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Estelle Nagel Headshot

Our Father Has Died

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There is a terrible knowing on everyone's faces today.

Some of us watched the live broadcast with the official announcement, others heard the news on social media this morning. But by now, everyone knows that Nelson Mandela has passed away.

Even the rock and pop radio stations are playing Brenda Fassie and Miriam Makeba instead of the usual Katy Perry and Miley Cyrus. Callers are phoning in their sorrow and disbelief. And my social media feed is full of friends' and acquaintances' stories about the man that united a nation. Instead of rushing to our desks, my colleagues and I stood in reception with cups of coffee and shared our memories -- the day he gave his speech at the Grand Parade after his release, the day he walked onto the rugby field after South Africa won the World Cup and the crowd (mostly white, mostly Afrikaans) started chanting his name, the day our parents voted in the first democratic elections (and for some, for the first time).

There can be no doubt that our father has died.

I was eleven years old in 1994, when he became president. I don't remember much, but I do remember the fear. People were stockpiling food. Our school had been shut down once or twice due to bomb threats. The day we removed the flag of the previous regime felt like a funeral. We tried to sing our new anthem, which was made up of four of our country's languages, and not just Afrikaans -- two of which I'd never even heard of before. And I remember clearly, very clearly, how an emotional geography teacher stood up in front of our class and said, "Soon, this country is going down in flames."

But when Nelson Mandela spoke, he had an amazing way of dissipating our fear. Friends of color shared their gratitude with me today, saying that he is the reason they could vote, have an education, and live their lives as free people. As a white Afrikaner, I always had those rights. What he gave to us was, in a way, just as precious and much harder to do -- forgiveness. The ability to move from being the oppressors to participants in rebuilding what we've broken. It was a humbling, humbling experience. Even as a child, I recognized that.

As Jacob Zuma said in his speech, "...what made Nelson Mandela great was precisely what made him human. We saw in him what we seek in ourselves."

Forgiveness. Humility. Gentleness.

In his book, Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela said: "I can rest only for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not yet ended."

Tata Madiba. Looking at how every single South African, of every age, income, race and creed has united to mourn for you and celebrate you, we can almost say that your walk has been completed. Rest in peace.