The year is 2001. I am standing at an information point on the port of Cape Town in the shadow of Table Mountain with my two boys. I am reading a flyer about a 3hr tour of Robben Island but Christopher is shaking a flyer of a marine water world in my face. “I want to go.” For a moment he glances at the flyer in my hand but dismisses it quickly. How can I express to a five year old child in all of two minutes the significance of Robben Island and the greatness of Nelsen Mandela? As a mother of two young children, one autistic, I knew it wasn’t my time to visit Robben Island. Instead, we went to the amazing Two Oceans Aquarium and came face to face with sharks, fishes, turtles and penguins that live off the coast of Africa in the Indian and Atlantic waters.

Now, listening to all the stories and attributes in the wake of Mandela’s passing I know he would have approved my decision. Back then, I knew of Mandela, the anti-apartheid revolutionary, the shrewd politician, the first black president of South Africa but I didn’t know the extent of his humanness, his love for children, his humble integrity, and his mischievous childlike quality. He would have scoffed at me taking two children under the age of four to Robben Island. He was a man that lived his truth.

Nelsen Mandela walked into prison believing South Africa belonged to all of the people and twenty seven years later he walked out of prison saying the same thing. He was seventy one when he was released and continued with a resolute determination to climb political mountains, leading with compassion generosity and forgiveness. His lack of bitterness excelled the weakness of the human condition. What made him great made him human.

A set of Christmas lights was trying my patience when the news of Mandela’s death filtered across the airwaves. I give up my struggle and sat down. It was impossible to ignore or be moved by the depth of “Madiba.”

If my memory is correct, I was twelve years of age the first time I heard his name, a time when I was travelling on a ‘mixed’ bus to school. The school bus was ‘mixed’ with Protestants and Catholics alike. Being called names was part of the everyday experience. I shared my woes with a girl called Marie who was older than me and the only girl in the school when I arrived. She was a ‘townie’ and had peace keeping symbols pinned to her lapels. While we warmed our hands on a radiator she told me to ignore the bullies. “We need Mandela here,” she said, “Protestant, catholic, we are all the same.”  She opened my mind, that girl. She introduced me to Nelson Mandela.

I don’t tweet very often but I set the Christmas tree lights aside and lifted my phone.

#RIP Nelson Mandala while you sleep now may we, individuals, communities, politicians, governments, institutions wake up and follow your example.

After I pressed send I scrolled down to read the many tweets flooding in from all over the world. Somehow I stumbled on a name I recognised, my son’s name. He had tweeted an hour before me.

A good head and a good heart are always a formidable combination. #RIP Nelson Mandala #inspiring

I don’t know what happened to Marie but Christopher is still crazy about animals. He intends to go back to Africa to work in animal conservation. I’m thinking next time round he will probably take the boat to Robben Island.