Growing up in South Africa in the 1970-s-1980’s, I was a child of Apartheid, seeing the Soweto riots (which began as a protest by black children being forced to learn Afrikaans in school) and the assassination of Steve Biko, as well as the bloody violence allegedly engaged in by Umkhonto We Siswe (the militant arm of the ANC), and the enormous impact of the sanctions, divestment, and global protests of the 1980’s.
As a white, English speaking South African, I was, however, able to justify the existence of the system enforcing the Apartheid regime of the ruling Afrikaans minority. In my late teens, as an army conscript, I witnessed a civil war type of existence for the people in Soweto that we were duty bound to patrol, and thereafter, on the University campus, police riots to dispel protests against the apartheid regime that were ordered by then Prime Minister F.W De Klerk.
Nelson Mandela was depicted to us as a criminal, a terrorist leader, and a dangerous individual, who if released from prison would exact a bloody revenge on the white minority. I could not foresee the white Afrikaans ruling party conceding Apartheid, and I could not foresee, given what I understood of Mandela’s ANC, there being a peaceful transition. Having recently graduated from University in South Africa I could take it no longer, and so it was with those sentiments that I set out for the United States to attend law school and escape a grown-up life either under apartheid or in a bloody revolution backed by Mandela’s ANC. As a US law student in the early 1990’s, however, I began to see the other side, actually the true side, of who Nelson Mandela was, and the fabric of forgiveness that he would instill into the ANC.
In my Boston apartment, I witnessed with awe what I never thought would happen ---- Nelson Mandela was freed from prison. A few years later, in 1994, then living in New York City, I voted at the South African Embassy in South Africa’s first democratically held election, and I voted for Nelson Mandela and the ANC party. I could not believe what had transpired. However, to witness from the US, as a displaced South African, and by 1995, upon gaining citizenship, as an “African American”, the manner in which Nelson Mandela was able to forgive his jailers, the oppressive white minority (of which I was a part) and to forgo nationalism of industries and farmlands (as we had all witnessed when the white minority in Rhodesia was ousted to become Zimbabwe) was nothing short of awe-inspiring. To hear Mandela exort his people to throw their “panga’s and spears” into the ocean, to see the Springboks (outlawed from international competition) once again competing as our Springboks, and to see Mandela wearing a Springboks rugby jersey, and presiding over a peaceful transition to a democratic nation was a truly uplifting and existential experience.
In today’s political climate of concern about the next election and holding on to a seat rather than acting in the constituency’s best interests, it is unique, and most likely, not to be duplicated that we will see a man of such towering fortitude, intellect, compassion, forgiveness, and foresight. Nelson Mandela was able to unite a very divided, racist, violent, and in many ways depraved culture into a “rainbow coalition” and create a gleaming democracy in the heart of the darkness of Africa. It is unlikely, we will see a figure of such depth and vision that can be named in the mold of one of our modern society’s greats, but it has been a pleasure to exist in the same world with him.