By CYNTHIA RICKARD
Nelson Mandela holds a tender place in my heart. I never met the man, but he embodied everything that was missing in his beloved South Africa when I lived there 40-some years ago.
That nation at the bottom of the world was a shocking, bewildering, beautiful, but appalling place to the 18-year-old Rotary exchange student I was in 1971. It was a land of wildlife wonders, stunning scenery and a rich cultural and racial heritage that could have made it the envy of the world. Except. The apartheid (which South Africans, by the way, pronounce a-PAR-tate).
It hit this American like a brick to the face.
It was a journey back in time, to the days of my parents’ youth. No TV, white and “non-white” restrooms, restaurants, public transportation, swimming pools.
Eye-opening. Startling. Gut-wrenching.
Influences from the rest of the world were tightly controlled through heavily censored, badly spliced or edited movies, magazines, newspapers and radio programs. The Time magazine I read there was not the one my friends and family were reading at home.
Then along came Mandela. Full of an understanding that even a foreigner couldn’t evoke for those bent on oppressing not only him, but every person who bore even a hint of the tint of his skin.
For an American teen of the ’60s, apartheid was a universe apart from anything I knew except through snippets of memories of parents who grew up in the ’20s and ’30s. Mandela had already spent some seven years inside the walls of the horror that was Robben Island prison by the time I arrived.
He was six years older than my parents, but lived a vastly different life. They were white in a white-controlled Western world; he was black in a white-controlled nation on a primarily colored continent.
In my extensive travels across his and other southern African nations and “homelands” — white South Africans’ euphemism for islands of unworkable land in which they essentially corralled native tribal populations — no one uttered his name to me.
When I walked those streets — his streets — of Carletonville, Johannesburg, Durban, Pietermaritzburg, Pretoria, Kimberley, Cape Town, and all the little dorps in between, the sidewalks were cleared for me, a young white woman, as blacks, “coloureds” — South Africa’s moniker for mixed-race individuals — and other non-whites, even the most elderly, parted and crossed streets to allow me “right-of-way.”
My stomach knotted every time it happened. And my face swelled from tears when a black servant in my first host home begged me to take her with me back to America. It was a quick confirmation that the parental-like care whites repeatedly assured me they took of non-whites held no sway with them.
Visits to the homelands of Swaziland and Lesotho were eye-opening. Arid, desolate lands of primitive agrarian and tribal crafts people unable to eke out much of life’s needs. A trip to Soweto, the sprawling, fenced black township outside Jo-berg, was heart-breaking. The place to which that servant returned to visit her children one day a week had no indoor plumbing, no running water except from a pipe sticking up in the road. No trees. No parks. Few smiles.
The country had multiple native tribes, and even to a young, foreign newcomer, it was clear that the goal of the white minority government was to support those divisions, to conquer and maintain the white status quo. The non-white population far outweighed the white, as it does today. Had all those tribes joined forces, the white government could easily have been deposed.
So to even imagine that after decades of oppression, any victim of that life of terror could emerge from 27 years of being robbed even further of a spouse, children, friends and community, without a drive to incite violent protest or war was unfathomable. And yet, out marched Mandela, smiling, laughing, eyes twinkling at his good fortune.
The details of life Mandela changed for millions in his own country are remarkable enough, but his transformation from a young, frustrated rebel to a perceptive, forgiving, worldly-wise diplomat, negotiator and leader shines, in my lifetime, as a role-model to which all of humankind should aspire.
I believe this, not with blinders on. Over the years I have heard and read the vitriol lobbed his way. But having lived in his country, I have come to assign those reactions to the same sad sources as most other hate-infused words and actions: ignorance and fear.
I witnessed the life that was this man’s world for more than three-quarters of his 95 years. I cringe at the total absence of power he and every other non-white had over their own lives. The identification cards they had to carry, the homelands and townships to which they were confined formed an existence Americans would never accept for themselves.
So the sight in recent news coverage of white kids and adults dancing, singing, crying with black and brown kids and adults brought tears to my eyes for the immensity of the change he engineered for them, and indeed, the world.
His was a rare gift that led him to not only survive those 27 years of isolation, but to mature through its duration in such measure that he emerged with dignity, serenity, generosity of heart and faith in humanity. It was an extraordinary evolution that will influence our world forever.
The proof is in the lives of the friends I made. Though I doubt I’ll ever be able to find any of the gentle, compassionate souls whose lives I passed through, who were torn from their families to serve white masters for the promise of about $15 per month, some minor health care and bus fare to places designated home by those masters, today, they walk freely in the whole of South Africa.
And more than that is the commentary of an offspring of host parents with whom I have kept in touch, and consider family. Lynne Henning was not even conceived by the time I left South Africa, but she was born into the regimented system of apartheid. She has graciously allowed me to share her words, written Dec. 5, the day Mandela died:
For as long as I can remember Nelson Mandela has been a part of my reality. When I first learned of him I was around 6 or 7 years of age and his name was spoken in heated angry voices by my parents and other grown ups and I thought, this man must be very bad.
I remember seeing him walk free from Victor Verster prison in 1990 with his right fist raised high above his head genuinely smiling at the cheering thousands and I thought, he does not look like such a bad person. Then I started questioning a few of my ingrained beliefs which led to a rather tumultuous time in my little corner of Africa.
Of course I remember watching him being sworn in as the first black President of South Africa in April of 1994. I love what former president F.W. de Klerk has to say about that moment:
“The day he was inducted as president, we stood on the terraces of the Union Building. He took my hand and lifted it up. He put his arm around me, and we showed a unity that resounded through South Africa and the world.”
And I thought, he CAN NOT be a bad man!
The rest of that year for me was taken up by finishing my high school career and going off to University, so I didn’t keep close tabs on the goings on in the politics of the country. I do remember hearing quite a couple of speeches by Mandela and the true and honest plea in each of those were for peace and reconciliation.
The next time Madiba burst into my reality was during the Rugby World cup of 1995. There is not a white South African alive who doesn’t remember him walking onto the field wearing the green and gold jersey with the number 6 on it. That was the moment when he was no longer Nelson Mandela: black man, terrorist, revolutionary; he became Madiba: president, leader, peace maker. In that moment I thought here is a remarkable man, a GREAT man, a good man.
You will be missed Madiba!
Nelson “Madiba” Mandela is being buried today among his people, the Xhosa, a tribe with a melodic, clicking language, in his ancestral home in the Eastern Cape.
Cynthia Rickard is a longtime regional editor for The Vindicator and Vindy.com. She can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @crickard.