Former president of South Africa Nelson Mandela at a meeting in central London on June 24, 2008.

© 2008 Reuters

I was a law student at Nelson Mandela’s alma mater, Wits University in Johannesburg, when he was released in 1990. I joined a crowd of students to walk the short distance from campus into Hillbrow, at that time one of the few unsegregated places in South Africa, to mingle with the ecstatic crowds as they celebrated his long walk to freedom. 

It was a matchless moment, a night that is crystal clear in my memory: two decades later, I can still clearly see the elation of the taxi driver who stopped his minibus in the middle of the street, tears pouring down his face, to grab a poster of Mandela’s long-unseen face. I also remember the warmth with which we, privileged white students, were invited to join a party that lasted long into that night.

I think those moments, which seemed almost miraculous, will sustain us and remind us what Madiba means to us. 

South Africans have been dreading this moment for some time. We mourn and our grief is raw. But as the world continues to idolize Madiba and by doing so, perhaps diminish him a little, South Africans will see him as much more than a symbol of unity or a superhero who fought off evil and triumphed. We remember his acerbic comment that he was only a saint if a saint was a sinner who kept trying, and we will try to critically examine his life, his successes and his failures.

Although South Africa made the transition from apartheid state to democracy, it remains one of the most unequal and divided societies in the world. Twenty-three years after the end of apartheid, South Africa is plagued with corruption and nepotism, unresolved racial tension, high levels of violent crime and deep and seemingly intractable poverty. At times, we seem very far from the country that Madiba wanted us to be.

But we are also not the country that many believed that we would become after his release in 1990. It seemed impossible as he walked out of prison into a warm Cape Town afternoon that day in February that South Africa would not descend into bloodshed and chaos. Indeed, for many, many months after his release, we teetered on a knife edge before we made a peaceful if bumpy transition to democracy, and Madiba was inaugurated as the first president of a nonracial South Africa.

Perhaps his greatest legacy was his willingness and ability to reach across the many fault lines in South African society. Madiba had a rare gift for reconciliation, an almost preternatural ability to identify moments that could bind a divided and damaged country into a nation, coupled with a talent for showmanship. Few South Africans, black or white, will forget the moment, now immortalized in the Hollywood film “Invictus,” when he strode onto a rugby field in Johannesburg clad in the green team jersey that had symbolized white privilege for many black South Africans. For many blacks, this focus on reconciliation and forgiveness was understandably frustrating, and some will argue that he effectively allowed whites to maintain their economically privileged position, helping to further entrench inequality.

For now, though, none of that will matter. For now, we will just mourn him deeply.

Hamba gahle (go in peace), Madiba.