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Nelson Mandela Walks with the Angels Now

Nelson Mandela was laid to rest today in Qunu, the village in South Africa’s Eastern Cape Province where he was born 95 years ago.

Even though he’d been ailing for several months and we knew it was a matter of time, the news of his death knocked me back unexpectedly.

I thought I was ready when I wrote earlier that it was time to let him go but I feel his loss as acutely as if he were a family member, which, in the grand scheme of things, he was.

Nelson Mandela was a towering figure, a fearless advocate for his people and, by extension, the international black community. He was our hero, too.

My tears flowed silently and freely, leaving streaks in my makeup, but I didn’t care. I was sad, sad and felt forlorn. I had never met Nelson Mandela or Madiba as he was called or been part of the crowds that heard to him speak. I had ‘walked’ in his footsteps at Robben Island Maximum Security Prison and Victor Vertser Prison, from which he resumed his life as a free man, but I wished now that I had a glimpse of him. And as I reflect on Madiba’s life, his struggles and sacrifices, I take comfort in his words.

5 Inspiring Quotes from Nelson Mandela

As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.

For 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, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.

Honesty, sincerity, simplicity, humility, pure generosity, absence of vanity, readiness to  serve others – qualities which are within easy reach of every soul – are the foundation of one’s spiritual life.

Our human compassion binds us to one another – not in pity or patronizingly, but as human beings who have learnt how to turn our common suffering into hope for the future.

Farewell, Mr. Mandela.

Walking in Nelson Mandela’s Footsteps

I’ve never been interested in meeting famous people but I would have given a vital body part to have met Nelson Mandela or failing that, hear him speak in person.

Mandela photo at Victor Verser Prison
Photo of Mandela on a banner at Victor Verser Prison

The closest I’ve come is a visit to a few of the places that will always be connected to him and to his “ideal of a democratic and free society” for which he declared in 1964, that he was “prepared to die.”

Mandela statue with raised fist
Mandela statue outside Victor Verser Prison

“During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

–Excerpted from Nelson Mandela’s statement from the dock at the opening of his trial on charges of sabotage, Supreme Court of South Africa, Pretoria, April 20 1964.

We don’t hear anyone anymore state so openly that they are prepared to die for their beliefs – and mean it. So many of us are motivated more by money than by our beliefs. People like Mandela could be a dying breed.

I don’t remember how old I was when I became aware of Nelson Mandela. But I lived in a country that in 1950, before I was even born, had called for a ban on imports from South Africa as a way of protesting the “segregation policy” that was adopted by the government in 1948.

And by 1957, before Jamaica had even gained her own independence from Britain, the government had banned all trade with South Africa, becoming the first country to do so.

I don’t remember when I became aware of Mandela but his commitment to his ideal made me feel deep respect and pride in being black. The rest of us play at being courageous, fearless and principled. Mandela embodied it. He was our hero and we embraced him as if he had been born on Jamaican soil.

At university in Canada, I got involved in fundraising, attended lectures when speakers were able to get out, and educated myself about the ‘struggle.’ My cohorts and I knew the activists and in our discussions, referred to them by their first names – Walter (Sisulu), Oliver (Tambo), Joe (Slovo), Steve (Biko), Chris (Hani), Robert (Sobukwe), Hector (Pieterson), Nelson and Winnie. We carried passbooks, the identification card that black South Africans were required to carry when they ventured outside their homelands, and words like intransigent, which was used to describe the apartheid regime, became part of the vocabulary of the struggle.

Mandela's cell at Robben Island
Mandela’s Robben Island cell

By the time I moved to Washington, DC, the boycott of South Africa had picked up steam as celebrities showed up daily to be arrested.

Like the fall of the Berlin Wall, I never believed I’d live to see apartheid dismantled and Mandela released from jail. My heart filled with pride when I saw him raise his clenched fist as he exited Victor Verser Prison with Winnie.

Nelson Mandela’s Cell at Robben Island

Several times during the ferry ride to Robben Island, I swallowed lumps in my throat. I didn’t want to cry. Despite the efforts of our jovial tour guide, an older South African woman sitting in a seat across the aisle from me wept openly as our bus neared the prison. When we saw the house where Robert Sobukwe was confined in solitary and away from the general population, I fought back tears.

As my friends and I arrived at the cell where Mandela spent 18 years, the words of Bob Marley’s song, Duppy Conquerer, floated into my head.

The bars could not hold me / Force could not control me, now / They try to keep me down / But Jah put I around / Yes, I’ve been accused (many times) / And wrongly abused, now / But through the powers of the most-high / They’ve got to turn me loose.

We felt rooted to a spot just outside Mandela’s cell. I remember staring at the place on the floor where Madiba would have slept on a few blankets for all those years and felt a wave of anger bubbling up inside me.

Mandela's bed at Robben Island
Cold ground was my bed last night – Bob Marley

How could we treat each other so horribly?

That Mandela held no bitterness is a testament to the person he is. But it wasn’t just Mandela. Our guide, a former prisoner at Robben Island, also held no rancor. His face was serene, his voice soft with no hint of bitterness. When I asked why he came back to a place so horrific, he said he and other former prisoners wanted to tell their story. At the end of the tour, I reached for his hand to thank him but my words dissolved into tears as the years of hurt and pain locked in those grey walls came rushing out. I sobbed uncontrollably.

Watching and Waiting. Time to Let Mandela Go

For days now, I’ve been watching the news anxious for any tidbit of information on Madiba’s condition, torn between wanting him to pull through to celebrate one last birthday (his 95th) and accepting that it’s time now for us to let him go.

Years of unspeakable hardships – physical, emotional, psychological – have taken their toll. Nelson Mandela has done his part. It’s time for him to rest and for those who remain to carry on his legacy.

When the news reported that Mandela was in critical condition, I emailed my friends who visited Soweto, Robben Island, and Victor Verser Prison with me. One wrote back that she was “happy to have walked in Mandela’s footsteps.” So am I.

Soulful Sundays: Lorraine Klaasen

Loraine Klaasen performing at Kola Note, March...
Image via Wikipedia

I realize now that I was meant to meet Lorraine Klaasen.

I had been in Jamaica for a week and when I returned to New York all I wanted to do was curl up in front of the television and find a Bond marathon or watch reruns of Bonanza. I had done nothing to get ready for my trip to Montreal. I hadn’t even bought my ticket.

As Wednesday turned to Thursday, I struggled with the temptation to stay put – and disappoint my aunt – or spend what I was sure would be an astronomical amount on airfare and get the introductions she was to facilitate. I searched for last minute weekend packages.

Before I left, my aunt asked if I wanted to go to an event with her that Saturday night. Why not? I thought.

I had no clue what I was in for.

Lorraine Klaasen comes from South African musical royalty. The daughter of legendary performer and Nelson Mandela’s favorite jazz singer, Thandie Klaasen, Lorraine has been described as one of few South African artists who preserve Township music.

From the first chord sounded at the Cabaret Mile End, people were on their feet but the real dancing started when Lorraine came on stage. She is an electrifying and energetic performer.

But beyond her performance, it was something else she did that touched me. It was surprising and I couldn’t remember seeing it done before – Lorraine invited several up and coming performers to the stage and gave them space so that each in turn could entertain her audience. I was impressed.

It was because of that openness (and the fact that she was sitting at a table next to mine) that I decided to approach her at an awards dinner the following evening. When I told her about my planned trip to South Africa, she promptly gave me her business card and told me to email her.

By the time I landed in New York, she had responded.

We met again when she performed at Brooklyn’s Prospect Park Summer Concert series. My traveling partners and I invited her to dinner. She gave us a list, not just of friends but also family members, including her mother and brother, and contacted them on our behalf.

Because of Lorraine, we had a welcome party waiting for us when we arrived in Johannesburg. She single-handedly opened up that city and Soweto for us.

Lorraine will be back in my city this weekend. She, along with Malika Zarra, will be performing the music of the Grammy Award-winning civil rights activist and South African musical great, Miriam Makeba, at Harlem’s famous Apollo Theater on April 1 and 2.

I can’t wait to see her perform again. Watch her here in the meantime.



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Cape Town Winelands: Everywhere a Vineyard

We saved our last full day in Cape Town for our trip to the winelands.

Our first stop was at KWV Wines, a 90 year old brandy and wine emporium located in Paarl, one of the three popular wine regions – Stellenbosch and Franschhoek being the other two. We did a tour of the cellars followed by a wine tasting, then a brandy and chocolate tasting. I don’t like chocolate so that pairing was lost on me but Sandra and Judith enjoyed it. Overall, we had a blast at KWV (I’m sure Manfred is still talking about us.) and came away with several bottles of wines and brandies.

Wine country

Lunch was a relaxing affair at the Seidelberg Wine Estate, a winery, restaurant, glass studio also in the Paarl region.

Seidelberg Wine Estate

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Robben Island – “We’re all on this journey together”

We knew from the outset that one of our Cape Town ‘must-sees’ would be Robben Island so we purchased our tickets before we even left the U.S.

Despite being walking distance from our accommodations at the V&A Waterfront to the Nelson Mandela Gateway, if our guide, Ian, hadn’t shown up when he did, we would have missed the boat – we were so late getting ready!

Seeing Cape Town on our first morning, bathed in the sparkling golden sunlight, was breathtaking. But shortly after leaving our temporary apartment, we were at the ferry terminal.

Getting on the ferry

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Dinner in Soweto

The morning of our first full day in Johannesburg broke in a blaze of sun. Sandra fiddled with the dial on her portable radio until she picked up what sounded like a local station that, except for the music and accent of the deejay, could have been mistaken for a station back home. Why is it that no matter where you go, almost all deejays sound the same?

Our room at Shepherds Court was large, and comfortable for the three of us and our suitcases. But it was the bathroom that had us ooohing and aaahing, with its heated tiles, shower, and whirlpool tub that beckoned invitingly each time we entered. Regrettably, we didn’t have time to enjoy it.

We spent most of the morning sorting the school supplies that we planned to donate. It was Sandra’s suggestion and Judith and I signed on without hesitation. Unfortunately, the week we arrived, all the schools were closed because of a strike. We were anxious for it to end as we had no plans to take the supplies back to New York.

Lorraine’s brother, Roger, arrived soon after our late breakfast to take us to Soweto and to meet their mom, Thandie Klaasen.


Known as one of Nelson Mandela’s favorite jazz singers, Thandie Klaasen has performed with Miriam Makeba, Patti Labelle and Roberta Flack, among others.  This elegant woman, of proud bearing, lives in a suburb of Johannesburg surrounded by the awards and mementos of her 50-plus-year career. Several young musicians seek her out and the night we were there was no different.

Mercy Pakela, a singer who was appearing that evening with Japanese jazz saxophonist, Sadao Watanabe, was there when we arrived. We all crowded together in Mrs. Klaasen’s living room, talking with her about her life, her struggles and her luncheon with Madiba. And as if the evening couldn’t get any better, both she and Mercy sang for us.

From the outset, we knew the trip would be fabulous, we just didn’t know it would be this fabulous!

Dinner in Soweto
Marcia, Thandie Klaasen, Sandra, Judith and Mercy Pakela

Continue reading “Dinner in Soweto”