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D.C. Mayor Gray needs a history lesson on apartheid

Washington Mayor Vincent Gray speaks about Nelson Mandela at the South African Embassy in Washington, Friday, Dec. 6, 2013. Mandela died Thursday night. He was 95.(AP Photo/Cliff Owen) D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray speaks about Nelson Mandela at the South African Embassy on Friday. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray, while speaking about the legacy of the great Nelson Mandela, drew parallels between the inhuman system of apartheid that lasted for decades in South Africa and the citizenship restrictions that D.C. residents are forced to live under in the nation’s capital.

Here’s what he said on Friday:

I think there are some parallels because we have 632,000 people who continue to live under the yoke of a form of oppression.  You know, we can’t control our own money, we can’t control our own local laws. We have taxation without representation in this city. I think there are a lot of people who see a parallel between his experience and ours.

Gray didn’t say it just once on Friday, according to my colleague Aaron C. Davis, who wrote in this story that Gray uttered similar words at least four times during the day, including this quote:

There are people who have likened the experience of not having full democracy in this city as almost a form of apartheid. I’ve heard people say that.


I don’t know who those people are, but, whoever they may be, I would suggest that they, and Mayor Gray, read up on the brutality of apartheid and about the life of Mandela, who was imprisoned for 27 years under the apartheid regime in South Africa, before emerging to become the country’s president and a world leader of historic stature.

What they will learn, or re-learn if they once knew and simply forgot, is that apartheid was a brutal system of racial separation that denied non-whites any political representation and blacks of their citizenship in South Africa, instead forcibly removing millions of people onto “self-governing” homelands and segregating blacks and whites in every conceivable way —  education, transportation, health care, business, parks, graveyards, etc. The population was divided into four broad categories — White, Black, Coloured and Indian — based on complicated and often arbitrary criteria.  Mandela, in his 1994 book “Long Walk to Freedom,” wrote: “Where one was allowed to live and work could rest on such absurd distinctions as the curl of one’s hair or the size of one’s lips.”  Blacks needed a pass to live and work in white areas — and if they got one, they couldn’t take their family. Blacks had to have a permit to work professionally in white areas. It was illegal for blacks and whites to marry. South African police operated with impunity. And that’s only part of the ugliness of the system.

D.C. residents surely don’t have the same political rights as other U.S. citizens, a situation created by a decision of the Founding Fathers. They have no full representation in Congress, and Congress can overturn any law that the local D.C. government passes. Federal legislators often unfairly meddle in District business and use the city as a laboratory for some of their pet projects. Should all of this change? Sure.

But drawing parallels to South African apartheid? The mayor is a smart man. He should know better.



Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.



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Valerie Strauss · December 8, 2013

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