back home to know about.
But for whatever reason, I happened to be here on South African soil, and just a few kilometres away when Mandela took his last breath. Many friends have messaged me to say that I was meant to be here, and even that Madiba waited for me to come home before he went. I appreciate the sentiment, however far-reaching it may be, but I admit, although I was glad to be home for this, I struggled with the role I was to play in helping the world remember such a great man.
Luckily though, I’ve got over it. Knowing there was work to be done, I put aside my feelings and went to Mandela’s family home in Houghton as Thursday night became Friday morning, where I started speaking to some of the hundreds of people that had gathered outside, singing, dancing, paying tribute to his life. And I started filing for Eyewitness News. Not from New York, but from Johannesburg. I’ve changed my flights and will be reporting from here this week. I may at times feel like an outsider, but South Africa will always be my home – and Madiba, my honorary grandfather.