I was eighteen years old, when on the 6th May 2010, I walked with my Grandma to the voting booth in our village. “To exercise our right to vote,” she said, “is to exercise our freedom. A freedom that many people still don’t have.”
In college the next day, my lecturer handed out multiple choice questionnaires. I thought of the cross I’d marked so carefully on my piece of paper the night before, how the lead of the pencil had glinted silver in that moment. I looked up and overheard the girls sat behind me, discussing how they didn’t see the point in voting. I bit my tongue and closed my eyes, imagining ‘the point’ skewering their lives; the right taken from them like a rug ripped from beneath their feet. I imagined conscription, privatised health care and education, the removal of workers unions, the abolishment of maternity and paternity leave, and a ban on contraception, unfold and fly out across Britain. I imagined how much they’d care, how hard they’d fight to be free and equal.
1997, my Grandma called me into the kitchen, “you see that man on the TV? That man is Nelson Mandela,” she nodded in the direction of the fridge where our small TV precariously balanced on top, “he is a great man who has brought peace to many people in Africa. You must remember who this man is.” Only six years old, I looked up at the man on the screen; his ivory smile pushing his cheeks higher so that they hid the exhaustion in his eyes, the crows feet sinking deeper. My Grandma tapped the smouldering end of her cigarette into a cut glass ash tray on the kitchen table, blowing the smoke out sideways in a vague gesture towards the back door to placate my mother. “A great man,” she murmured, running her long lilac finger nail along her bottom lip.
Sixteen years later and that same man lay in hospital in Johannesburg fighting for his life. At the age of 94, the tuberculosis he contracted whilst in Pollsmoor Prison in 1988, continued to ail his health as he fought a respiratory infection. Skin like tracing paper, the newspapers inked the dying man with their speculations, opinions and reports. Ever nearing death, Mandela was rapidly becoming a symbol more than a man. People conjectured – as they are prone to – that his survival depended on life support. His biological clock run its course, replaced by the whirring hum of manmade machine. Did they think of the man behind the ivory smile that I saw on TV? Not the man who fought for freedom, but the man who had the same bones as everybody else. The man who had a favourite colour, regrets, secrets, childhood stories, memories, hobbies… Were they thinking of this man? The man with a family and a life of his own? Or was it just the name, and the achievements associated with it, that they found in their heads?
For fifty years Nelson Mandela fought for equality, until eventually in 1990 the ban on the African National Congress was lifted; in 1993 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize; and in 1994 at the age of seventy six, Nelson Mandela voted for the first time in his life. I was two years old at the time.
At 10pm, on 5th December 2013, I was sat in my flat writing an essay. My friend Helen had come over, and was lay on my bed reading the news. I heard her inhale sharply, and turned around to see her eyes rapidly scanning the newsfeed on her laptop. She looked up, “Goodnight Nelson Mandela” she whispered.
15th December 2013, I sat in my Grandma’s living room, a mug of hot coffee held so close to my face I had to blink the steam from my eyes. The TV flicked on to reveal men and women all dressed in black, speakers, dancers, family, friends, and thousands more, all gathered to remember the man with the ivory smile. My Grandma sat down next to my mother on the sofa, whilst opening a fresh packet of B&H, those same lilac finger nails pulling open the plastic and unfolding the cardboard. She lit her cigarette and pulled a china ash tray towards her. No one cared about the smoke this time.