Two days ago, my partner, Brinda, said how
he changed what it meant to be African. He changed what it meant to be African American
as we sat with the news that Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela had passed earlier on Thursday, December 5, 2013.
Indeed, Madiba changed what it meant to be human. He dignified the whites who had been systematically privileged by apartheid, he dignified the ruling National Party that was the final white-led political party in final years of apartheid in the early ’90s. And he ushered the transition from a violent, white-minority government to a multiracial democracy. Mandela’s tact and approach was unique in that he did not diminish the Black masses, the poor and the oppressed when dealing with the powers that be. He was unapologetic as the figure head and public face for the political party, the labor unions, the youth movement and the social movements that brought about apartheid’s end.
In the 72 hours since his passing, I have been reminded that violence may be a necessity when every other means or resort has been exhausted. I have been reminded that a leader or elected official does not need to relent in their systemic critique of the status quo once they have been elected. I have been reminded
I lived in Swaziland from 1991 through 1994. It was a pivotal time as neighboring South Africa transitioned from an exclusively white-governed nation to a multiracial democracy. I recall one weekend in 1992 when my mixed race family went to Pretoria for the weekend. Our car broke down, so we had to spend one extra night, on a Sunday, in one of Pretoria’s upper class neighborhoods. The two reasons that we could be there, were that as a diplomat and his family we were bestowed with a level of privilege, which was further eased by the fact that in the early 1990s, Black South Africans had begun to live in neighborhoods that had been historically white.
Because our car broke down, I would miss school on Monday at Waterford Kamhlaba. Yet, it was not just any Monday, but the day of the Referendum asking white South Africans if they wanted to vote to end apartheid by granting Blacks and Coloreds the right to vote. To my 13 year old sensibilities on the night before, a race war seemed all but inevitable. I do not know how many stories of widespread race-based violence had been forecast on television nor how many newspapers had written about the possibilities of political violence. I went to bed on Sunday terrified by what would happen in the streets of Pretoria and throughout the country the following day.
Yet, nothing of the sort occurred. There were a few skirmishes fomented (or even staged) by the white nationalist organization, AWB (who’s name in Afrikaans, I never could remember). Otherwise, peace and calm was so widespread that by dusk, I was clipping the posters of various political parties as my mom drove me around the predominantly white, middle- and upper-class neighborhood that we were staying in. I would run up to a streetlamp and cut the twine in two places before tossing the posters either in the trunk or backseat of the car that we were in. I cannot remember, but we gathered at least a dozen, if not 20, posters. A few were those of the rulling National Party that said either “Yes” or “Ya” (the equivalent term in Afrikaans). We encountered few No posters, that we still chose to cut and compile. The one that is most emblazoned in my psyche, even 21 years later, was a caricature of FW de Klerk, the President and leader of the National Party, on his knees bowing before a standing Nelson Mandela. Off in one of the corners is the shape of a red, stop sign were the three letters — Nee — asking that voters refuse to grant the majority of adults in the country the right to vote.
It was a magical phase in my life. As a mixed-raced, teenager from the United States attending a middle and high school, Waterford, with a legacy of being a place for Black, white, Colored, and Indian South Africans to send their children to a mixed race school environment. It was a school where I shared classrooms, meals and sports fields with the children (and grandchildren) of the freedom struggles of Mozambique, Zambia and other countries. It was a school where Walter Sisulu came and spoke to the students. I learned a few political anthems and songs, such as N’khosi Sikhelele Afrika (which literally translates as God Bless Africa, and is now the national anthem since apartheid ended in South Africa), that instilled a sense of pride and defiance in the face of a racist history that was slowly receding just across the Swazi-South African borders. I learned from close friends, from numerous countries in Southern and East Africa, about the role that their federal governments played by offering safety and safe passage for the anti-apartheid leaders of the ANC and other banned parties, as well as granted refuge or resources to train soldiers in military combat. In the late ’90s, I would learn more about the instrumental role of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the military wing of the African National Congress, as I read Mandela’s autobiography, The Long Walk to Freedom.
The three years in Swaziland were a time when dinner conversations between my parents at home revealed to me that certain elements in the US government preferred that the National Party or another white political party win the free elections in 1994. There was not a chance of it happening, considering that millions of people lined up and stood and waited for hours for the one time in their life that they could vote for Nelson Mandela. He was one of more than 20 (or more) candidates for president. It was a ballot so long that it had to be printed on a piece of paper as long or longer than legal size. And the faces of each candidate and the unique, colorful logo of their respective political party was included next to their names on the ballot to assist illiterate adults to be able to vote. These were some of the little yet profound aspects of what it meant to live in such proximity to freedom.
These were some of the moments as a 13, 14 and 15 year old living in Mbabane, Swaziland. After two years and ten months in South Africa, Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as President a month or two before we left and I would return to New Mexico and the US. It was overcast in Mbabane, the morning of the inauguration. I sat in the tv room of our house, owned by the American Embassy, with my mother, Lena, Louis and one other domestic worker, who’s name I have forgotten. Lena was partially blind in one eye because she could not afford or had not been able to access necessary health services when she was younger. Louis sat and recognized nearly every foreign leader and dignitary who was shown on tv, able to say their name and their home country before the commentators on the South African Broadcasting Channel (or Corporation) could. The five of us sitting, largely in silence, as we witnessed the enormity of the day’s activities and the history happening a few hundred kilometers across the border.
Mandela’s life is an anamoly to my psyche and my sense of history. He lived to be a very old man when so many indicators meant that he should not have. In fact, all his time imprisoned in South Africa’s prison systems was one factor that resulted in his long life. He was a severe enough threat to the apartheid country that they would have attempted to assassinate him in the streets of London, Nairobi or some other foreign city had he been free to live abroad. Yet, exile was not a part of the path in the life of Nelson Mandela. And as I sit and remember the touchstones of my life, I recall that Chris Hani and Steve Biko and thousands of other political activists in South Africa and the world have had their lives brought to a premature end. Violence and fear being tools to kill and end the lives of individuals and social movements seeking justice, dignity and freedom.
South Africa’s post-apartheid Constitution is a truly radical political document. It protected the rights of sexual minorities when no other nation on the planet was doing so. Rather than be mired in vengeance and animosity, South Africa took steps to practice democracy in the months and years immediately after a majority of people gained freedom.
Mandela’s passing is a teachable moment. A chance to recognize that this is what it feels like to live history, to be a part of the history that is being made today. We tend to diminish the small actions, unseen moments that constitute so many days in our lives. Yet, when we recognize our own connection to the prophets that live among us, the bigness of history is mirrored back to us. It is not just the history of Mandela or MLK, but all of us who were participants or bystanders to the social movements that they are connected to.