Countdown: #BokkeBlanket reveal on June 9, 2021 – origin story of 67 Blankets for Nelson Mandela Day
In the 2nd year of lockdown, many of us repeat affirmation mantras like ‘one breath at a time’ and ‘one step at a time’ as we navigate through the pandemic. For the founder of 67 Blankets for Nelson Mandela Day, Carolyn Steyn, it is ‘one stitch at a time’ as she counts down with excitement, for tomorrow- June 9- when the big reveal will take place in Johannesburg, for 67 Blankets for Nelson Mandela Day 2021. A mammoth size blanket will be laid out on the grounds at Steyn City School. The blanket will be inscribed with the Springbok flag and is being tagged as #BokkeBlanket #StrongerTogether. Hop on to Steyn’s Instagram account @carolyn_steyn and share in the buzz in the lead up to the reveal: “One more sleep”, she enthuses.
It has become customary for an activation to be held annually to highlight and celebrate and raise public awareness around 67 Blankets for Nelson Mandela Day. In terms of origins stories, 67 Blankets was ignited by a request made to Steyn by Zelda Le Grange in December 2013. It was shortly after Madiba died on December 5. Steyn says that they were sitting at her husband, Douw’s birthday party, “feeling bruised” at Madiba’s passing. The narrative goes in the press, that Le Grange “challenged” Carolyn Steyn to make 67 blankets for Mandela Day. (Mandela Day is annually celebrated on July 18, with the community prompt for people to do something of service which incorporates 67 or to give money or goods in units of 67- to make a difference in some way- in public service- to help others). The way that Carolyn Steyn relates the genesis of 67 Blankets, was that it was very much about friends chatting and Zelda Le Grange putting an idea on the table. Le Grange was Madiba’s trusted assistant. She was his gate keeper when he was in office and does much to continue his legacy. She put the idea out, over lunch. Carolyn Steyn started to crochet blankets. She had learned to crochet when she was at school at Jeppe Girls High in Joburg but had not crocheted since her school days. Overwhelmed by the number ahead of her (67 blankets), she put out a post on Facebook and asked friends to assist. People were inspired and they joined her in making the first batch of 67 Blankets.
From the start, the ethos was about making blankets by hand, ‘one stitch at a time’. Steyn says that are many organisations that lobby for donations of blankets for those ‘in need’ and mass produced blankets are welcomed. Steyn says that those organisations are wonderful but 67 Blankets operates differently. The crating and sewing of the blankets, ‘by hand’, operates in tandem with the donation aspect and that is core to what they are doing. People gather to sew blankets and that in itself creates a community of togetherness, care, sharing of knowledge, skills and creativity.
Somewhere along the line, the term KnitWits was mooted and knitters of 67 Blankets, tag themselves as KnitWits. Steyn says that it goes beyond ‘donating’. The makers of the blankets receive support from each other as they proceed “one stitch at a time”. Newbies learn how to make blankets from others. It is not simply about giving money or an item to those “in need” but creating, touching and holding something tangible, which is then gifted to a person ‘in need’. Each blanket has a satin label which certifies that a blanket has been made by 67 Blankets for Mandela. The recipient knows that this is a special blanket.
For me, reflecting on 67 Blankets, during Covid year 2, lockdown, 67 Blankets is emblematic of wrapping each other with care and warmth. Hugging has been out of bounds since March 2020. The fallout has been shattering for “those in need”. If we unpack the concept of “those in need’, it is not only those who financially in need but also the elderly and those with other challenges. Besides financial need, there are “emotional and psychological and mental health” deficits. Many people have been cut off from the outside world. They have not been allowed visitors because of Covid regulations. There have been no hugs. Receiving a blanket from 67 Blankets For Mandela Day is about being wrapped up, embraced in the warmth of the spirit of Madiba. It is a tangible and poignant connection to the legacy of our extraordinary leader. Cuddling in a blanket is like receiving a hug and that will make a difference to many people “in need”- not only in terms of being warm from the cold but emotionally – a sense of being wrapped and enveloped by a 67 Blanket.
The first prize is to make a blanket for 67 Blankets but if you cannot then consider donating wool to a group who can make blankets. There are other activations which have arisen out of 67 Blankets such as an annual scarf pop-up event- and we will get to that on TheCapeRobyn, in another story. For now, the focus is on BokkeBlanket #StrongerTogether, tomorrow, June 9. Join Carolyn Steyn and the KnitWits in making blankets for 67 Blankets for Mandela Day.
✳ Featured image: Set up of #BokkeBlanket, at Steyn City School, Johannesburg, launching 67 Blankets for Nelson Mandela Day 2021. Pic Bridget van Oerle/BUZ Publicity & Media.