RIP Nelson Mandela 1918 – 2013

On Valentine’s Day 2005 I had taken a black South African family out to lunch in a place of entertainment in suburban Johannesburg designed to look like an Italian town. After we left the restaurant and were walking along one of the “streets”, we were approached by a “giant” on stilts moving at a slow and stately pace. The younger son hid behind his daddy as the giant strolled by. After leaving, we went to a shopping mall and were looking at the Valentine’s Day flower arrangements at a florist’s near the entrance from the parking lot to the mall.

A hubbub from the parking lot got me to look out and see what was happening. Well! Nelson Mandela himself was walking towards the door, with a few people following him and at his side. I went back into the shop and told the family, “Mandela is coming!” We went out, and as he came through the door, I advised the boys to go up to him because he likes children. The first surprise for those who have not actually seen Madiba before is how tall he is. Maybe that explains the differing reactions of the boys. The elder boy went up to him and received a greeting and a pat on the head, but the younger looked up with the same expression he had on his face on seeing the “giant” in the “Italian town.” Madiba respected his cautiousness and didn’t approach him, but instead continued his own slow and stately walk into the mall, where applause and cheers broke out as he made his way to a book store. His justly famous smile was even more radiant close up, if that were possible, than in his pictures, especially when he was greeting the boys.

But the little boy came closer in his wide-eyed stare to the imaginative truth about Madiba than the rest of us. At the end of Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu, the Narrator, at a garden party given by the Prince de Guermantes, has just had the climactic insight into time and memory that makes it finally possible for him to begin his life’s work, which is to write the book the reader is finishing. He catches sight of the immensely old and distinguished Duc de Guermantes just as he rises from a chair. “I now understood,” he says, “Why the Duc de Guermantes… had tottered when he got up and wanted to stand erect…and had trembled like a leaf on the unapproachable summit of his eighty-three years, as though…perched upon living stilts that keep on growing, reaching the height of church towers….” In the book he now hoped to write, the Narrator proposes to “describe men…as…occupying a place in Time infinitely more important than the restricted one reserved for them in space, a place… prolonged immeasurably since, simultaneously touching widely separated years and the distant periods they have lived through—between which so many days have ranged themselves—they stand like giants immersed in Time[1].” The man I saw in front of me was not just a very tall and stately distinguished old man; he was a giant in the times and days that he embodied as he slowly walked past.

[1] I am using the online version available through Gutenberg:

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