Letting Greatness Blossom

Mandela quote

As a mom, it can be hard to remember who you were before the invasion of little people. You know, when you could think complete thoughts. When you could sleep through the night, go to a movie on a whim, stop on the song that you like. The days when you got stuff done.

Jon Yesterday: “How was your day?”

Me: “Fine.”

Jon: “What did you do?”

Me: “Umm….” thinking, thinking, thinking. “Something.”

Because multiple hours did pass. And I was in the car a lot. I had to have done something. I got everyone where they needed to be, drove a field trip, went to three different stores so we could weather the brutal storm headed our way, came home and put everything away, … I even got up at 5 am. But did I do anything? Sometimes it doesn’t feel like it.

In the midst of one of my carpool efforts, I heard on the news that Nelson Mandela died. My heart was sad. And my thoughts were transported to a time in my life when I got a lot accomplished in a day.

Before mothering, before corporate banking, I worked as a Lead Advance in the Office of the Vice President at the White House. It was the best job ever. Especially with the Vice President who travels most of the time, often overseas. I loved the variety, the stress, the people, seeing the country and the world. A few trips stick out in my memory.

  • A Holiday Inn in Montana where our “rally” was in the hotel’s largest room … that also housed an indoor swimming pool. I learned that day that trying to camouflage a pool with patriotic colored balloons doesn’t work too well. Chlorine eventually eats through the latex. And, popping balloons as the Vice President of the United States steps behind the podium to deliver his speech sound a lot like gun shots. See Also: scrambling Secret Service and a Deputy Chief of Staff radio-messaging, “Who’s bright idea was it to put balloons in a pool?!” Uh… that would be me.
  • Warsaw, Poland where we were the first Presidential delegation after the fall of the wall to visit the new democracy. That trip had many memories including lost luggage, food poisoning, ex-KGB counterparts, accidentally running into and over Lech Walesa while racing to make the motorcade (why they kept me on Staff I still cannot imagine) and a very sobering/hard-to-think-about trip to Auschwitz with one of the leaders of the Jewish underground who was gathering artifacts for the D.C. Holocaust Museum. Even now, my stomach turns at the memory.
  • Johannesburg, South Africa where, on a humanitarian effort, we were the first delegation to visit after the fall of and during the transition from apartheid.

When I visited South Africa in 1992, the tension was palpable. The staggeringly beautiful country was like none I had ever seen. First world infrastructure with third-world issues, it struggled to breathe on the brink of a new dawn, a new era upon which one man’s fingerprints could be found on every milestone.

News covering the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA) meetings filled headlines, topped programming and begged attention from our U.S. delegation. But our sole purpose was humanitarian. People groups were starving as sources of grain were being highjacked by rogue tribes, capitalizing on the uncertainty and tension accompanying the country’s historic transition. We were there to assess the situation and provide assistance – not to weigh in on heated political talks. Everyone agreed that meeting with President de Klerk or Nelson Mandela would steal the focus from our purpose – to get food to starving people.

It was a fine line to walk. Along the way, I got to ever-so-briefly watch from the sidelines the pains of labor as this country fought to shed a history of atrocity and to give birth to what the finger-print man calmly, steadfastly, and peacefully promoted.

I never met him. I never ran him over. But I felt him everywhere I went. Nelson Mandela acted as the steadfast anchor that led a country to look forward, with forgiveness. He kept his focus on what could be. He never seemed to wallow in the past. He didn’t give the past power to define – which it could have, especially as it related to him and the years he sat in prison, determined to stay the course. He was the epitome of what we say here at theMOAT all the time, “Culture doesn’t change people, people change culture.”(Chuck Colson) Nelson Mandela changed culture.

“Can I please go to Soweto?” I toddler begged my US Embassy counterpart.

“No,” he replied emphatically. “It’s just too dangerous.”

“But I’d love to visit the hospital. We could help.”

“No.”

“Just a drive by – to check it out?” I toddler-begged. One thing you learn as an Advance person, if “no” is the answer, find another way. “You guys have the have the final decision, but just let me see if there’s a way we can include a visit to the township.”

“Fine,” he gave in and arranged an escort.

Like Auschwitz, I’ll never forget my ride through Soweto. I wish I could forget. It wasn’t the make-shift card-board/tin homes, the filth, the smell, the masses and masses of people. It was the crying. It was the wailing. It was the smoldering remnants of tires that only hours before had been pried off bodies that they had held as prisoner before being lit on fire. It’s hard to write. Harder to remember. Tears sting my eyes at the memories.

As I stared in horror, my embassy contact said, “This is why you can’t come here. It’s not safe. Barbaric and horrific acts happen every day. The authorities are doing their best, but can’t be everywhere at one time.”

Driving away, we passed a discrete house. In the midst of make-shift, there were houses in Soweto. Because before the hundreds of thousands of displaced people descended upon the township, homes existed. The home we passed had a large wall covered with greenery growing on it. I noticed an armed guard at the driveway gate.

“What’s that?” I asked the driver.

“Well, that’s Nelson Mandela’s home.”

I couldn’t believe it. There in the midst of it all, far from ostentatious, quiet, standing like an oasis in the midst of chaos, the home of the man who offered hope for all these people. In the midst.

Nelson Mandela stayed above the fray, refused to be a victim and did what seemed impossible – he brought people groups, that for all effects and purposes hated each other, together. He encouraged them to look beyond the painful past, to focus on hope and the future. With a calm resolve he put one foot in front of the other. He never quit. He never asked anyone to do it for him. He never wallowed in being owed or deserving. He served. He wasn’t perfect. He was a person. But it’s hard to look at him without being moved by his resolve for a purpose much greater than himself. And he encouraged others to live the same way. “Let your greatness bloom.”

Words worth pondering. Not only in consideration of ourselves, but in the lives of those we train as parents. This phase in life might seem like we don’t get much done in a day. But don’t be fooled. Eyes are watching. Lives are being molded.

What mantra will our kids herald, encourage others to consider? Because at the heart of it all are people. People who make a difference.

Thanks for walking the road with me.

-Kay

More on Mandela from GHW Bush in Huffington today.

2 Comments

  1. Americanmom says:

    I graduated from U of Cape Town in 1991 as a foreign American student near the time you discuss above. You aptly point out that his resolve was his strength. He was protected and chosen by the ANC as their figurehead, but he was willing to follow it through to the end, even after all that happened with Winnie Mandela and the various acts of corruption by others in his party. One of my best friends became a party leader and was gunned down in his own driveway in post-apartheid South Africa, purportedly by his political opposition. South Africa continues to have the highest documented rate of rape in the world, and there was terrible and violent sexism against black and white women when I lived there in 1989-1991 by the very same men who were anti-apartheid activists. South Africa is a complex and important nation globally and Mandela understood his role as a figurehead not just for his own people. The Western World made him and South Africa into something bigger than any one man or woman or nation could be, but he managed to orchestrate that development into a positive mythical impact. Our own leaders since the end of legal slavery in America have failed to ever create an elected leader with that level of symbolic positive impact. Perhaps society’s memory of Mandela will continue to morph over time into something even grander and more positive – I for one would not mind, even if it strays from the complexity of the actual horror and transformation that South Africa actually experienced. The world needs to believe in more heroes and heroines, and sometimes that transforms into real change like a newly democratic nation.

  2. This article hit home a bit as I was born and raised in South Africa and still have a lot of family still living there. Unfortunately, your description of how things were when you were there visiting could still ring true for how things are today (and quite possibly they are much worse). It is truly sad that after all this man did, the country is still the way it is.

Post a Comment

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

* Copy This Password *

* Type Or Paste Password Here *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>