He was a big talker, the driver who drove my husband and me from the airport in Port Elizabeth, South Africa to an inland game reserve.
He told us that he was originally from Zimbabwe but moved to South Africa many years prior when things got bad for whites under the Mugabe regime. We exchanged a horrified glance at the prospect of a two-hour-drive with a rambling racist at the wheel.
But on our way out of the city, he pointed to a plot of land and said the community planned to build the world’s largest statue of Nelson Mandela right there, and he thought that was a fine idea. He proceeded to tell us that Nelson Mandela was the reason South Africa was not in shambles. He spoke with respect and affection for the first black president of his country, the great fighter and martyr of apartheid. Our driver called him a hero, and the rest of his commentary was that of a tour-guide, proud of the beauty of his adopted country and of the progress it was making against great odds.
This was 2007 and we were visiting South Africa as guests of the Cape Town Jewish community, where I had been invited to lecture.
It seemed that Nelson Mandela was everywhere; in conversation, on billboards, on postcards, plaques, busts; all sorts of souvenirs and merchandise bore his likeness. He was also present in conversations I had with people of all descriptions – and they spoke of him lovingly -- not with reverence for a distant leader, but with fondness as for a grandfather.
Jim and I made the pilgrimage to the prison on Robben Island, where he persevered for 27 years and never lost hope. I remember the quarry, where the glare of the white rock did permanent damage to Mandela’s eyes. I looked out the window where the city of Cape Town was visible and cruelly unattainable.
On Feb 2, 1990, the date of his release from prison, I was in my living room in Newton. It was early morning and I sat my five-year-old daughter down to watch the live feed with me. She remembers me telling her that this was important and the white haired man was a very good person who had been locked up unfairly.
Nelson Mandela’s death is a global event, an opportunity to honor and reflect on a great soul and -- I hope -- a source of inspiration and rededication to his commitment to justice and reconciliation.
His death – at home, surrounded by family, of natural causes -- is a kind of triumph in itself.
Thousands of candles will be lit in honor of Nelson Mandela who leaves the world a brighter place. But you and I – all of us -- are simply bereft.