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Mandela memories

South African creatives share their memories of the great man

Sean Metelerkamp

Sean Metelerkamp was born in Knysna, South Africa and works as a photographer and filmmaker.

My strongest memory of Nelson Mandela was on the day of his release from prison, 11 February 1990. I was five years old and in the company of an elderly white woman with purple hair. I had got lost whilst playing around the housing complex and so she took me in to her lounge. We had tea and biscuits while she cursed in Afrikaans and English at the television, forgetting I was beside her. Mandela had a broad smile as he held a proud fist in the air whilst walking through masses of joyful South Africans. Everyone around Mandela seemed so proud and excited while this woman next to me was losing it. I was confused and the biscuits were stale. My grandma finally found me at this house (perhaps through sense of smell). She looked concerned for me, but more so about this major change that would impact her and her grandson’s life. She slowly turned to the TV, sat down, and could not stop shaking her head.

Twenty-three years later, I am proud to be South African and revel in the good, bad, weird and wonderful of this Rainbow Nation running through me every day.

Thank you Madiba, for twisting it up.


BIG FKN GUN are a Kwaito-born progressive rap group joining the Johannesburg trend of fusing Zulu verses against house. 

My earliest memory of Mandela was a song by Chicco (Sello Twala) who was barred (due to apartheid) from making any protest music. Mandela was in prison and I was just entering my early teens. The story of Mandela was one of legend and Chico then wrote a song, disguising the name “Mandela” with “Manelow.”

The lyrics were: “We miss you Manelow, where are you?” Everyone knew the song and it was a major hit in townships all across the country but no-one really knew who Manelow was, so it went over our heads as we boogied down to a frenzy whenever it came on. It was only a decade later that my brother told me that the song was actually in reference to Mandela, and the call to free him and countless others from political imprisonment. It was like the long overdue "Aha!" moment of all time. I almost kicked myself for not picking that up.

Petite Noir

Petite Noir is musician Yannick Ilunga, a Cape Town alumnus, though born in Brussels. Having formed the group, 'Popskarr', with Terrence Pearce aka DJ Lapse back in 2010, he's since toured with Foals and released his debut album this year. 

We first arrived in South Africa around 1993 so I didn't really feel like I was growing up in a place that went through so much pain and segregation. For a while it was amazing until I was old enough to really understand all that had happened and I realised that racism was still around but now under the surface, brushed under the carpet. Mandela always seemed to give everyone hope and feel safe. He had so much good and motivating energy. So the sonic boom effect of his death is huge. For him to leave that kind of legacy is amazing - and all anyone should really want with their own life; to give people some motivation and love.

Nakhane Touré

Nakhane Touré is a Johannesburg-based singer songwriter. 

I was six years old when Nelson Mandela became president of South Africa. I didn't quite understand what that meant at the time, but what I do remember very well was that there was a buzz, an energy; taut and hot, that was in the air. Excitement. I may not have understood what it meant, but I understood very well that it had brought joy with it, some sort of elation. The next year I moved to Port Elizabeth and for the first time I went to school with people of different races and was taught by someone of a different race. It meant absolutely nothing to me then, I was just happy to be learning English (finally I could understand what was being said in those TV shows).

I look back on it now, and I realise how easy it was for our generation to take everything that Nelson Mandela did for granted because we grew up enjoying the spoils. Sadly, sometimes it takes a tragedy to make people realise the importance of someone. But in that tragedy he leaves behind a question mark. What now? Do we continue living according to the goodness he fought for, or do we neglect everything and satisfy our egos? I hope it's the former because South Africa is an amazing country.

Tshepang Ramoba

Tshepang Ramoba is the drummer for Johannesburg's Blk Jks and newer project, Motel Mari with João Orecchia. 

I was born in the 80s and getting into the 90s that's when I could mentally and physically see a lot of things. I was pretty much confused because I was young during aparthied and I went to a multiracial primary school where the white kids were too young to be racist. What I experienced a lot was the drama behind my uncles as they were freedom fighters and we always had cops coming to the house to look for them. One had be in exile and the other was taken to Robben Island.

I also experienced the Inkhata Freedom Party (IFP) troops killing people in Soweto and Johannesburg. Since they were black too, that's what brought a lot of confusion to me – I've seen the Inkatha killing other black people and never saw white people killing black people. When Mr Mandela was released that's when I learned a lot about apartheid. My uncle also got out before [Mandela] did, he taught me a lot about this ANC leader.

That's when my family thought I was old enough to know why they were singing the struggle songs I grew to love. Learning the story of Mandela from a man that was in prison with him made him my hero. My uncle said it was because of him that I can go to the school I go to and the cinemas in town. He told me I can be whatever I want to be because of this man with the ANC.

Max Mogale

Max Mogale is a 25-year old photographer based in Cape Town, who captures everything from fashion to the everyday street-life of South Africa.

Nelson Mandela was the father of our nation and I am eternally grateful for the sacrifices he and other elders and leaders made that allowed our country the freedoms we enjoy today. He left a legacy that is a monumental example of how to persevere through all odds. And it's that very same fire in the furnace that I see throughout our nation's youth. Things in this country would not be as they are had he not done what he did. I am forever thankful for him. We as a nation and the world will forever love him.

Abdellah Taïa

Moroccan-born author Abdellah recalls the lasting impact of his South African-born mother's memories of Mandela.

My mother M'Barka knew who Nelson Mandela was. She loved this man. She found him beautiful, she said that to me, to us. My mother was illiterate, from the countryside, but, all her life, she never stopped screaming, fighting - to get us food, to construct our house, to be a man instead of the other men.

My mother was not political, she was in the real life, the daily life, the many many tragedies you live everyday when you are poor. She is the one who introduced me, in the 80s, to Nelson Mandela’s work, revolution, beauty, fights. I think she was in love with him. Every time we saw his pictures on television, her face and eyes expressed that admiration and that love for him, without any shame. My mother in love with another man! Why not? This was never a scandalous thing in our family.

The Black Man was a fragile man, a prisoner: like us. The Man of Africa who represents us all, in the North of Africa, in the South of Africa, everywhere in Africa: Women, men, children and even djinns. During very long years, when he was still a prisoner, we lived, in my family, with Nelson Mandela everyday. We prayed for him. My mother did that. In Arabic. I am very much influenced by my mother's way of thinking and struggling.

When I was a teenager, every morning, I too used to say a prayer for him. A re-invented prayer. A poem. Without speaking, two strangers walking in the same way. The hand of my mother M'Barka in Nelson Mandela’s hand. Forever.

Craig Native

Craig Native grew up during Apartheid in the ghettos of South Africa and has since gone on to found his own menswear label.

Apartheid was pretty much around during my entire childhood. I was 19 when Nelson Mandela became president of South Africa. Army trucks, tear gas and riots were very much the norm before then. However, art and sport made you "roam freely", something I will always be thankful to my late mother. She never told me apartheid existed. When I first encountered apartheid, I could not grasp the concept. When I heard of the life and sacrifices of Nelson Mandela it reminded me of when I was given a piece of paper and a pencil to sketch – my closest reference to liberation. Mandela showed us that "small stones, slowly and firmly bound together will be more secure than a foundation built on larger but loosely placed boulders". Mind over might. Many Africans live in conditions that are far below the breadline, Mandela showed that perseverance can amount to change. The greatest things man has achieved on earth all started with belief. 

DJ Spoko

Marvin Ramalepe is DJ Spoko, born in rural Tzaneen he is now based in Atteridgeville and both DJs and produces. Here, he remembers Mandela in verse.

46664 let the number talk…
He who changed an unchangeable situation into a moment of Joy
He who raised from the seas and restored Love and Peace into the heart of South Africa
Peace is another name for Nelson Mandela, for those who did not witness his Magic: "Madiba Magic"
His legacy can’t be forgotten for the next and next generation of the Universe
"Long walk to freedom".

Nico Krijno

Nico Krijno is a Cape Town-based artist, photographer and filmmaker.

My memories of Mandela: his great shirts, his big smile.  

I feel that however sad death might be – it marks an important time in our countries road to freedom.  

Mandela stood for so much, he represented the very best hope for our country's future, he took up arms, he was a peacemaker, and a democrat - its up to the youth to carry on this legacy.

But let Madiba go and everything will one day be as it should – free and at peace – these things just take a lot of time. And this country still has a long way to go, Mandela was a big instrument of change, up there with Ghandi and Lincoln.

Ricky Lee Gordon

Ricky Lee Gordon AKA Freddy Sam is an art activist from Cape Town.

Mandela inspires me and makes me proud of South Africa. He reminds me to believe in humanity within all the wrong in the world, we know we can and must change our society to be more caring for one another. Madiba's interpretation of our South African philosophy, Ubuntu is: "You cannot be human all alone." That is what the world needs to realise.

This is the inspiration for my latest mural – a herd of springbok showing the beauty of the pattern the group makes, highlighting how intrinsically they are connected and how beautiful they are as one.

Lauren Beukes

Lauren Beukes is a Johannesburg-born, Cape Town-based novelist.

We like knights and monsters, heroes and villains, virgins and whores, but people are rarely so simple and that’s exactly why Nelson Mandela is so important. Because he was not a saint or an angel or a martyr. He was just a man.

We are all capable of the best and worst of humanity and doing right is a constant struggle against our instincts. It is easy to harbor resentment, to let anger burn you out, to fill your heart and your mouth with hatred. To forgive is not divine. It’s much, much harder than that.

That South Africa was able to come through decades of ruthless repression, racism, censorship, assassination hit squads and violence without tipping into civil war is remarkable.

Mandela represents this country’s remarkable spirit of reconciliation. It’s a major theme in my novels, especially Zoo City, which is about the possibility of redemption, because it’s something I struggle to come to terms with myself – how to let go, how to forgive and move on. It’s inspiring because we all have that potential if we can only find it within ourselves.    


Special thanks to Sarah Claire Picton, editor of South African magazine One Small Seed