Today Dana and I visited the Castle of Good Hope to meet with Esther Esmyol, one of the Social History Collections Curators at the Iziko Museums, to discuss our education project dealing with the Save Our Seabirds Festival. Shortly upon arriving Esther rushed us over to the award-winning ceramics exhibit. On the way she apologized extensively, asking us to be patient while she deals with a couple visitors in the exhibit. Although irked that she had apparently double booked during our arranged meeting time, I showed no visible sign and wandered through the wonderful ceramics searching for anything maritime themed (to include in an app for the Seabird Festival). After a short while I joined Esther on her tour of the ceramics exhibit and she introduced me to the other visitors, but as is so common for me in this country I struggled to decipher the names she provided. We continued through the exhibit for quite some time. Esther bubbling with excitement at the collections, spouting out facts. Myself enjoying the tour, yet conscious of the time ebbing away not being used for my intended purpose. Finally, we approach the end of the tour and I retain my anxiousness to speed along to more relevant information. Naturally, at this point South Africa decided to serve me a large slice of humble pie.
As the other visitors begin to leave, Esther is talking with the older of the two visitors and the topic of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison flows into conversation. It turns out this woman I just spent the last 45 minutes touring the exhibit with has amazing stories to tell about Nelson Mandela. Why you ask: because her name (the one I failed to comprehend) is Dr. Brigalia Bam and she is an important public figure in South Africa. Head of the Independent Election Commission for 12 years, Dr. Bam helped forge modern politics in South Africa, earning her the endearing moniker, “mother of democracy.”
On the day of Madiba’s release, from my understanding, Dr. Bam gathered with others outside Mandela’s home to celebrate their leader’s freedom. While the location may not be completely accurate (I am retelling this story from memory after all), the details that follow are what really matter. Near Dr. Bam at this gathering is none other than Desmond Tutu. Archbishop Tutu receives a telephone call requesting his house as the place for Madiba to spend his first night of freedom. Tutu explained that he wasn’t in town, but that his wife was at home and could welcome Mr. Mandela. A nearby journalist eavesdropping as best he could on the mixed English-Xhosa conversation practically jumped on Desmond Tutu at this point offering transportation to Cape Town via private air and land transport in return for the first interview with Mandela. Desmond took up the offer and that BBC journalist earned the first interview with Madiba.
Already entranced by Dr. Bam’s story all thoughts of the Seabird Festival had slipped from my mind at this point. Even so, I still wasn’t prepared for her next story. Just this past Saturday Nelson Mandela’s wife, Graça Machel, invited Dr. Bam and two other women to visit Madiba’s at his bedside in Pretoria. For the first time since arriving in South Africa I heard positive news about Mandela’s condition. Dr. Bam described Mr. Mandela opening his eyes and smiling whenever you spoke to him, and closing them to pray with you. She explained how odd it was to be standing over him, the man who she still thinks of as President Mandela. How she still felt awe-struck being in his presence, even as he lay sick in the hospital. Nothing could have convinced me more than her words that Madiba will stay with South Africa for at least a little while longer.
My experience today reminds me of the history that shapes the people of this country. Those who lived under the oppression of apartheid view things differently than I do, and it shows in their demeanor. I never would have guessed from her down-to-earth attitude during the tour that she had played such a vital role in shaping modern South Africa. Her prominence since the end of apartheid hasn’t jaded her or diminished her respect for the man who was willing to give up everything for freedom. Meanwhile, I nearly let my self-centered impatience prevent me from meeting a fascinating woman with ties to Nelson Mandela himself.
P.S. – I figure since this post and my previous one have been rather text heavy I will just include a photo or two at the end of this one as a reward for reading all the way through. These are from my trip up Table Mountain via cable car at sunset last week.