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Sunday Read: Charlayne Hunter-Gault Reflects on the Father of a Nation, Tata Madiba

“Fellow South Africans, our beloved Nelson Rohlihla Mandela, the founding president of our democratic nation, has departed. Our people have lost a father.” These were the words President Jacob Zuma used to share the devastating, albeit anticipated, news of the passing of our century’s beloved symbol of hope. This caused great grief all over the word, with tributes and messages of hope lighting up Twitter and other social media networks.

5FM’s jingle, “We remember South Africa’s father”, summarises the general consensus: Mandela was our father, and we have lost him. The term of endearment used by many South Africans to refer to him, uTata, literally means “Father” in Xhosa, Mandela’s native tongue. Even Archbishop Desmond Tutu referred to him as such, declaring his role as a patriarch in society.

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His family, however, never really had the privilege to experience him as uTata, owing to his public nature, his devotion to the struggle and his years spent in prison. Tutu acknowledged this in his message to the family: “Although we collectively claim him as the father of our nation, and the pain we feel is similar to that of losing a close relative, he was your husband, your father and your grandfather.”

Mandela wrote about being a father in his autobiography A Long Walk to Freedom: “To be the father of a nation is a great honor, but to be the father of a family is a greater joy. But it was a joy I had far too little of.”

This inspired Charlayne Hunter-Gault, award-winning journalist, civil rights activist and author of New News Out of Africa, to write an article entitled: “Nelson Mandela, The Father”.

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“Mandela would be the first to admit that he did a lousy job as the biological father of six children, by two different wives. He was married first and foremost to the movement,” writes Hunter-Gualt. She notes that, “Knowing Mandela meant getting used to his absences” and reflects on his time in prison and how that affected his family. In 1994 Hunter-Gault interviewed Mandela, mere days before he became South Africa’s first democratically elected president. She remembers her response to his warmth: “I found myself responding, ‘Thank you, Tata’ — just what a child of Mandela would have called him.”

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Read her article in The New Yorker:

To the very end, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, though frail and somewhat forgetful, remained the Father of the Nation for South Africans. It could even be said that, in the several trips he’s made to the hospital over the past two years, he was, in his own way, preparing his family—biological and extended—for his final return home. The renowned South African writer Zakes Mda once told me, “In our indigenous languages, we reserved the equivalent words of ‘death’ only for animals. For humans, we say ‘She has left us,’ ‘He had passed,’ ‘She’s gone home,’ ‘He’s gone to join the ancestors.’ ” It seemed as if Madiba—that is Mandela’s Xhosa clan name—had delayed his departure long past that of many of his contemporaries and comrades-in-arms so that his family, both near and national, could simply mourn him, without the sense that his loss might throw the country into a crisis.

Fathers can make themselves felt through their absence; Mandela did, by walking away from power after his term as President was up. Mandela’s own father passed away from tuberculosis when Mandela was nine. And yet, Mandela has written, “I defined myself through my father.” By that he meant that his father possessed “a proud rebelliousness, a stubborn sense of fairness, that I recognize in myself.”

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