And now Nelson Mandela is gone, too.
I don’t mean to use this blog to catalogue the deaths of deeply loved and admired people, though this does seem to be a year for it. It’s just that a sense of time lies heavy on me at the moment. I feel poised on the edge of something, looking back over my own life and also forward to what might be, so naturally thinking about other peoples’ lives and legacies and endings is all par for the course. It’s entirely banal, in fact, at the age of almost-forty-one, to do such a thing. So please forgive me.
Who else out there among my friends reached adolescence and began to “wake up to the world” in the 1980’s? It was an interesting time, wasn’t it? We hear a great deal, see a great deal portrayed in film and other media about kids coming of age in the sixties and seventies, that post-war generation. They did everything, protested, changed the world. (It’s different now, right? Right?…) They had various revolutions, social and political – Vietnam – men on the moon – peace and love – bean sprouts. Bean sprouts saved the world. They had a seismic shift in demographics buoying them along. Everything seemed possible.
Then, there was us.
I’d be interested to hear what my contemporaries say, whether they feel the same way. I swear to God, the 1980’s were claustrophobic for me. Nothing seemed possible, or even probable. My adolescent brain was beginning to fire neurons in all directions. My brain case felt too small for what was going on inside, the world was big and mean and full of incomprehensible adults with far too many nuclear warheads at their disposal and seemingly zero empathy. I couldn’t stand looking at the injustices, couldn’t stand walking past people sleeping in the street while others ate warm dinners and talked about ‘the economy’ (that Beast of the last days.) Every cell in my body screamed it wasn’t right, there had to be another way.
Enter into all of this, Nelson Mandela. Half a world away in South Africa, but he inspired us. Half a world away, us kids admired that man in prison. We chanted “Free Nelson Mandela”. There were those pins people used to wear on school bags. It was sincere – probably useless, but sincere. For me, there was a particular reason to follow the story. I thought of other people in prison, also incarcerated for spurious reasons. I admired Mandela’s refusal to give in. And when he was finally freed, I wept with joy, along with so many others, all over the world. It seemed that if this one man was freed, perhaps there was hope for the rest.
Time passed. People told me I would react less emotionally when I matured, or else work towards a concrete solution to social problems rather than rebelling in my little corner. At the time I just ground my teeth and put it all down to grown-ups being condescending. I stomped off angrily towards womanhood, wearing my blue Doc Martens and knowing full well I was privileged, not in prison, not sleeping rough. Don’t be angry, said the reasonable little voice in the back of my head. Use your advantages to do something interesting. I grew up, sort of matured. And tried to use the advantages, for what they were worth.
But listen: the anger didn’t go away. The emotions didn’t go away. I am sitting here now, as righteously damned furious as I was a quarter of a century ago, minus the pin. I realise there is no getting rid of this anger, because it is a good anger. It says no. No, I won’t walk past the street sleeper with that sense that he must deserve it. No, I won’t shut up and let the Beast Economy run amok, trampling innocents. I will tell the truth as I see it, in my corner, yes, uselessly if need be. I will be emotional about the whole kit and kaboodle.
Here are some home truths from Mr Mandela to help you on your way.
“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”
“To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”
“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love.”
“Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice. Like Slavery and Apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings.”