A sombre cloud has stretched over our beautiful rainbow nation as South Africans and the world mourns the passing of its beloved son, icon and international statesman Nelson Mandela.
Losing someone of Nelson Mandela’s stature, who has been larger than life and impacted the lives of each and every South African in one way or another, is indeed heart wrenching and painful.
Addressing the nation on Madiba’s passing, President Jacob Zuma said: “Our nation has lost its greatest son, our people have lost its father…nothing can diminish our sense of a profound and enduring loss.”
The President added that “let us express, each in our own way, the deep gratitude we feel for a life spent in service of the people of this country and in the cause of humanity”.
Our grieving process for the father of our nation and our national hero will take some time as we individually grieve and collectively mourn his death as a nation.
Our healing will happen gradually. It cannot be forced or hurried as we take time as a country to remember how this great man has made a difference in our lives through his actions and words.
Many people were touched by his triumphant release on 11 February 1990 after being imprisoned from more than a quarter of a century. That he was able to cast aside the burden of the past and move decisively towards reconciliation is a mark of the man.
He chose not to exact revenge on those that perpetrated the injustices of apartheid, instead he claimed the ultimate victory by choosing forgiveness.
Highlighting the power of forgiveness, Nelson Mandela said: “No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
Madiba went on to plunge himself wholeheartedly into his life's work, striving to attain freedom and equality that he and many others had fought tirelessly to achieve.
Others may recall with vivid clarity the day Nelson Mandela took the reins on 10 May 1994 as South Africa’s first democratically elected black President and forged a government of national unity.
Few will ever forget how he used the nation's enthusiasm for sports as a pivot to promote reconciliation between white and black South Africans.
During the country’s hosting of the 1995 Rugby World Cup Nelson Mandela became the unifying factor when he adorned the national Springbok jersey of a sport that had previously represented oppression.
For others it would be when he signed into law a new constitution for the nation in 1996, establishing a strong government based on majority rule, and guaranteeing the rights of minorities and freedom of expression.
Perhaps it was his words of affection, extraordinary humility and peace that often touched even the most hardened hearts.
Nelson Mandela said: “I stand here before you not as a prophet but as a humble servant of you, the people. Your tireless and heroic sacrifices have made it possible for me to be here today. I therefore place the remaining years of my life in your hands.”
No matter how the icon had touched our lives, he has been at the centre of a most compelling and inspiring story – the building of our rainbow nation.
Madiba had come to embody the spirit of South Africa. Today just months away from our celebration of 20 Years of Freedom we see a country that has made remarkable progress from the evil clutches of apartheid to a vibrant democracy.
Our transition has been peaceful despite the country's history of political violence and dispossession.
Over the years we have together made important advances in nearly every facet of life. We have begun building an inclusive multi-cultural society with broadening opportunities for all.
South Africa has been able to build the institutions necessary for a democratic and transformative state.
Our democracy is safeguarded by one of the world's most progressive constitutions, an independent judiciary, a free press and a robust multi-party political system.
The constitution enshrines a rights-based approach and envisions a prosperous, non-racial, non-sexist democracy that belongs to all South Africans.
Our constitutional imperatives also focus on healing the wounds of the past and redressing the inequities caused by centuries of racial exclusion.
We have expanded access to services, the economy has been stabilised and a non-racial society has begun to emerge.
Millions of black South Africans who were previously excluded now have access to education, water, electricity, health care, housing and social security.
While there are still many challenges and more needs to be done, life for millions of South Africans is better with each passing day since 1994.
Our democratic journey continues as we aim to accelerate progress and build a more inclusive society.
Nelson Mandela himself noted that our historic journey from apartheid to democracy is just the beginning when he said “we have not taken the final step of our journey, but the first step on a longer and even more difficult road”.
He added: “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others. The true test of our devotion is just beginning.”
As we remember and pay tribute to Madiba over the upcoming week, let us reaffirm his vision towards a united, non-racial, non-sexist, democratic and prosperous South Africa.
Phumla Williams is Acting CEO of the Government Communication and Information System (GCIS)