Friday, December 6, 2013

A Sort of Homecoming

Tembo is having a particularly good day.  He's in the best of moods.  His smile is a mile wide and he's not at all ashamed for everyone to see it.

He's sitting in a food court, and has a glass of soda in front of him.  To all appearances it's the soda that has him so happy.  As he sips from it, Tembo only seems to grin wider.  He's savoring it.  Slowly, his eyes begin to close, as if in ecstasy.

But he's remembering.

The year is now 1964.  The focus is no longer Tembo, who is all of three decades old in the present, but Nelson Mandela.  Nelson has just been convicted of political treason.  It is South Africa, and apartheid is the law of the land, and the law says all blacks and other non-European races are to be strictly segregated into increasingly poor living conditions.  Nelson has been one of the leading proponents of a black political party, the African National Congress, and also incidentally the main nuisance in the regime that has made inequality the law of the land.

At nearly fifty years old, Nelson is already headed well into the other side of his life, but he meets this fate with unerring dignity.  He's too dignified to dignify insulting offers that would win him his freedom but rebuke the cause for which he has sacrificed it.  The world changes around him, while Nelson waits in prison.  When the Cold War ends, the South African political mainstream has finally had enough of the people clamoring for him.  He has been in prison for nearly three decades, for crimes of conscience.  He has been suffering ill-health.  If he had died while imprisoned, he would have become a martyr.

Instead, it's hoped that if he's released, Nelson will simply go away.  For a moment, he considers this option.  He stops in a food court and orders a glass of soda.  Sitting next to him is perhaps the only man in all of South Africa who doesn't know the name Nelson Mandela.

This man, whose name Nelson never learns, still acknowledges him.  They trade a few harmless remarks on how refreshing their shared choice of beverage is.  Nelson forgets for a moment everything that's happened to him, everything he's struggled for.  The man sitting next to him is white.  Nelson is shocked when he realizes what's happening.  In all that time while imprisoned, he never for a moment imagined that something like this would be waiting for him on the other side.

The other man finishes his soda and walks away, just like that.  He has a most curious expression on his face, something like joy.  Nelson is sure he has not been recognized, somehow, by the man, but he feels as if they have both understood something very basic, what he's spent his life struggling to have acknowledged.

Later, years later, after he has served as the first black president of South Africa, Nelson returns to the same food court.  This time, it has been arranged for someone to duplicate this experience with him.  At first he wonders if he should specify that the individual be black or white.  As a symbolic gesture, he thinks they should be white.  But then he realizes it doesn't matter.  If he were to say one way or another, he would be a hypocrite, and make a mockery of his whole life.  And so he is surprised.

The glass arrives, the countryman sits down beside him, and Nelson feels the sheer pleasure all over again.  It is a reenactment of the moment he chose to lead by example one more time, and take the opportunity to speak for his people, all people, once more.

And the next year, on the anniversary of the date of the first and then the second, he does it again.  He begins to feel exactly like the man who shared it with him the first time.  He feels very happy.

And so we reach the present, and now we know exactly why Tembo is there and why he is so happy.  Except on this day, Nelson Mandela is on his deathbed.  It has yet to be acknowledged as such, but all South Africa knows it.  The man is sitting next to an empty seat.  He raises his glass.  He is still very happy.

To Nelson Mandela!