Imagine going back in time to visit Nelson Mandela in prison and telling him this: “You will live through this and be free, you’ll lead your country and set an unattainable example of leadership, you’ll retire as president and die at a very old age. The violence associated with the end of Apartheid will be so little it will be mostly forgotten. There will be truth. And reconciliation.” That would have been a remarkable, impossible prediction at the time, because he was clearly destine to die in prison, and there was little possibility of reconciliation and there was every chance of bloodshed. Then you could add something equally unlikely: “There is a young African American man at a protest rally in the United States right now, agitating against apartheid. Long after your release from prison and your presidency, he will become the President of the United States and he will, in eulogizing you on your death, mention that his first political act was to protest racial injustice in your land.”
I can not say anything about Nelson Mandela that others with more knowledge and experience are saying now around the world. I’m hearing some remarkable voices saying some remarkable things. Go listen if you haven’t already. But I do remember a few things that I’d like to write down.
I remember, when Mandela was in prison and Apartheid was still the rule of the land in South Africa, but not knowing much about it, the protests in Harvard Yard and the mock shantytown that stayed up for months to agitate for divestment. I wonder if young President Obama was ever in that shantytown or if he organized or attended any of those rallies. Presumably so.
I remember watching transfixed, along with something like a billion other people, when Mandela made the final leg of his “long walk to freedom” on his release from prison. I remember being in Bloomington, Indiana, at a conference of the Society of Africanist Archaeologists, attended by numerous South Africans who had already sent in their absentee ballots, for the first election.
I remember turning down opportunities to work in South Africa, honoring the boycott, but later of course I did work in the New South Africa (and yes, that’s what they call it there) and I spent considerable time in the country across numerous visits. Some of my best memories are in South Africa, and it is where I met Lynne, one of my best friends ever. I remember being there during one of the elections and seeing two of my Afrikaner colleagues in tears because Mandela was president. They were tears of joy, mind you. These men, as boys, had been shuttled to school and back in an armored bus as part of an armed convoy, in the Northern Province, now Limpopo, under threat of the ANC bush army, which at the time was in part led by Mandela himself before he was imprisoned. At another time they showed me the place where they waited for the armored bus, on the edge of a farm by a highway.
I also remember visiting, not too far from there, an Apartheid fence. This was a five meter high double chain link fence topped with razor wire, designed as part of the first line of defense against invading armies that were expected in those days, armies from the front line states that would take over South Africa and throw out the Apartheid white minority government. The fence ran only a few hundred meters and stopped abruptly on both ends, which would have allowed the invading armies to simply walk around it. This was because the permission of the landowner was needed to put in the fence, and only one land owner overlooking that part of the Limpopo River was interested in having it. If you think that is strange, you just don’t know South Africa. It’s still strange, but at the same time, perfectly normal.
Travelling back south the same week, I learned that the bus stop was on a long straight section of highway designated by the South African military as a landing strip. There were apparently many of these, which would be used to move the army to the border at the time of the impending invasion. We all remember the assumption that Apartheid would likely end in a bloodbath, internally or by invasion or both.
But Mandela did not let any of that happen. The smartest thing the white minority did was to give the country, essentially, to Mandela. Truth and reconciliation ensued.
I also remember, in detail, every single one of the racist stories I was told by numerous disenfranchised whites, whom I would run into now and then around the country while doing my work. I remember the details so well because even though every one of those stories was about someone the person telling it knew, and set in a specific time and space like it had really happened, there were really only a handful of different stories but every story was repeated again and again by different people in far flung regions. When I encountered South African white racism in the wild I found it to be a joke, not a very funny one, a parody of itself, a badly strung together set of urban myths, self aggrandizing and used up. But most of the minority citizens I knew and became friends with in South Africa are as sad today that Mandela has died as anyone else.
As President Obama said today, there will never be another person like Nelson Mandela.