I was in elementary school when I first heard about the system of racial segregation practiced in South Africa and known by the name apartheid. When you are seven or eight years old, and adults are presenting uncomfortable and incomprehensible subject matter to you, they tend to stick to bare facts, divorced from context or consequence. That meant that while we were told that apartheid means "apartness" and that whites were about 20% of the population but controlled the whole government and that blacks were unhappy with (and protesting) the system, there was very little of the why discussed. Moreover, the only conclusion presented to us about the consequences of this system was that whites and blacks could not interact socially, which was of course false.
I was a weird child, far more interested in "adult" matters than my peers, and there were lots of aspects of these explanations that simply made no sense. How, I wondered, could a minority of a population exercise oppress the majority? Why, I wondered, would anyone care whether blacks and whites could interact socially? I grew up in racially mixed schools, without any evident racial strife, so it was strange to me that anyone would think it important to keep blacks and whites separated.
My understanding of the issue was further confounded by a very real disconnect between the values that were being inculcated in my civics classes at the time--freedom, equality, voting, public participation in political affairs--and an American government, the Reagan administration, that seemed to be supporting the very opposite of these things in South Africa. Weren't we supposed to be in favor of democracy and equality?
As I grew older and learned more facts, it became less confusing. The white minority that ran South Africa was able to do so through force--a white military, white bureaucracy, white courts and police, and a government elected exclusively by whites all acting in concert to preserve white privilege. It was not until I studied the subject in college that I made the connection with our own American apartheid, a system enforced through all of the same mechanisms. All of a sudden, the Reagan administration's support of apartheid made sense. Reagan was elected while subtly, or maybe not so subtly, nodding toward racism in the South; he kicked off his 1980 campaign in Mississippi and railed against Cadillac-driving welfare queens and steak-eating "young bucks" who preyed upon vulnerable white women. Like Richard Nixon before him, he used the "Southern Strategy" to win election by appealing to the kinds of people who had thought that having "whites only" and "colored" water fountains wasn't a bad idea.
At some point, I became aware of Nelson Mandela as a symbol of the anti-apartheid movement. I'm not sure when that occurred; it was probably in the context of statements from black American cultural leaders who gained new prominence in the 1980s--people like Bill Cosby and Quincy Jones, to name a couple, but there were many of them: black people who became powerful in our culture through the entertainment field, and who used that power to shine a light on Africa and African issues. Not just apartheid, either, but famine in Ethiopia and new American colonial-style interference in African affairs. "Free Mandela" was a liberal watchword of the 1980s; just who this "Mandela" was, was somewhat undiscovered. And those who supported apartheid sought to fill in the blanks with the usual suspects.
Mandela, they said, was a communist*, a Marxist. He was a black crusader. He was a murderer, having resorted to planning and carrying out violence in an attempt to overthrow the rightful government of South Africa. He wanted to bring about rule by the black majority so that blacks could oppress the white minority. He wanted to steal white industry and white land. He wanted to drive whites out of Africa entirely. He was insane and wanted to be a dictator in the mold of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe or Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire (although Mobutu was "our man," a distinction lost on the racists who were driving the meme).
* - Mandela was not a communist, and he laughed at the suggestion: "Perhaps the most striking is the cooperation between Great Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union in the fight against Hitler. Nobody but Hitler would have dared to suggest that such cooperation turned Churchill or Roosevelt into communists. Theoretical differences amongst those fighting against oppression is a luxury we cannot afford at this stage." I've always found it funny, not humorously, but fishy, that everyone we perceive as being against us is, miraculously, an insane communist dictator, even if they show no signs of any of those things and may in fact have been popularly elected or enjoy majority support.
I will leave to others to identify which of those hoarsely whispered criticisms were accurate and which were not. But the last few days have shown that Mandela was able to transcend, if not overcome, the calculated campaign against him, to become a man of nearly universal acclaim in his own country. Sadly, I have seen too much commentary from Americans that we might charitably call uninformed, but is in reality more likely unmitigated racism, that seeks to be iconoclastic toward Mandela based upon those same whispered criticisms. But it was heart-warming to see racially mixed crowds in South Africa celebrating the life of Madiba, the clan name by which Mandela is known there. In some ways they have come much further in the twenty years since Mandela became president than we have in the nearly fifty years since the Civil Rights Act of 1964 became law. One need only look at the histrionics exhibited by some people to the election of Barack Obama to see that.
Nelson Mandela was not a perfect man. Like everyone, he was human. He was certainly guilty of the crimes of which he was convicted. He seems superhuman largely because of the restraint he showed when the change he sought was finally brought about. But if you had been in the courtroom on the day Mandela spoke from the dock, and paying attention, you would have seen that what he achieved was simply what he set out to do:
Above all, we want equal political rights, because without them our disabilities will be permanent. I know this sounds revolutionary to the whites in this country, because the majority of voters will be Africans. This makes the white man fear democracy. But this fear cannot be allowed to stand in the way of the only solution which will guarantee racial harmony and freedom for all. It is not true that the enfranchisement of all will result in racial domination. Political division, based on colour, is entirely artificial and, when it disappears, so will the domination of one colour group by another. The ANC has spent half a century fighting against racialism. When it triumphs it will not change that policy.There is much we could learn from those words even today. The whole thing is worth a read, by the way, and I encourage you to give it a look.
This then is what the ANC is fighting. Their struggle is a truly national one. It is a struggle of the African people, inspired by their own suffering and their own experience. It is a struggle for the right to live. During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.