Nelson mandela / photo: matthew willman

Happy birthday, Nelson Mandela

And thanks for stealing my childhood

When I was 15 years old, you were released from prison by the Apartheid government of South Africa. I grew up as an Afrikaner and talk was rife at school and church that you were a terrorist and that your release spelled the beginning of a bloody, violent war in our country.

So on the 11th of February, 1990, we were all on the edges of our seats, watching the live televised footage of you walking out of prison. We hadn’t seen your face, but the first images showed a smile that in the following decades would exemplify the charisma that would be coined as ‘Madiba Magic’.

Around the world you used that magic to get the world and its leaders at your feet. Locally, you slowly destroyed our idea of who we were taught you were.

Four years later, on my 19th birthday, you were elected as South Africa’s first truly democratic president. Yes, some blood was tragically shed, but in those four years South Africa shifted into a new era without any of the protracted civil war that was predicted. Singing and dancing, and holding the Rugby World Cup aloft with Francois Pienaar in 1995, you destroyed the propaganda with which I grew up.

With that, you cast a long shadow of doubt over everything else that I might have learned in my cultural foundation. If they lied to us about you, what else did they lie about?

My generation was the last to endure the so-called Christian Nationalist Education. And we were the first to have to step up to the line and take the hands of our estranged countrymen to build something new.

We have been totally unprepared. And as we grow older and edge towards our middle-age, we are drifting along with a loss of identity. Many of us leave South Africa to go make contributions elsewhere around the world. That is a shame, because this country could do with some passionate, skilled labour.

So, yes, you stole my childhood, but I am really grateful you did. Our generation witnessed what the Christian values we were taught in theory by the Dutch Reformed Church looked like when they were put in practice by our perceived enemy. Compassion. Forgiveness. Love.

You gave us so much more than what you took away.

Happy birthday, President Mandela.