My mother broke the news to me. In a text, she wrote “Madiba is gone. … Truly the end of an era. I am sad.” It was appropriate, considering that the first time I ever set foot in South Africa, was due to her.
To most people around the globe, Nelson Mandela’s death marks the passing of a legendary human being. But personally, without Mandela’s ethos, I’d have a hard time defining why I look at the world the way I do today.
That’s because for me and several members of my family, Mandela’s South Africa offered lessons about the importance of human decency, social justice and the power of purpose.
In 1994, my mother worked on a voter education project in the lead-up to South Africa’s general election. Based in Johannesburg, she organized a project to train over 150,000 people on how to vote. As an economic development specialist, she says she was proud to be a part of educating a nation on the basic rights of freedom.
In March of that year, just about a month before people were to head to the polls, I found myself walking into the Parktonian Hotel in Jo-burg past the guards armed with assault rifles, into a room that overlooked Juta Street. As the child of two people that worked in international development, I naively presumed that the
country would be festive. Mandela appeared to be a shoo-in to win and I thought people would be happy about having a freedom fighter lead their new nation.
In reality, it was tense and scary. There were random outbursts of violence in the streets, sometimes difficult to discern their purpose, between various political groups or supporters. Pulling off an historic election in a country with a bloody history is never a simple task.
Over the course of that week, I got to see lions devour a zebra carcass in a park, visit Soweto and play soccer with township kids using a rusty can and devour ridiculous amounts of pap, the traditional porridge made from corn maize. Experiencing Johannesburg as a young tourist opened my eyes to what it really means to live under state sponsored oppression. The feeling of wrong stuck with me forever.
Before that, to me, South Africa was only a cause. As a high school student, my sister protested alongside thousands at the South African embassy in the 1980s. That movement was started by Randall Robinson of TransAfrica, Dr. Mary Frances Berry, Commissioner of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, D.C. Congressman Walter Fauntroy and then-Georgetown University law professor Eleanor Holmes Norton. Between my parents’ work, my sister’s activist mind, and all their friends, sometimes it felt like ending apartheid was the purpose of my family’s existence.
And for my sister, South Africa nearly became her permanent home later. As a graduate student in Cape Town, she lived there as a young adult during Mandela’s presidency. She nearly married a South African man and had thoughts of potentially raising kids to speak many of the nation’s official languages. While that didn’t pan out, she still looks back on the experience fondly. She said her fiancé once told her that he had been as excited to vote as anything else he’d ever done in his life. For her, being a part of the new nation that she felt she’d worked to create was a fulfilling experience.
“It’s amazing that he even lived this long,” she added. “Freedom fighters don’t typically stay alive.”
I got to visit her there once. It was my second time in the country. We shopped the markets, saw the fog roll over Table Mountain and took the lovely drive to walk the beach at the Cape of Good Hope, where the Atlantic and Indian oceans meet. The entire experience was a far cry from the hectic city I’d seen in Johannesburg. While it wasn’t everyone holding hands and singing songs in the streets, the new South Africa felt different. It felt like a nation that could finally be itself.
In 1994, on a visit to the White House, newly elected President Mandela had a talk with President Bill Clinton. A little more than a year later, the two men just beneath them in power finally inked a deal to bring Peace Corps volunteers to South Africa. Vice President Al Gore and Deputy President Thabo Mbeki finalized the plan to bring volunteers to the 131st country in the history of the program. It happened in Pretoria, a place I’d soon call home, because my father was selected to head what was known as “South Africa I.”
For my father, Mandela’s passing struck a very political tone. He wondered how the nation would be able to go forward, emotionally, without the guiding energy source of Madiba. Even in his elder statesman phase in which many psychologically prepared themselves for the inevitable, his presence was profound. It’s easy to overlook the specific national politics of South Africa in the aura of Mandela’s global impact, but his rise to power was significant.
And without Madiba, my father doesn’t get a chance to send young Americans out into the field to live and learn with South Africans. He doesn’t get a chance to lead the first quasi-ambassadors to a place where you have to explain that the words “Peace Corps” do not mean they are a police force. He discussed it once at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival.
“We wanted to represent, to this new country, this new and emerging democracy, the historic democracy and diversity of the United States,” he said in 2011. “The message was about, this is what the United States is. It is all of this. It is all of this together, it is all of this separately.”
For me, that meant that when I wasn’t in D.C., I was in South Africa. Living in Pretoria and working at USAID – and then the U.S. Embassy – as a high-schooler gave me an appreciation for the country that was different from my two previous stints. My jobs gave me the chance to operate right alongside of members of South Africa’s workforce. The experience of watching adults deal with their changing reality provided a fascinating mirror on life in this country and this city.
Madam and Eve, a comic strip about a white homeowner and her black housemaid, became my go-to comic. The Orlando Pirates were my favorite soccer team to watch. I regularly shelled out rand, South Africa’s currency, to pay for steamed calamari at Ocean Basket, a hole-in-the-wall of a restaurant that’s still the best seafood I’ve ever had in my life. Seeing the sunrise over a watering hole at Kruger National Park, and watching the animals file in to begin their day was a reminder that every good thing has to start somewhere. South Africa was home, but I was a visitor.
But for my stepmom, Mandela and by extension South Africa are every bit the reason she is who she is. As a young student at Brown, her roommate was part of the original groups that set up shantytowns in Providence, RI, to bring attention to the divestment movement. When she saw Mandela walking out of jail in 1990, as a lawyer, she decided right then that was what she wanted to do. She worked at TransAfrica, on to Columbia Law School and to work for the House Committee for Foreign Affairs.
“I wanted to make sure that from my point of privilege of education, I was going to fight for people who needed it,” she said yesterday.
But when she worked in Johannesburg, she had a front row seat to the actual logistics that make a country what it is. Doing a clerkship at The Constitutional Court of South Africa, she was a part of policy history, in a sense. It is the country’s highest court, newly created after the election to reform apartheid laws and ensure that justice in the new nation was in accordance with their modern democratic constitution based on equality.
“I absolutely do what I do today because of Mandela,” she said.
Mandela didn’t get me a job. He never motivated me to enter a career path. And I never considered that he might be my children’s president. But more than anything, Mandela was the guiding light for the people who made me who I am, which I would not change, even if I could. On the medal stand that includes Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., Madiba is at the top.
As videos and lyrics of the South African national anthem, N’Kosi Sikeleli went around the old ex-pat email chains yesterday, I shed a bit of a tear. I cried because although I was sad, I was happy that me and my family got to experience and grow together because of the indefatiguable efforts of Mandela and learn the lesson that we’ll all keep from his life.
One person can make a difference. You just have to try.