Sunday, December 8, 2013

Reminiscing on Mandela and South Africa

Living well, they say, is the best revenge. And so it is that Nelson Mandela, a man whose life some may have thought ended when he was sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island off Cape Town in South Africa for terrorist crimes against the apartheid regime, was reborn in 1990.

 His release from this prison cell did not come easy, five years of negotiations, first with President Botha who insisted that Mr. Mandela use his influence to end all armed resistance by members of the African National Congress. He refused. Not until President de Klerk came into office was a deal signed allowing black Africans the vote in their own country and a new constitution was written.

Many thought then and circumspectly still whisper that Nelson Mandela gave in too easily to the demands of the ruling white authorities. They call him a capitulator and an accommodator. I cannot subscribe to that theory. The idea that one must hold on to hatred, anger and bitterness has no place in my mindset and, thankfully for the country of South Africa, Mr. Mandela was destined to be a big picture person. He shouldered the burden, as did Martin Luther King, Jr. on a much smaller scale, of leading his people to a better place.

In his writings, Letters to Myself, and Long Walk to Freedom, among others, he exudes humility, admonishing those who would place him uncomfortably on a pedestal. He is open about his failings as a husband and father but realistic about the sacrifices that inevitably plague a man chosen to lead a nation. The transition from the oppression of white rule to a democratically elected president from the majority indigenous people could not have happened under a lesser man. I believe that South Africa would have devolved into chaos and bloodshed.

When Don and I visited South Africa two years ago, a trip of a lifetime and an education unsurpassed by any book learning, we walked in Mr. Mandela's footsteps on both Robben Island and in Johannesburg. It is impossible to explain the powerful emotions that I felt. How can a privileged, fortunate human being like me even begin to get inside the head and soul of a person who could basically give up his life for the benefit of future generations? Where does one find that kind of courage?

As we toured Soweto I was struck by the disparities that still exist but also by the difference between what your imagination tells you that you'll see and what is actuality. Certainly a great deal has changed in the almost twenty years since Mandela was elected president. Economic sanctions were lifted, education opened up, business expanded. Still, from a middle class neighborhood of immaculate brick homes in Soweto, albeit surrounded by walls and concertina wire, one still looks over the remains of tin-roofed shanties where there's no electricity and the women walk to the town well for water with jugs on their heads.

Mandela's home when he was in the thick of the revolution was in the Soweto neighborhood called Orlando. In this home that he shared with his second wife, Winnie, perhaps even more of a revolutionary than he, around this very dining room table, great ideas were discussed, plans to free a nation were made, and men and women realized that they might have to give their lives for a cause.

And a rainbow nation was born. Lest anyone try to say that it isn't working, I ask you to look at this photo from Friday's New York Times. I believe it says all that needs to be said.

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