Tim O’Connor was on a golf trip in South Africa when he saw the pair of shoes that will be forever etched in his mind as a symbol of what Mandela was fighting for.
They were the most ragged pair of running shoes that I had ever seen. Mostly tattered grey canvas clinging to rubber. It seemed like a minor miracle that they stayed on the feet of my caddie.
And for me, they are my most powerful symbol of Nelson Mandela.
It was November 1994 and I—the lone Canadian–was on a trip to South Africa with golf journalists from Europe and the United States. The trip was organized to showcase the great golf courses of the country now that apartheid was finally over.
I can’t remember the name of my caddie that day at Durban Country Club. He appeared to be barely 20, but he and his wife already had four children. He was, of course, black. He was slight and wore a fairly clean green T-shirt and khaki shorts, no doubt provided by the club, one of South Africa’s most prestigious.
Typically for the caddies that we had on the trip, the young man at Durban didn’t say anything unless spoken to, his voice was soft and he said only enough words to make his point. His eyes rarely met mine.
As the round progressed, I began to ask him questions about him and his family, and he became more comfortable talking. I learned about his children, his wife, his parents, and that he was constantly caddying although it didn’t pay very much. He wanted to find better paying work, but he couldn’t take time off from caddying. “I must work.”
I figured out quickly that unless he earned money every day, his children wouldn’t eat. I felt like a dandy in my straw hat, preppy golf togs and white golf shoes.
As he spoke about trying to find another job, his face tightened with frustration. “It is very hard. Very hard.” As I listened, my eyes kept going to those worn-out running shoes, which would have been thrown out long ago in my house.
Eventually, I told him how I had watched on TV four years earlier when Mandela walked out of prison after 27 years in prison. By now, the institutional racism of apartheid had been repealed, all peoples in South Africa were now equal in law, and Mandela had been triumphantly elected president.
These were heady, hopeful days in the country, but the people most excited were whites. Boycotts of South African goods were called off, trade barriers removed. South Africa was open for business and a beautiful exotic tourist destination.
All during our trip, the folks dealing with us and representing clubs and hotels were white, and all the servers, caddies and workers were black. On my first morning in the country for breakfast, I was struck how our young female server sullenly shuffled around, never looking at me.
On this day at Durban CC, well into our round, my caddie seemed tired out, weighted down, which I surmised came from the unrelenting pressure to earn money to feed his family. Obviously, there was never enough left over for new shoes.
“I have great hope for Mandela, that things will change,” he said.
“I hope, I hope,” he added, sounding more sad than genuinely optimistic.
When we were done, I paid him and provided what I thought was a generous tip. When I shook his hand, instead of a delighted smile, his eyes quickly dropped, his face slackened, he mouthed something inaudible and walked slowly toward the club’s caddie yard. I was a fucking dandy.
When lunch was finished, and the speeches were over, we piled on a bus. As it chugged through the streets of Durban, we could see the second and third floors of large, tony houses surrounded by stonewalls upwards of 10 feet tall ringed along the top with barbed wire. On the iron gates at the end of the driveways, there was usually a sign with large block letters. Most said, “INTRUDERS WILL BE SHOT.”
When I heard yesterday that Nelson Mandela had died, I thought about my caddie at Durban and those shoes which he wore everyday to stride forward out of love for his family.
This morning, the front page of my newspaper carried a portrait of Nelson Mandela. Above it read, “There is no easy walk to freedom.”