All of us South Africans have something or some things to remember about Tata, as he is favourably known and called. My memories of this icon, saint or legend are few but indelible and treasured.
I want to remember him as the person who firstly gave us hope during the dark days of the struggle but more so when he became the first President of a democratic South Africa. He embodied the struggle and he gave us reason to live, to struggle on and to believe that "no mountain was high enough, that anything is possible". There is nothing so essential to a nation or an individual than hope. Tata gave us this in abundance. We won the Rugby World Cup and the soccer African Cup of Nations under his inspiration and hope. Secondly, Tata gave us an identity and a place in the world.
Through his actions and conduct he symbolised Africa and Africans. He symbolised all that was quintessentially African. He is the consummate African Prince with strong rural roots. He still has his simple breakfast of soft porridge.
Through his dress code - the now famous Madiba shirts, his infectious but naughty smile with a beautiful set of teeth, his way of talking and explaining himself and his point of view to everyone, his humility, his ways of seeing the collective, the community and always wanting to take every one along, he embodied ubuntu. Thirdly, Tata gave South Africa dignity in the world. As Biko would say, "he gave the world a humane face". He is the great humanitarian of our time and generation. He unified a divided country and nation and ensured that as South Africans we had a common purpose for being one nation. Under his leadership we all felt and believed we have a place and role to play in our country. He did all this selflessly and without looking back or looking deep into his own sufferings and failings - this is truly remarkable.
There are three personal moments of encounter with Tata I want to share:
1. In 1995, on December 24 at 9.15pm, I received a telephone call from a fatherly husky voice in the distance wishing me a "happy Christmas". While I was still excited about this, then came what in retrospect I believe was the reason for the call. In a gentle but firm way, I was advised to consider a mediated settlement with my "enemies", the so-called "gang of 13" at Wits University. It was put simply but also poignantly. When I reached a settlement many South Africans had their own interpretations and some could not understand as to why I went this route. I am happy to say it was because of the advice of this great man. After agonising over this, I decided to accept his advice. I have never regretted this.
2. Early in 2002, I received another call late in the evening, instructing me to board a plane from Cape Town to come and see Tata in Johannesburg and explain to him in simple language my understanding of HIV/Aids. It was late at night and I could only take the earliest flight the following day. On my arrival at his Houghton home, he was alert and determined to get to the bottom of the sweeping denialist approach towards HIV/Aids by the ANC and government. His first words were, "As an expert in this field, what advice did you give the President on this matter?" As I was prepared for this, I simply provided him with the letter I had written to the President, warning him against the dangers of flirting with dissidents and their weird ideas. He took one look at the letter and asked, "What was the President's response to your letter?'" My simple answer was, "I provided advice and it was up to the President to decide what to do with such advice." It was my greatest honour to spend quality time to explain to Tata the whole history and science of HIV/Aids. His final words to me were, "I will seek an urgent meeting with the President on his return from China." Indeed, that is what he did. The whole fracas around the HIV/Aids epidemic began to take a turn for the better. Many South Africans today receive ARVs, with much improvement in the quality of their lives, as a result of such an encounter.
3. My third encounter with Tata was at the offices of Mafube Publishing in 1999 while I was editing "The African Renaissance: The New Struggle". He was walking about with a hoard of journalists when he suddenly saw me sitting at the table. With typical spontaneity he came and said, "Thank you for that little assignment you did for us." Clearly the journalists were disoriented and suddenly got excited trying to find out what assignment this was. I was not in a position to say, just as even today I am not at liberty to reveal the nature of the assignment.
Tata came into the Presidency in May 1994. He stayed for five years and developed his successor. South Africa was a proud, united country and nation. South Africans were driven by the spirit of forgiveness, reconciliation and togetherness. South Africans were proud to be led by him.
A natural leader, he came, he led with courage, dignity, integrity and inspiration and he departed leaving us a great legacy but equally a great void that seems difficult to fill. While his retirement set an excellent example against the "life president" stereotype of Africans, it denied South Africans the opportunity to settle and revel as a nation under a great leader.
Tata, our country and nation was blessed to have one of you and one of a kind. I miss your leadership and wisdom, I miss your ability to humble and explain yourself, I miss your ability to make every South African feel wanted and feel being recognised; I miss your courage, your integrity, your vision and your unique ability to tell a story in a manner that all of us can not only follow but also feel excited and like we are part of the story. Clearly at this particular time, the nation misses your wisdom. You are not only the greatest, but simply the best.