— I have never met Nelson Mandela. He retired from public life before I moved to South Africa in 2009.
But as I soon discovered, he is everywhere in this country. South Africans call him Tata, or father, as if he were a family member. People wear shirts emblazoned with his face and sing songs about his achievements. Countless South Africans who met him tell of the surprising intimacy he was able to forge with complete strangers.
He’s also been the most important story of my professional life here. Every little drop and dribble of news about him - and they have been mere drops and dribbles since he retired - has made headlines.
And so, when I was told on Wednesday that journalists, too, would have a chance to pass by his coffin and look at the great man for last [and for me, the first] time, I wavered.
Would I be taking an opportunity away from the kind of person I love to champion in my stories - say, the grandmother who woke early to take several buses here, who dressed herself with great care in traditional garb to say goodbye to the man who transformed her life?
Would I, the privileged foreign journalist, be muscling ahead of South Africans who had lost so much under apartheid and had so much to thank him for?
Also, I wondered, do I fit in?
I had been watching the government media’s feed of events. His widow Graca walked with such immense poise, her head high but her face heavy with grief. I watched world leaders who I’d spent many hours stalking in hallways and who never gave me the time of day. I watched as they paused in respect before that little white coffin.
They wore discreet black suits, elegant black dresses, graceful traditional outfits… and here I was, in jeans and sneakers. Necessary for running around and chasing stories; a bit disgraceful for meeting one of the greatest icons of the 20th century.
I watched later as those old grandmothers passed by the coffin. Many sobbed openly as they walked away. I watched people with their children, bedecked in the colors of the South African flag. The parents looked heartbroken, while their children looked happy and oblivious. Those young faces said, I can do anything, I can be anything.
And it was all thanks to that old man in that coffin whose significance they cannot yet understand.
I worried about this. And so, in my sleep-deprived paranoia, I asked a security guard what he thought. Was I dressed appropriately? Was I really welcome in this hallowed space?
And this is one of the many things I really love about this country: He looked at me as if I were mad. “Go on,” he said, gesturing for me to come inside, “You’re welcome.”
And so, I grabbed what I hope was an appropriately respectful jacket - a gorgeous tapestry number loaned to me by my boss for my on-camera shots - and in I went.
I walked in with a young radio journalist. She produces her own show and covers issues in the Zulu community. She’s smart, self-assured and successful.
“If it weren’t for him,” she said, “I’d be a tea girl somewhere.”
That happens pretty often in this country: you’re driving down the road of life, and you think you’re living in a normal country - and then a comment like that hits you in the face like an 18-wheeler. You remember: Oh, right. That happened. That really happened, and not so long ago, at that.
I experienced that personally for the first time when I visited the Apartheid Museum years earlier. My husband and I are American citizens, and saw apartheid with a spectator’s eye. Apartheid ended when we were in middle school. Our parents told us it was wrong, an outrage, but we had no visceral connection to it.
So we were stopped in our tracks by a photo of a couple who were forced into exile over apartheid-era decency laws. She was of Indian origin. And her husband was a tall, professorial white guy.
I am of Indian origin. And my husband is a tall, professorial white guy.
As we were all commiserating in front of the coffin about the lives we could never have had if not for Nelson Mandela, the security guards brought the line to a halt.
A young woman a wheelchair was in front of us. She wanted to see his face. Security rushed to help her caretaker as he heaved her up to the level of the coffin. Yes, I thought, we truly are all welcome here.
And then it was my turn. I took a few hesitant steps. They had told us to move quickly. I noted with appreciation that he was wearing one of his signature batik-patterned “Madiba” shirts. I could only see the profile of his face, a shock of white hair. I stared.
“No staring,” a guard snapped.
And then it was over.
I had been watching all morning as people had paid their respects with little gestures: the sign of the cross, a salute, a bow. I didn’t do any of those. I just stared, like the awkward reporter I am.
Had I not had the glare of the TV cameras on me, and been allowed to stop, I might have done it differently.
I might have even said a few words.
Really, just two: thank you.
Police form a barricade after the the cut off time for viewing the body of Nelson Mandela outside the Union Buildings in Pretoria, Dec. 13, 2013.
Crowds of people walk after learning they would not be able to view Nelson Mandela's body at the Union Buildings in Pretoria, Dec. 13, 2013. (Peter Cox for VOA)
South African police control the crowd following a crush as people jostled to see former South African president Nelson Mandela on the last day of his lying in state in Pretoria, Dec. 13, 2013.
People line up to catch a bus to see the remains of Nelson Mandela at the Union Buildings in Pretoria, Dec. 12, 2013.
People line up for courtesy buses to ferry them to the Union Buildings to view the body of Nelson Mandela in Pretoria, Dec. 12, 2013.
A woman weeps after paying her respects to Nelson Mandela as Mandela lies in state for the second day at the Union Buildings in Pretoria, Dec. 12, 2013.
South African mourners hold posters of former president Nelson Mandela, while chanting slogans as the convoy transporting his remains passes by in Pretoria, Dec. 11, 2013.
Military personnel carry the remains of the late Nelson Mandela upon arrival at the Union Buildings in Pretoria, Dec. 11, 2013.
Nelson Mandela's widow Graca Machel, right, pays her respects to the former South African president at the Union Buildings in Pretoria, Dec. 11, 2013.
Mourners line up after waiting for hours to get into a bus to go to the Union Buildings where the casket of Nelson Mandela lies in state for three days in Pretoria, Dec. 11, 2013.
People react as the procession for former South African president Nelson Mandela leaves the military hospital in Pretoria, Dec. 11, 2013.
Defense force personnel and hospital staff salute a procession for former South African president Nelson Mandela as it leaves the military hospital in Pretoria, Dec. 11, 2013.
Women wave South African national flags before the cortege carrying the coffin of former South African President Nelson Mandela passes by in Pretoria, Dec. 11, 2013.