For Nelson Mandela, former President of South Africa, born July 18th 1918
A slow dripped stone worn by indignities.
No epiphany, revelation, moment of truth
just the long rotten row of African Only.
Die wit man moet altyd baas wes.
The pale man must always be boss.
Die kaffer op sy plek. Nigger in his place.
Rolihlahla, Mandiba, Dalibhunga, Mandela.
Tree-shaker, clan-man, chief à la Bhunga
Russet, white-bellied, stripe-thighed impala
anteloping Africa. I’ve crossed famous rivers.
Less sprinter than long-distance runner coping
boundary by boundary hoping to let both
the bred Thembu kingmaker and royal mentor
first hit his stride as he shed skin by skin,
clan, tribe and stock but also to become
his names for all his people. Tree-shaker,
pathfinder, painstaker, a cross country
pacemaker moving dangerously out ahead.
Even as a boy to win but never to humiliate.
Discipline inscribed in years and genes of grit,
a stubborn smile that seems to begin in an eye
of a student once expelled for making a stand,
a tearaway eluding a planned tribal match,
a gardener of Robben Island sharing among
prisoners and warders his overspill of fruits,
Antigone crying at Creon’s unlistening will.
For 28 years never to stand still
Even on the same spot wearing out a shoe
to keep on and on running no matter what.
Talk, plot, debate, argument, growth.
Decades of gestation. A small village boy
he’d whiten his hair with ash in imitation
of his beloved father. Now parent to a nation.
Nkosi sikelel iAfrika. God bless Africa.
Laps of honour in a stadium of success.
Forgiveness. To win but never to humiliate.
Under a frost of grey a wise smile creases.
Yes, to father a country, but to have lost
my children’s laughter? I’ve crossed famous rivers.