Why Mandela Matters to Me

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Thursday, July 18, is the birthday of South African activist and former president Nelson Mandela. It has also been designated by the United Nations as Mandela Day – a day of service that recognizes Nelson Mandela’s 67 years of service to the public. On this day, the world is encouraged to perform 67 minutes of service. As such, many service events are being held around the world in order to “help change the world for better” to build a “global movement for good”.  There is also a TransAfrica campaign, encouraging people to tweet why Mandela Matters to them (hash tag #MandelaMatters). Whilst his life is being largely remembered as a day of public service,  I also reflected on his life and other reasons why Mandela matters to me.

My parents had not directly sensitized me about the situation in South Africa, only to say that it was going to be our new home. They did not want to scare us or taint our image of the country in anyway.  When I was living in the United States of America as a young girl, I had heard the name Nelson Mandela in conversations by my parents, through numerous tribute songs (particularly in the 1980s) and through movies such as Sarafina. However, I really didn’t grasp what the situation was in South Africa at that time. In fact, having moved to the U.S. from Germany a few years earlier, I was more excited about the prospect of moving out of New Rochelle, NY and discovering a new country.

It was only when I went to return my textbooks early in the school year at Albert Leonard Middle School,  that I sensed something was wrong. My White American teacher remained with an odd smile on her face as her heart skipped a heartbeat after I told her that my father’s work with the Malawian government meant that we would be relocating to South Africa. Her subsequent announcement about my departure to the rest of the class was reminiscent of an elegy but I could not understand why. Her reaction bothered me so much that I went home to tell my older brother, Clarence about her reaction. It was then that he said “there is apartheid in South Africa”. Dumbfounded, I asked him “What’s that?”  Even though he told me about the system that my parents avoided telling me about, I was to find out what this word meant first hand.

He told me that there was a system of separate development in South Africa and about the grave socio-economic inequalities in South Africa. He advised me that they were ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ there – and our skin color meant we were the have-nots. He also told me that people were getting killed, but that we probably would be alright since we would be in the Foreign Service. Scratching his head, he inquired what I thought all the movies, plays and songs I often sang along to were about.  He also told me about Nelson Mandela – a man that has been in jail for 27 years in South Africa for fighting for equality. As a young girl with five siblings, the concept of fairness resonated with me – if this was what Nelson Mandela was in jail for, I found it fitting that he should be released.

I moved from the USA to South Africa in at the end of 1989 more sensitized about the political situation in South Africa.   During that time, Malawi was the only African country that had full diplomatic relations with South Africa. This was due to President Hastings Banda’s staunch support for U.S. policies during the Ronald Reagan era. Banda, like Reagan, had been following a policy of “constructive engagement” with the apartheid government in South Africa. However, at the time that I moved there, the country was in transition and the world was anticipating Nelson Mandela’s release from jail. Albeit being sensitized on the political environment, it was in the social world that I learned what apartheid meant for everyday people.

We moved to the Waterkloof suburbs in Pretoria, which were much fancier then what we were used to in the suburbs of New Rochelle, N.Y. or McLean, Virginia. Here, we found that sprawling lawns with pools, tennis courts and luxury vehicles were commonplace in much of the area. We were the only Black family living in the suburb. Other than my family, the only other Black people in the area were day laborers and domestic workers. As mandated by law, living areas were designated as “White (including East Asians)”, “Colored (multi-racial)”, “Indian (South Asian)” and “Black”.  Access to public goods and services were determined by which racial categorization one fell under. These goods and services were also unequally and unevenly distributed with the majority Black population gaining the least.

However, diplomatic immunity meant that Malawian families in the Foreign Service were not subject to these apartheid laws – In other words, we had access to segregated hotels, neighborhoods, schools, churches and transportation which were legally reserved for the White population. As a result, we met both welcoming and unwelcoming reactions from “White” and “Non-White” populations in the country. To White South Africa, we were Black, to Black South Africa, we were foreign. In the early years living in South Africa, it was a series of trials and tribulations.  We were the subject of much covert attention and had to break down important social barriers in our communities. Since the country was changing politically, it helped us navigate the social world better.

Nelson Mandela’s release was an important step towards breaking down social barriers in my immediate world. Therefore, one of my earliest memories of living in South Africa was watching the release of Nelson Mandela on television in our Waterkloof home. During the transition period in South Africa, whenever a major political event occurred, we often stayed at home in case of political unrest. I do recall the excitement at home though from my brother and other family members. My father had instructed us to tape this occasion as he reminded us that we would remember this moment. He repeatedly told us “this is history!”

Years later I still do vividly recall the moment of his release and the palpable excitement and tension in the air. Nelson Mandela’s release was a pivotal moment for the country. Mandela matters to me because as a young female, I experienced what it was like to experience prejudices and unfairness because of the color of one’s skin. I also experienced what it was like to have access to privileges in South African society – and what it was like to feel uncomfortable about that privilege. Therefore, I had an opportunity to walk in the shoes of those being privileged and those being oppressed.  I had to navigate both worlds.

After Mandela’s release, my social world in South Africa changed rapidly. My school, Pretoria High School for Girls, was the first public school in Transvaal to become open to other Black, Asian and Colored Students. We also saw more families from other races move to the area. People could now live, work, learn or simply walk where they wanted to.

Mandela’s message of ‘fairness’ (what I now more appropriately refer to as ‘equality’) had an effect on my childhood and community in South Africa. He lead the nation though the change. This influenced basic aspects in my life there such as the type of friendships I was able to form in South Africa ( I had little access to other ‘children of color’, therefore it provided me with a less informed understanding of how the rest of South Africa lived until later on in high school).  In a wider spectrum, his message also resonated to millions of South Africans who embrace the ‘New South Africa”. Millions of them descended to Pretoria to see his inauguration – which I watched from home. My South African friends of all races were largely hopeful about the future of the country – that there was going to be a space for all South Africans.  At the same time, they were weary of the uncertainty.

Mandela’s leadership was important in absorbing the fears and hope of the nation. His role in liberating South Africa and helping in its transition cannot be understated. Although present day South Africa continues to face challenges, South Africa as we know it is still very much a young country. However, it has managed to come this far due to Mandela’s leadership. As I reflect on his life and how he influenced my life, I can certainly appreciate how he affected the lives of many South Africans and why Mandela matters for many.

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