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The Heroes Among Us

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Heroes exist in history, on celluloid, in pop culture or in these digital times, at the forefront of technology. These are the mighty who shine on the front pages of newspapers, as the paradigms of victory and virtue. But every day in public life, surrounding us are some of the real stars, the nameless, the faceless we don’t recognize or celebrate. In the pages that follow, we look at some of them, exploring the exemplary work they do, from the war zones to your neighborhood streets. They are not flawless, they are not infallible, but they are heroes.

Adeline Oliver, 67, nurse

Adeline Oliver. Photo By Motlabana Monnakgotla.

“We finally came to a clearing, where we are now crossing into Syria. The field coordinator said to me, ‘run when I say run’.”

Volunteers for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), also known as Doctors Without Borders, focus on delivering emergency medical aid in areas of crisis.

Adeline Oliver, a South African, has been an Operation Theater nurse for the last 35 years.

She was 60 years old when she joined MSF. She had retired from an active nursing job, and didn’t know what she was going to do with her life.

One day, her daughter called and told her she had made an appointment on her behalf for an interview at MSF.

“I knew at the time that it’s what I would have liked to do, my life wasn’t over. I am healthy, and wanted to give back. I’ve got enough experience, skills and knowledge wouldn’t be knowledge if it was not shared,” says Oliver.

Little did she know that in just two weeks, she would be leaving the cosy comfort of her Johannesburg home and be on a flight to war-torn Afghanistan, where she would be for six months on her first assignment with MSF.

She recalls the country as very poor and the people exploited. Their homes had been bombed, they were living in shelters or the streets and sold every little thing they had.

She witnessed terrible fatalities during her stay there.

“A woman came with a pitch black foot and I questioned why she hadn’t come in earlier because the foot happened over a period of time, but later, when a family member related the story, I was ashamed. They were traveling through these horrible roads in the mountains, they encountered bandits on the way and the family members were killed, and the poor woman had been brought to hospital. She died two weeks later.”

Oliver managed to save some of the lives with her expertise.

Syria was her second assignment, when the civil war had just begun.

Her long journey to reach the MSF field hospital in Syria’s Idlib government took her on a midnight hike through forests and past the ruins of Aleppo. When she finally reached her destination it was just before sunrise. After two hours of sleep she joined the rest of the team to start working in the hospital MSF had set up inside a cave.

“In the cave were a fully-equipped operating room, and a fully-equipped emergency room. It’s a huge cave. Once it was closed it was just another hill”.

From this unusual location where Adeline and her team provided life-saving medical care for several months to people who needed it most – regardless of their political affiliation or social status.
This was in a rebel area just outside Aleppo; the historic city had been completely destroyed.

Their first patient was a pregnant woman, injured in a bomb blast. Oliver managed to save her but her unborn child didn’t survive.

READ MORE: No Cutting Corners When It Comes To Business For These Women

“The baby took the hit and died in the woman’s womb. So we had to do an emergency caesarean section. Luckily, the cave was well-equipped and we could do life-saving operations,” she says.

Oliver has worked in challenging circumstances in South Sudan, South Africa (during the xenophobic attacks), in Afghanistan several times, and Syria, Turkey, Yemen, and most recently Iraq.

Monica Genya, 43, logistician

Monica Genya. Photo by Motlabana Monnakgotla

“The first thing I heard was machine gunfire…”

With all the traveling doctors and nurses at MSF do, someone has to be accountable for all the logistics; lives can’t be saved without the correct equipment or movement of people and goods.

Monica Genya has worked with MSF for 24 years around the world as a logistician. Straight after college, she joined the organization and wanted to make a difference.

“My job is to make sure the camps are working smoothly for our medical personnel. It means getting all the supplies necessary to put up out-patient departments so doctors can come in and see patients and dispense medication,” she explains.

The first place she worked in was Somalia, in a tiny port town called Kismayo, south of Mogadishu and closer to the Kenyan border, which was besieged. Theirs was the only hospital in the entire town because the country was at war.

She was just out of her teens at the time, assisting to source supplies in Kenya, making sure they got airlifted to Kismayo because it was quicker and safer.

“When I landed in Kismayo for the first time, the first thing I heard was machine gunfire…tadadadadada, tadadada. It was constant and I was scared witless,” she recalls.

She was terrified by the gunfire, and slept under the bed until she got used to the staccato sounds three days later.

She also had to get used to not sitting up straight at breakfast on the rooftop dining areas because she was afraid she would get hit by stray bullets.

Soon, Genya set up tents and medical equipment to save lives, forgetting her life could be in danger too.

“There was a time when the hospital was besieged in Kismayo by invading forces. We were forced to go into a bunker and lock ourselves in and hide. We could hear the invaders going from room to room asking where the doctors were. Eventually they gave up and walked out. At that point, you realize that things could be really bad if you were found. That was a profoundly scary moment,” she says.

But that was nothing compared to Sierra Leone during the Ebola crisis in 2014.

“If it’s a man with a gun, you might be able to plead, reason or negotiate. Probably not, but in your head you are thinking this is a person like me. But there is no negotiating with Ebola,” she says.

While Genya was in Sierra Leone, she lost two colleagues to Ebola; one was a medical doctor and the other a guard at a warehouse. Three more were infected but managed to receive treatment and survived.

Thousands contracted the virus across Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia. As a logistician, she had to stay the longest to make sure everything that was needed was in place for both the medical staff and patients. Sadly, half the Ebola victims died but a quarter of the population survived due to the help of Doctors Without Borders, she says.

The cholera outbreak in Zambia was yet another project Genya successfully worked on.

READ MORE: Three Women, Three Wives, One True Story

“One of the many interesting things to know about cholera, besides the much-needed medical attention, is mainly the logistics intervention; it means we have to get a cholera camp up and running, as quickly as possible to start receiving patients,” she says.

It called for a great amount of experience, and quick action. Cholera kits had to be readily available, as the disease can kill in 48 hours.

“So we have to be there as quickly as possible to minimize the death toll and we have to do it in 48 hours. Within that time frame, we are able to receive medical personnel and start receiving patients. Our job is to make sure that whatever you need is where you need it when you need it, but if what you need is not where you need it when you need it, then lives are lost. There is no point in having a doctor there if there are no IV fluids,” says Genya, proving that you don’t have to be a medical doctor to save lives.

Nthabiseng Mogale, 25, paramedic

Nthabiseng Mogale. Photo by Motlabanna Monnakgotla.

“Emotionally, you get attached even though you don’t know the person.”

Nthabiseng Mogale qualified as a professional medic in 2014 in Johannesburg. She has since saved countless lives working out of an emergency room on wheels.

But even today, she admits to being nervous every time she gets a call out.

“You don’t know what kind of an accident you are going to find. You get to an accident and someone has a broken leg, or a scratch, some of them are horrible and traumatic. Emotionally, you get attached even though you don’t know the person. This job is difficult, but it’s also lovely because you get to save lives.”

She recalls one morning when she received a call about a seven-year-old, who was involved in an accident and suffered brain injury. The child had been sleeping since the night before, and didn’t wake up the following morning.

“Calls about children are more emotional than any others. That little, tiny body lying there, dead, not breathing, not responding, is not nice, it’s never nice actually,” says Mogale, who is a young mother herself.

Recently, she received another call, this time from Midrand, north of Johannesburg, at around 1PM. It was an old man who had low sugar levels and a history of heart failure; he also had high blood pressure and hypertension. On the day, he was not responding.

She checked the vitals – blood pressure, heart rate and sugar. The sugar was low, he had a variant heart rhythm and there was nothing they could do about it.

“In my scope of practice, you give sugar to that kind of person; if you give a drip, that water will hydrate the body, you give oxygen, the blood flows and it will bring color back. So I gave him sugar, he woke up, the drip hydrated him, he woke up and he started coughing, I asked him how he was and he said ‘I am not well but I am awake’.” She had saved his life.

The gratitude from her patients is what keeps Mogale going.

“Just a thank you is more than enough,” she says.

These are everyday heroes, fearless and loyal to the call of duty.

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A Country On A Roll

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The tiny country of Rwanda is now producing factory-fresh Volkswagen cars from its rolling hills. Next up are ride-hailing and public car-sharing services by the German carmaker.

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The Power, Humour And Anger Of Mandela

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It is a century since Nelson Mandela came kicking and screaming into a world that he would change.

In one hundred years, his name has been spoken with pride from the paddy fields of Vietnam, through the savannahs of Africa to the smoky steak houses of New York. His legacy appears more contested with every passing year.

I was fortunate to have a front row seat in the Mandela years and saw the power, humour and anger of the man. I used to feel 10 feet tall at press conferences when he used to greet my questions with: “Mr Bishop, how are you?” Once I was walking to a TV interview with him, at an African Union summit in Harare, the day after I had ruptured my knee playing football, he noticed I was hobbling far behind – something he was not used to. He turned and inquired of the cause of my pain.

“May I suggest you take up boxing, it’s safer!” says the old man with that million dollar smile. I shall take the warmth of that smile to my grave.

Make it clear, I am no Mandela worshipper. He was no saint and certainly didn’t want to be one: he could be angry and petulant with the best of them; his past was chequered by domestic troubles; a man of the people, yet distant from his own family, according to many close to him. A man who promoted press freedom, yet like many of the lesser politicians who followed him, wanted his picture on every page of the morning newspaper. Mandela drew the line at the sports page – he joked that he didn’t want to risk being associated with losers.

The greatest fear Mandela had was that his ideals – not his name – would be forgotten after his death. Not for Mandela the greed of rule, nor the trappings of power.

Yet it is very fashionable these days to run Mandela down as something akin to a sell-out. Those who claim, erroneously, that Mandela sold out his people. They say he didn’t stop poverty overnight nor right the wrongs of the past with the wave of his wand. They need to talk to those who were there in the negotiations for a new free South Africa.

“People say we gave up too much in negotiations yet we had nothing to start with,” Denis Goldberg, a man who faced death with Mandela at the Rivonia Trial in 1964, once told me.

READ MORE: Mandela Through Their Eyes

The negotiations with an entrenched elite – that held most of the cards and only grudgingly acknowledged Mandela and his comrades – were difficult to say the least. Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC) could not even threaten to go back to war because the depleting arms of its military wing posed little or no threat to the state.

Even so, a deal was hammered together somehow. In the next two years, in the run-up to the 1994 elections, Mandela won his leadership spurs as he steered South Africa away from the civil war that many feared was inevitable. He flew to Durban and told bloody-thirsty faction fighters to throw their weapons into the sea and they listened. When revered freedom fighter Chris Hani was gunned down on his front drive, in 1993, many were ready to take the law into their own hands.

Mandela barged into the SABC studios in Johannesburg that night and made a broadcast to the nation to calm down and put its weapons away. He wasn’t even in Parliament then and I wonder to this day how many lives that broadcast saved with this canny display of leadership.

Then, when into power with a virtually bankrupt Treasury, Mandela steered the National Development Programme that built millions of homes and schools; electrified the homes of legions of poor people and rolled out roads to connect the nation. Yet, the money was never going to stretch far enough and millions still have no roof over their heads and too many schoolchildren attend classes under trees.

It is fashionable these days to say the majority of South Africa must rise in a civil war in which the nation will be cleansed of its past, restored of its land on the path to righteousness. It probably sounds even better after a few drinks.

READ MORE: Celebrating Mandela From Where It All Began; Soweto

I say this is bunkum and anyone who has ever seen or smelt a civil war will agree with me. How a vile, stinking trail of dead fathers, raped women and children, destruction and disorder, can lead a country to the light beats me. Those who scream for war have clearly never seen it.

The first time I clapped eyes on the great man, at the Harare Agricultural Show, on his first foreign visit to Zimbabwe in August 1994, he walked alone, without a security man in sight. I didn’t ask for a selfie – they didn’t exist then, anyway – I was tongue-tied. We merely smiled at each other in passing.

So when people in political circles told me that South Africa’s new president Cyril Ramaphosa didn’t care for wealth and power – he merely wanted to put his name up there with Mandela – I smiled like I did on that August day in Harare.

This does seem feasible as President Ramaphosa – a millionaire in his own right – was the man who stood next to Mandela, holding the microphone, on the town hall steps in Cape Town, on February 11 1990, during his famous address on release from 27 years in prison.

“I stand here before you not as a prophet but as a humble servant of you, the people,” said Mandela to deafening cheers on that bright summer’s day.

Clearly this humility and willingness to serve rubbed off on President Ramaphosa on that fateful day in 1990. In his first 100 days, he has made manful attempts to stop the rot in South Africa by merely enforcing the rule of law. A course of action he made no secret of even before he took power on February 15.

“There are no holy cows. Anyone who is caught doing wrong things will end up behind the bars of a jail,” says Ramaphosa, with microphone in hand and humble service in mind at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in January.

True to his word, Ramaphosa cut swathes through the corruption of the past. Former president Jacob Zuma ended up in the dock on corruption charges something that many – including me – thought they would never see in their lifetime. He removed the rookie finance minister Malusi Gigaba and replaced him with the people’s choice Nhanlha Nene who has staved off more downgrades of the economy. A clean-up of the state-owned enterprises and the institutions is underway and many who thought they were invincible six months ago have been cut down to size.

I am sure the old man, who must have been spinning in his grave over the last few years, would approve.

“Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another,” says Mandela at his inauguration at the Union Buildings in Pretoria.

As we mark 100 years since his birth, it is time for cool heads and clear thinking to make sure this utopian ideal of liberty and tolerance lives on after his death. Our grandchildren will judge us harshly if we don’t.

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Mandela Through Their Eyes

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Documenting Madiba

Sahm Venter, Author

Sahm Venter. Photography by Karen Mwendera

“He saw people; he wasn’t one of those leaders who would see only famous people.”

South African author, Sahm Venter, spent most of her 25 years as a journalist covering the anti-apartheid struggle, before joining the Nelson Mandela Foundation as a senior researcher.

In June, with her colleague at the foundation, Vimla Naidoo, she released a book, I Remember Nelson Mandela, a collection of stories on the people who worked closely with Mandela.

“Everybody just loved him, and because he was such a decent person and because he saw people; he wasn’t one of those leaders who would see only famous people,” says Venter.

Mandela’s ability to pay attention to every single person in his presence was something Venter admired.

It was Christmas 1995, a year after South Africa gained independence with Mandela as head of state. Venter, along with five other journalists, spent Christmas day with him at the Transkei (in the southeastern region of South Africa).

“We had to meet him at like five in the morning and there were police guarding his house. He went and shook hands with every one of them and said ‘Merry Christmas’,” Venter recollects.

“When we walked through the villages for five hours, every single person and child who came out, he stopped, greeted and shook their hands. He asked for their name, asked how they are, what they are going to be when they are grow up, what class they are in at school.”

At the time, Venter quietly observed and remembers being blown away by Mandela’s humility.

A year later, at the launch of South Africa’s Constitution in Cape Town, Venter was among the few journalists who reported on the historical milestone.

“I was sitting next to this woman and I introduced myself from the SABC and she asked ‘are you Sahm Venter?’ and I said, ‘yes, why?’ And she said ‘well, the other day, Madiba called me up in front of these world leaders and introduced me to the whole crowd as you’. So he thought it was me because I had spent all this time with him,” Venter says, with a laugh.

“But that’s the kind of man he was, he valued everybody and everyone who worked with him felt that. And on top of it, he had a fantastic sense of humour,” she says.

Protecting Madiba

Conroy Herandien, Former bodyguard

Conroy Herandien. Photograph by Karen Mwendera.

“Happy birthday Tata, come back please, urgently.”

Conroy Herandien was only 21 years old when he was tasked with protecting South Africa’s first black president, Nelson Mandela. The former policeman was recruited into the presidential unit as a bodyguard after Mandela became president in 1994.

Herandien says he got to travel 22 countries with Mandela and his staff during his presidential years.

But apart from meeting with delegates and other presidents, he got to witness some of Mandela’s most intimate moments on board the aircraft.

“When everything quietens down and you board the plane, that’s when the intimate part starts. You help him take off his shoes, make him comfortable, take out his hearing aids, switch them off, that’s where the personal came in,” Herandien says.

“He had this thing about newspapers. If you give him the newspapers in the morning, please don’t touch them! Don’t open page two or anything because when he saw that the newspaper was opened, he wouldn’t want to read it anymore. He was a disciplined man and like many elders, had his own mannerisms and was also very stubborn at times especially when it came to the security part of things,” shares Herandien, with a laugh.

At times, Mandela would make his own bed even though there was staff to do it. This was the discipline instilled in him from 27 hard years in prison.

Herandien says he learned this discipline from Madiba, and attests to applying it in his everyday life. “He helped us grow where we didn’t stand back for anybody and everyday was a learning curve,” he says.

Herandien can’t help but wish Mandela was still around. As South Africa celebrates what would have been Mandela’s 100th birthday on July 18, Herandien recalls one particular experience celebrating Mandela’s birthday on one of their trips.

Shortly after midnight, the president’s plane landed at the Air Force Base Waterkloof in Pretoria, South Africa’s capital. Herandien and a colleague were one of the first to wish Mandela a happy birthday.

“No, no, thank you very much, very good, very good!” Herandien imitates Madiba’s response in his recognizable voice.

“That was him. He made everybody feel special,” Herandien says.

If he had the opportunity to wish Mandela one more time, he says these would be his words: “Happy birthday Tata, come back please, urgently.”

Impressing Madiba

Tladi Ditshego, Former international affairs coordinator

Tladi Ditshego. Photograph by Karen Mwendera.

“He gave me that ability to recognize people and feel good around people and to know them deeper.”

During apartheid, African National Congress (ANC) member Tladi Ditshego left South Africa to live in the United States (US) on exile. He studied at Georgetown University in Washington DC in 1990. At this stage, he was the treasurer of the ANC Youth League chapter based there. After Mandela left prison, one of his missions was to visit some of the ANC members living in exile. As a result, Mandela happened to visit Ditshego’s university too.

“When I met him at that time he was obviously such a revered leader, I was shivering,” says Ditshego.

Ditshego worked closely with him during his stay in the US.

“I advised him on certain things and participated in discussions before his interviews, I added value to some of his speeches and everything else and he says ‘come and work with me in Johannesburg’,” recalls Ditshego.

He consulted with his wife, processed his exile indemnity forms and did what anyone would have done if asked personally to work for Mandela.

1992 marked the beginning of his journey working with Mandela as his international affairs coordinator and they traveled to many countries together. One of his first assignments was to Senegal for a summit.

“That was my first international assignment with him and I didn’t know his modus operandi,” says Ditshego.

After meeting, greeting and networking alongside Mandela, Ditshego was called to meet with the president once the event ended.

“He said, ‘Tladi come over here’, and he sat down and said to me, ‘who was the lady we met dressed like this?’ And I said ‘I don’t know’,” Ditchego says.

“So he looked at me and said ‘ok, after that lady, there was another gentlemen’… And he would describe the way he was dressed. And I said, ‘but I don’t know the guy’, and he went on for the third and ‘I said I don’t know’ again.”

Ditshego was disappointed at not being able to identify any of the people Mandela asked him about. “He might have felt that I was very stupid, you know, and I couldn’t sleep that night,” he says.

The next day Mandela asked him the same type of questions after they met more people at an event. This time, Ditshego went prepared. He carried a notebook and wrote down every detail about each person Mandela interacted with.

Ditshego narrates the conversation he had with Mandela afterwards.

“Tladi, how was the day?”

‘Tata, I think it went on very well.’

“Remember we met a lady dressed like this…”

“Oh, ‘that’s Penelope from…’ ”

Ditshego had everything written down and had an answer for every person Mandela asked him about.

When they returned to South Africa, Mandela even told Ditshego’s boss, at the time Thabo Mbeki.

“Ey, Tladi is so smart, he knows everybody in the world and at that conference, he knew everybody,” Mandela said to Mbeki.

From then on, Ditshego’s confidence was restored. Not only did he learn to pay attention to detail whilst working with Mandela, but it is what he now applies in his day-to-day life.

“He gave me that ability to recognize people and feel good around people and to know them deeper, rather than to just say ‘hi, how are you?’” says Ditshego, who is now an entrepreneur and CEO at J&J Group in Johannesburg.

Idolizing Madiba

Vimla Naidoo, Former staff

Vimla Naidoo. Photograph by Karen Mwendera.

“I hope wherever Madiba is, he just feels the love, not just from his staff or family, but just South Africa and the world.”

It was in September 1995 that Vimla Naidoo first started working for the presidency. She was in the protocol team and her first task was to put together a reception that Mandela was hosting for Pope John Paul II. Minsters, the cabinet and several distinguished guests were invited to the prestigious reception.

It being Naidoo’s second day on the job, she was excited and nervous working behind the scenes. The event went smoothly and it was just about to end.

Little did she know she was about to meet two of the most respected men in the world.

“Our director at the protocol, said ‘come’ and I was like ‘where are we going?’ And he said ‘we are going to join this line of people greeting Madiba and the Pope’,” recollects Naidoo.

“I was so shocked but I was elated. I mean it was my second day on the job. I thought I was going to go through a couple of months before I ever got to see Madiba!

“I walked right past the Pope with my hand stretched out to greet Madiba, and he looked at me and he laughed and said, ‘aren’t you going to greet the Pope’? And I thought ‘oh my gosh, I’m going to be fired on my second day at work’. So I did a double take, went back, shook the Pope’s hand, I think, and he said something like ‘bless you, child’.”

A shy Naidoo walked back to Mandela, who then asked her, “Aren’t you supposed to be in school?’, trying the gauge his new staff member’s age.

“So he just kind of made me feel more comfortable and at ease. And I thought I royally screwed up. And so that always sticks with me,” says Naidoo, never able to forget that first encounter with him. After staying on in the presidency for a few years, it was normal meeting the iconic president most days.

“I think just to let him know how much we love him and how he will always be a part of our hearts…” Naidoo says, getting emotional. We pause the interview for a bit.

“It’s such an emotional experience and thinking about Madiba and talking about him I mean, especially during this time of the year…And thinking about other birthdays that we’ve shared, you know, and we’ve all been running around like worker bees trying to make sure that he has a great time,” she continues.

“I hope wherever Madiba is, he just feels the love, not just from his staff or family, but just South Africa and the world.”

Healing Madiba

Jay Naidoo, Former minister of reconstruction and development

Jay Naidoo. Photograph by Karen Mwendera.

“His remarkable magic of connecting with children was in fact one of the greatest triumphs that he could teach us.”

At an event commemorating Nelson Mandela, Jay Naidoo, a political and social activist and founding general secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), shares one of the funniest moments involving Mandela and Naidoo’s then two-year-old son Kami.

In 1994, when South Africa had just gained independence, Naidoo was appointed minister of reconstruction and development in Mandela’s cabinet.

Mandela was addressing the people during the launch of a campaign on how the leadership and communities could work together.

Naidoo attended the launch with his wife Lucie Page and Kami.

“Madiba is making the main speech. He is opening, and Kami decided that when Madiba is making his speech, he is going to go there and stand in front of everybody and tug Madiba’s trousers’,” Naidoo narrates.

Lucie and Naidoo looked at each other wondering which parent would pick up Kami tugging the president’s pants, whilst he was speaking.

“So I said ‘ok I will volunteer’. The first time I go and I take him and I put him on my lap. But no, he is not content with that,” Naidoo says.

Oblivious to the important speech Mandela was delivering, the little boy returned to him. This time, Lucie fetched Kami.

But her efforts were unsuccessful.

Kami went after Mandela a third time.

But this time, Mandela responded.

“He takes him in and puts him on the podium and continues the speech. Kami didn’t say a word.” Naidoo laughs.

“So Madiba, bless his soul, he loved children. There was a child inside of him that he missed for those 27 years. That is his greatest loss; the laughter of children, the touch of children, the love and innocence and the love of children. So his remarkable magic of connecting with children was in fact one of the greatest triumphs that he could teach us. He was a great teacher,” says Naidoo, fondly remembering Madiba.

Naidoo wished that Mandela’s love for children would transcend through society. However, the post-apartheid transition wasn’t easy especially for the politicians who had the task of rebuilding the country.

“Madiba once had a conversation with me when he talked about the reconstruction and development program of the soul and I said to him, ‘Madiba, I know we need to heal but they aren’t measuring us on healing, they are measuring us on how many houses, jobs and schools we are building’.”

Only now does Naidoo realize that “it was a stupid mistake, because we didn’t do the work of healing, first within ourselves, because we all carry this wound”.

This was something he believes Mandela was trying to teach them all.

Naidoo ends by saying: “If only we could just learn that and live with love and compassion and generosity, the triumph of what Madiba represented over fear and prejudice and racism….”

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