Nelson Mandela: Begun, Not Done


Shuffling blindly, groping walls as my eyes adjust. My throat is parched. I feel my way across the smooth counter until the cold metal of the tap indicates my arrival. I turn the stainless steel and water flows. I drink deeply, placing the empty glass upside down to dry. Back in my bedroom, the lace curtain blows against my arm, making the sickle moon visible in a sky of pitch. I lie back down on white percale linen which gifts me another two hours of sleep. My husband Calvin mumbles as I fidget with the pillows to get them just so, the way I like them. At 21, I am yet young, the world before me.

She lights the kerosene stove inside her hut. Roughened hands speak of her age: 58 years of scrubbing and polishing, wood collecting and livestock raising. These hands scoop water from a bucket into the only enamel pot she owns. The water forms tiny little bubbles as she steps outside to feed her sheep and the chickens which are still sleepily trying to make up their minds if it is time to break into a dawn chorus. They shift on their branches and decide to wait a little longer. It’s just 4 a.m., after all. Her sheep barely move as she opens their pen to allow them into the fields once the sun is up.

Now she splashes stove-warmed water on her face, pats her underarms, pulls on a viscose skirt and a button-up blouse. She fixes her headpiece in place, smooths Vaseline across her face and through her hair, pulls the door closed behind her and starts the 30-minute walk down the dusty gravel road where the bus will pick her up.

She clutches her bag, hoping the children will get to school safely. She hopes her neighbour will watch over “kleintjie (little one)” while she is in the city. She hopes her eldest daughter will not use all the airtime she loaded onto the cellphone. She wonders how she is going to get her husband with his swollen mass of a foot with its gangrene toes to the doctor. He cannot walk, and his whole body emits an odour that makes the mud hut an unbearable place to be in the midday heat of her African valley.

The bus screeches to a halt a couple-minutes walk beyond the waiting passengers. The driver couldn’t slow down in time because of the potholes he was avoiding. She shuffles, gently pushing bodies all around her. Clambering up the steps, she finds a seat and rests her head against the heavily steamed up glass, smudged with all the previous Vaseline encounters.

The bus galumphs in uneven strides down roads until the city horizon, with its smoggy outline, breaks into view. It hasn’t been for a roadworthy test in many many years. She closes her eyes, thankful for another day in which she lives to see dawn break the horizon. She is elbowed and shoved off the stairwell and into the squalor of Proes Street in downtown Pretoria.

A taxi war is raging. It is only when she sees oranges rolling down the road and people scrambling for shelter behind ramshackle market tables that she realises a bullet narrowly missed a man a few steps away from her. She peeps out from a sackloth bag hanging over the edge of the table, finds a clearing and shuffles, from market table to market table, to get into the clear, beyond the rage of the taxi owners who are fighting territory. She finds a minibus van that every possible person is clambering for and manages to get a seat. The driver pulls off, the door still wide open. She hangs on, managing to close it as he rounds the corner.

The morning sun bakes into the windows. Perspiration beads in the cleft of her full chest and knits itself along the ridge of her upper lip. She is dropped off 20 minutes away from my house. She walks, the birds inviting her to join in their song. She does so and wakes me gently.

My doorbell rings. Sleepily I amble down the passage. I hear her singing and my lips curve upward into a grin. I open the door and she pulls me into a big hug. We dance together on the veranda, stamping our feet, thirty-seven years of life and history separating us, yet not, yet.

She tells me it is time for a shower. I say it is time for her to go back to bed. She chuckles a deep gurgle.

On Tuesdays she washes, hangs and irons. Laundry whips in afternoon wind and sun. On Thursdays she gets down on hands and knees and washes my floor, my bathrooms and all the while she sings. She sings because the $10 she will earn today will feed “kleintjie” and her husband, and her daughter, and her son, and her second sister who is dying of HIV for another day.

She is my “Gogs” (granny in Zulu and used as a sign of respect and endearment). I am her “Sussie” (little sister in Afrikaans, used as a term of endearment).

I live in Ireland now. I pay a domestic worker four times more than what I paid Maria, for half the amount of work Maria did for me. It is a business transaction, for a service delivered: one that greatly improves my everyday life. She does not go down on her hands and knees. She tells me when the floor whiz is broken and needs replacing. She goes home to running water, electricity, sanitation and heating.

It seems to me the world believes Nelson Mandela fought to end Apartheid and won. He didn’t. He began to heal the separation, the apart-ness. Others—on both sides of the divide—must continue.

And now I am thinking hard, remembering Maria.

Will I go back to carry on?

“A Nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones”
― Nelson MandelaLong Walk to Freedom

Top photo and post by Claire Burge. Image used with permission. Woman photo by babasteve, Creative Commons, via Flickr.

South African Woman Apartheid

Browse more Memoir Notebooks
Browse Claire Burge Doors of Dublin


  1. L. L. Barkat says

    I think people have a lot to say about the issues in South Africa—some of it valid, some of it way off, some of it still in the colonial mindset, and some of it in the missionary-colonial mindset. It is very complex. And it stirs a lot on many levels.

    But the thing you’ve brought out here is something, I daresay, that gets lost in the political and/or charity views…

    and it is the reality of human relationship. Imperfect though it be. Fraught with historical and political complications though it be.

    You and Maria on the porch? That was it. Right there. I don’t feel one can manufacture that for the tabloids, nor do I feel they could understand it much. Intensely personal. A celebration between two people, on equal footing in that physical moment (you both giving as much to one another, that you could each uniquely give), despite the divides, the not-yet-done “apart.”

    • says

      Writing this piece was good for me. Thank you for granting me the platform. It is an intensely personal issue to me because it is my blood, my homeland after all. It is so multifacted, so multi-pronged and although I would like to say that I have done my part, writing this piece, reminded me starkly that there is more to do. And tying into what you say, the relationship is what makes the struggle worthwhile.

  2. says

    Lovely post, Claire.

    I have been in South Africa, witnessed both the ugly and the beautiful. It is an extraordinary country of extraordinary people, many of whom live in a poverty that cannot be imagined until seen.

    And yet.

    Every time one reaches across that divide is a beginning.

    The end has not yet been reached. Not in South Africa. Not in the UK. Not in America.

    • says

      I am so glad that you have said what you have Maureen. I find it intriguing that people turn people like Mandela into icons, rather than staying focused on the work they started and which needs to continue as you aptly say. The happy medium would be recognising the icon and continuing his work.

      Where in SA did you travel and in what year did you go?

      • says

        I was there in 1997. I spent time in Pretoria and Capetown. Also transited through Phalaborwa and went on safari (Honey Guide camp).

        I brought back some art. One piece (by Mary Helen McOwen) is a sculptural collage of a town that was burned to the ground. The work, which is made of found objects from the area, is the only documentation the town existed.

        I would love to go back.

        • says

          Maureen you need to go back. You will find a very different place to the SA of 1997. I would be proud to show you the SA that has emerged but there are also parts that I would not be so proud of.

  3. says

    Claire, thank you so much for this. It is such a complicated world, isn’t it? And yet: “She walks, the birds inviting her to join in their song. She does so and wakes me gently.”

    • says

      Her song lingers in my head still. I cannot wait to get home in December and feel that full breast hold me tight. She has a story to tell me. She recently built a house for herself. I can’t wait to hear all about it.

      • L. L. Barkat says

        That gave me chills: “she recently built a house for herself.” People want to be able to do that, even if metaphorically. To do it literally is a story I’d like to hear.

        • says

          One of the most beautiful set of voices I ever heard was while in a gold mine in South Africa. A group of girls began singing while in the lift carrying them back to the surface. We were still deep below. The sound of the children’s voices was unforgettable.

  4. says

    “It seems to me the world believes Nelson Mandela fought to end Apartheid and won. He didn’t. He began to heal the separation, the apart-ness. Others—on both sides of the divide—must continue.”

    I’m speechless and can’t get past the lump in my throat, Claire. I just want to thank you for writing this. I will share.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *