1996 was gap year for me. Where else would a 17-year-old idealist go but South Africa? Two years earlier, Nelson Mandela had been elected president. Apartheid was history and democracy and reconciliation were blossoming. Was this miracle possible? I had to go see for myself.
I grew up singing the galvanizing protest songs of the Black Consciousness movement. I’ll never forget the first time I saw the photo of 13-year-old Hector Pieterson, who was shot by police in 1976. Looking back, that was the moment when a social consciousness awoke in me. As a teenager I followed the anti-apartheid struggle closely.
Who can forget the effect of Mandela’s first words to waiting crowds in Cape Town on February 11, 1990, his first day of freedom after more than twenty-seven years behind bars? “I stand here before you, not as a prophet, but as a humble servant of you, the people. Your tireless and heroic sacrifices have made it possible for me to be here today. I therefore place the remaining years of my life in your hands.”
When Mandela walked out of Robben Island, he found himself face-to-face with an intransigent white supremacist government that had sentenced him to life in prison. He took an enormous risk and extended his hand in reconciliation. There was absolutely no guarantee the gesture would be reciprocated. Even while his hand was extended, it was burned. But he kept it extended and created an opportunity for his opponents to come to the table.
With people all over the world, I held my breath as South Africans went to the polls in April 1994. Mandela’s election, and the hope and rejoicing it unleashed, allowed us to believe again. To believe that freedom is stronger than oppression. That love is stronger than hate. That all people will one day be free.
In a post-election celebration, Mandela set the tone for the new South Africa: “Let us stretch out our hands to those who have beaten us and say to them that we are all South Africans…Now is the time to heal the old wounds and to build a new South Africa.”
The struggle was just beginning for this fledgling democracy. There were centuries of discrimination to reverse. As my plane landed in Pretoria, I watched the deep red of the soil and the lush green of the trees gradually focus into a far harsher reality. I began working in a day care center in Mabopane, where all we could afford to feed the children was mielie pap, a porridge of ground corn.This same menu, I remembered, had been prison fare for Mandela and other political prisoners on Robben Island.
One of my first evenings in this impoverished township north of Pretoria, I walked some of the children home to their government-issued cement box that the apartheid regime called a house. The TV was on and the adults in the room were gathered around the screen watching the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings. They wept as yet another victim of apartheid told her story.
How were my neighbors supposed to share their new democracy with their oppressors? How were they to deal with the white minority that had violated their human rights, trampled their dignity, uprooted them from their homes, and dumped them into poverty-stricken resettlement camps like Mabopane?
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was South Africa’s attempt to reconcile, and begin a new dispensation in which black and white South Africans would live together. Their own president, Mandela, set the example. A victim of injustice, he was ever ready to reconcile – a costly reconciliation, not cheaply bought.
In Xhosa, Mandela’s mother tongue, the term ubuntu means, “My humanity is bound up in your humanity. I am only human through you.” Mandela’s humanity awakened the best in a generation of young people like me. He lived ubuntu. Now that he is gone, so must we.
Image credit: South Africa The Good News / www.sagoodnews.co.za