My Turn: Mandela and me
African National Congress President Nelson Mandela salutes the crowd in Galeshewe Stadium near Kimberley, South Africa, before a "People's Forum?" Friday, Feb. 25, 1994. Mandela is on a three-day campaign swing for the April all-race general election through the Northern Cape Province. Mandela called on supporters on Friday to stop chasing President F.W. de Klerk from black areas, saying the ANC could win April?s election ?hands down? without help from hecklers. (AP Photo/David Brauchli)
Former South Africa's President Nelson Mandela waves, after his arrival for the 6th Annual Mandela Lecture in Soweto, South Africa, Saturday, July 12, 2008. Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, is a guest speaker for the Annual Mandela Lecture as part of Mandela?s 90th birthday celebrations. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)
It is not often that I so deeply mourn for people I do not know personally. And, as The Onion astutely captured in its headline “Nelson Mandela Becomes First Politician to be Missed,” it is extremely rare for the death of a political figure to attract such widespread regret. Yet, at the death of Nelson Rolihlala Mandela, affectionately known to us South Africans as uTata (meaning “Father”), I am, as we South Africans say, heartsore.
Of course, we all knew this moment was coming. Aside from death being our common destiny, Mandela had been gravely ill for months now. In fact, people were so expecting him to die in July or August that, around that time, as my husband and I were preparing for our move back to the United States, flights were commonly booked out by international media. Yet, somehow, we are still in a state of disbelief at the news. I think that, somewhere in the recesses of our minds, we thought Madiba was actually immortal.
How best to explain what Nelson Mandela meant to me personally?
I grew up in Soweto (which stands for South Western Townships), in Johannesburg, during the 1980s. From 1985 to 1990, a state of emergency was declared throughout South Africa by the white minority government in the face of severe clashes between the police and township residents during the “ungovernability” campaign led by the African National Congress. Things had come to a head. Apartheid had to end.
I remember Mandela’s release from prison in 1990. My family and I were glued to the television. I was only 9 years old, but I had grown up seeing riots in the township streets. Giant caspers (military armored vehicles) patrolling the township streets – manned by white police and army officers toting large firearms – were a common sight in my childhood. My parents had allowed me to watch Cry Freedom (the heart-wrenching movie, then-banned by the apartheid government, telling the story of “black consciousness movement” leader Steve Biko’s murder by the police) at the age of 8. Even just from traveling an hour and half each way from the impoverished township to the lavish northern suburbs where I was one of a handful of black students who attended a white, private school as part of the then-government’s experiment with liberalization in schools, I knew what apartheid was. I therefore knew that Mandela’s release was big.
How did the change his freedom brought manifest itself in my life? I went from traveling an hour and a half each way to school to traveling only five minutes. The Group Areas Act of 1950, which had mandated racially segregated living, was repealed, and my family was allowed to finally live in the formerly white suburbs.
I remember the first time, at the end of 1991, that I was able to hold a birthday party at my home and invite my white school friends to a sleepover. Previously, they had not been allowed to venture into the township, and wouldn’t have dared. I got to watch with bewilderment as elderly white voters in our newly mixed-race neighborhood went to the local school a block from our house to vote in the last whites-only referendum that would endorse the end of apartheid. I then also had the privileged view of white and black people going to the same polling station together for the first time in 1994. It was awesome in the true sense of the word.
Radically different path
In later years, I went on to complete high school at my interracial, private school (in which black girls were still the extreme minority) and attend the premier university in South Africa, which had previously been exclusive to white people. This trajectory put me on a radically different path to that of my parents: my father who had not finished high school because he could not do so as a poor, black son of sharecroppers growing up on a farm in the 1940s and ’50s, and my mother who, as a township girl, had been confined to nursing when she had had dreams beyond that. (My mother’s older brother had had to leave school in order to work and enable her and her other siblings to finish school.)
My personal story is in so many ways the story of Mandela’s hope and sacrifice. My ability to go from a poor child in the township to becoming the lawyer my father had dreamed of becoming, but could not, and attend the Oxford University that, when I was 8, my father had aspiringly told people I would one day do, was all due to Mandela’s unrelenting commitment to my freedom. As he wrote to his followers when he rejected an offer of conditional freedom by then-President P.W. Botha in 1985: “Let (Botha) renounce violence. Let him say that he will dismantle apartheid. . . . I cherish my own freedom dearly, but I care even more for your freedom. . . . Not only I have suffered during these long, lonely, wasted years. I am not less life-loving than you are. But I cannot sell my birthright, nor am I prepared to sell the birthright of the people to be free. … Your freedom and mine cannot be separated.”
I am forever grateful to this son of Africa and to all who fought the good fight with him.
Humane and humble
It was an honor to meet this man of unwavering principle in 1997 when he visited my girls’ school and shook the hands of all the girls who had participated in the performance we put on that year of Sarafina. This was a “protest theater” production about the 1976 student riots against Afrikaans as a compulsory medium of instruction and an inferior level of education called “Bantu education” for black children. (The play was made into a movie starring Whoopi Goldberg.) The theme song of the play was “Bring Back Nelson Mandela!” We performed it specially for him that day. He beamed as he watched and expressed his deepest gratitude afterward, making all of us feel incredibly special as he paused to greet us and shake our hands in turn – in that way only Mandela could do. I’m always amazed at how consistently that incredibly humane and humble manner of his shone through whenever I saw him on television.
My story of Mandela’s significance doesn’t end there. Regrettably, my clearest memory of the transition from apartheid in 1990-91 is the many “for sale” signs on the northern suburb lawns we drove by on my way to school. White people were afraid and in flight (the term “refugees from democracy” was then coined). I encountered this fear directly in school too where my majority white classmates expressed views they had surely heard from their parents. “Why should we have to pay the price for what our ancestors did? We weren’t there,” was a common refrain, and still is. Some statements were even worse.
Mandela was at the center of dulling those fears. He let white people know that the past was largely in the past and they were wholly South Africans too. Of course, in hindsight, that comfort that he gave white people at the time has been a double-edged sword for South Africa. In fact, it is somehow fitting that he died on the same day that the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation issued its devastating latest findings on the state of reconciliation in South Africa: the extent to which class still largely runs along racial lines and this inequality is the main obstacle to racial reconciliation in South Africa.
The IJR findings show that interracial contact and socialization grows with improvements in class position. In South Africa, black people are still predominantly poor and mostly living in segregated black townships or rural areas. Seventy-three percent of South Africa’s white people fall in the top two highest categories according to the living standards measure.
Grim news indeed
Yet, that’s not the devastating part. What’s truly distressing is that, as the country anticipates 20 years of democracy next year, nearly 40 percent of the white South African respondents disagreed with the observation that “The apartheid government wrongly oppressed the majority of South Africans,” and white people report the least aspiration to learn more about other South African cultures (27 percent) as well as the least desire for chances to interact with people of other races (12 percent). Given Mandela’s overarching commitment to and sacrifices for the sake of reconciliation, this is very grim indeed.
The last white South African president, FW De Klerk (who shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Mandela for ending apartheid), observed that “South Africa, notwithstanding political differences, stands united today, in mourning this remarkable man.” My hope is that Mandela’s death would raise him even higher in our hearts and minds and truly unite us in pursuing the vision of a democratic, reconciled and equal society where all are truly free that he sacrificed so much to see realized. Indeed, I hope that the ruling party in South Africa would remember his words more in his death than they have done recently during his life. (In the wake of President Obama’s apt words about inequality on Wednesday, I tender the same invitation to the United States.)
In his own words as spoken in his treason trial of 1964, “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
I am very sorry to see this gentle giant pass on. However, I think it is fair to say that he has completed his work and deserves this rest at last. The remaining work is for us to see to a finish.
So, as a South African friend wrote on Facebook, “Nelson Mandela is dead. Long live reconciliation, justice and freedom!”
(Sindiso Mnisi Weeks is a resident scholar at the University of New Hampshire School of Law in Concord.)