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Patricia Schonstein

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Asimbonanga

On the day after Nelson Mandela died, an inter-faith prayer service was held on the steps of the City Hall for a crowd gathered on the Grand Parade in Cape Town.

People came with bunches of flowers. Someone handed out pictures of Madiba. Flags flew at half-mast.

The wind was blowing fiercely and its roaring carried away the words of rabbi, priest and imam, so we could not hear them, though we sensed their depth. We knew them to be words of homage and gratitude; we knew them to be words of praise and blessing. Surely the earth itself mourned the departure of this great man; surely all the wild beasts of Africa were also expressing homage and farewell.

A Zimbabwean man standing next to me told me: “When a man dies, we place upon the burial site his cup and plate and those other things he might have used in this life, and may still need, in the beyond. We do not keep his things.”

He continued: “Mr Mandela will be buried in his suit and black shoes. But he will leave to you, he will leave to you the people here, the broken bars of his prison cell, as lights.”

The crowd pressed and reformed, in the way crowds do, and the Zimbabwean was suddenly no longer at my side, but gone, swallowed by the movement of people. I was left listening to the haunting “Asimbonanga” sung by a small group of mourners, and the continued roaring of the wind.

I have been reflecting on those broken prison bars all these past weeks. They can indeed be taken up as a symbol of Nelson Mandela’s massive legacy of forgiveness and his singular disregard for revenge.

If they are held aloft, as beacons of ethical light, then Mandela’s “long, lonely, wasted years” would not have been in vain.

 

“Asimbonanga: We have not seen him
Asimbonang’ uMandela thina: We have not seen Mandela himself
Laph’ekhona: In the place where he is
Laph’ehleli khona: In the place where he is kept

Oh the sea is cold and the sky is grey
Look across the Island into the Bay
We are all islands till comes the day
We cross the burning water

Asimbonanga: We have not seen him
Asimbonang’ uMandela thina: We have not seen Mandela himself
Laph’ekhona: In the place where he is
Laph’ehleli khona: In the place where he is kept

A seagull wings across the sea
Broken silence is what I dream
Who has the words to close the distance
Between you and me

Asimbonanga: We have not seen him
Asimbonang’ uMandela thina: We have not seen Mandela himself
Laph’ekhona: In the place where he is
Laph’ehleli khona: In the place where he is kept

Steve Biko! Victoria Mxenge! Neil Aggett!

Asimbonanga
Asimbonang’ umfowethu thina: We have not seen our brother
Laph’ekhona: In the place where he is
Laph’wafela khona: In the place where he died

Hey wena!: Hey you!
Hey wena nawe!: Hey you and you as well
Siyofika nini la’ siyakhona? : When will we arrive at our destination?”

 

Asimbonanga – We have not seen him – by Johnny Clegg and Savuka from their album Third World Child (1987) was composed during the 1987 State of Emergency, when South Africa was heaving with political unrest; when we could not see Nelson Mandela,  but when everyone felt his power, like that of a lion, waiting in his cell.

Johnny Clegg singing Asimbonanga in 1999 concert, with Nelson Mandela on stage: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BGS7SpI7obY  (Skip the advert)

 

Figurines of lion, leopards, zebras and baboons by Liso

 

 

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