But he was larger than life, it just seemed to all of us he would go on forever. So the end when it came was a shock, bringing an intense feeling of disbelief and horror, that this man, who had steered our country, against all expectations, through a peaceful transmission to democracy was there no more. I remember it so clearly, the first free elections, when we stood in the rain for hours waiting to vote, but the atmosphere was so upbeat, so optimistic, it was an experience to cherish, to file away with other important , never to be forgotten, life experiences. I remember his inauguration, when there was so much talk of chaos in the country, when people, people we knew were hoarding baked beans and candles, in case of food shortages and power failures. I bought some beautiful candles and a bottle of our local sparkling wine – I cut out a picture of our new flag from the newspaper (such flags were not readily available at that stage) and we watched the inauguration, lit our candles and raised the little paper flag and also raised our glasses to this remarkable man who had defeated all the naysayers and achieved what most of the world would have considered impossible.
I didn’t have the privilege of meeting him, to speak to. But I did shake his hand, twice. It was just before the 1994 elections – he came to my daughter’s school (which had been my school many years before) – she was part of the choir which sang for him. I was in the crowd, a large crowd outside the school, waiting for a glimpse of the great man. The choir sang and he listened to them and watched them, in fact everyone was focused on the choir, except a select few men, who were facing the other way and keenly scanning the crowds – his bodyguards. It hadn’t occurred to me but they must have been very necessary – there were many in the former South Africa who felt very threatened by what was to come. Then, after the singing, he graciously went round shaking hands with the crowd. I wriggled to the front and by dint of extending my hands in two different directions, managed to shake hands with him twice. I can still feel the rough skin, the workman’s hands, from this high born man, this royal son, this amazingly eloquent lawyer, who was forced to do manual labour in a lime quarry, work which not only hardened his hands to those of a manual labourer, but which damaged his eyesight from the glare and led to the future lung problems to which he ultimately succumbed. Shaking his hand was one of the highlights of my life, right up there with being present on the Grand Parade in Cape Town, when Archbishop Desmond Tutu (another of my heroes) presented him to the nation as our president elect. It was also my first experience of a praise singer, an extraordinary African tradition.
I can’t believe he’s gone – the reactions around the world show how much he was valued. We like to think he was ours but he was too great to belong only to South Africa, or indeed Africa. It is not often that someone’s life enriches so many the world over, but this is such a life. I feel honoured and humbled to have been so close to greatness. Long may his legacy live. Rest in peace, Madiba, we owe you so much.