Nelson Mandela and Me

Mandela pic one


AMANDLA!  Strength, Power, Force and Might.

AMANDLA wethu!  Ours!

South Africa,1979.  We, students and professionals alike, were up in arms against Apartheid and marching through the streets waving banners decrying apartheid and the evils of the era in which we lived.  We were demanding the immediate release of a man who had already served 17 years in prison for conspiring to overthrow the government.  I was two years old in 1962 when Nelson Mandela was imprisoned on Robben Island.  He had been in prison my whole life.  Nelson Mandela was intrinsically a part of our lives.  Incarcerated, he was set physically apart from our lives.  Yet he was Nelson Mandela, a figure central to our lives.  A minority of us were “white”, the “colour” of the oppressor, but we knew right from wrong.  We understood the horrific injustices of the apartheid regime.  Mandela was on our conscience and in our hearts throughout our lives.

“AMANDLA!  Ubaba wethu!!  Our father!”  We cried!  Our father who art in prison!  “FREE MANDELA!” we demanded!   

“Madiba!”  We called him by the clan name Mandela carried.  “Madiba!  Ubaba wethu!” we chanted.  Lifting our voices in unison we shouted:  “AMANDLA!!”  Raising our fists, we sang and marched in peaceful protest through the streets of our towns.  We were calling for Mandela’s release from Robben Island.

Strength – Power –Force – Might.  The word we called was surely a call to arms.  Amandla – a call to war against the evil system that ruled our country.  Use force, yes!  Fight for the release of Nelson Mandela!  We must resist! We will fight this injustice!  Many, many voices called for arms.

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” 

Nelson Mandela.

Some of us had parents who resisted apartheid; some of us knew people who knew people who had died resisting apartheid.  Some of us were raised in that era of oppression and violence with a clear understanding of what apartheid meant, and what Nelson Mandela stood for in his prison cell on Robben Island.

“There is no easy walk to freedom anywhere, and many of us will have to pass through the valley of the shadow of death again and again before we reach the mountaintop of our desires.”

Nelson Mandela

No matter who you were, no matter what skin colour you were categorised under, no matter what racial group you were classified into by that oppressive regime, no matter whether you cared or not about this great man, you knew who he was, and you knew where he was, and you knew why he had been put there.   

Not everyone knew of Umkhonto we Sizwe ( MK ) a party he had co founded in 1961 with the South African Communist Party.  Those who knew of him knew Mandela as a man committed to non-violent protest until this point.  Through the MK there was talk of a bombing campaign against government targets.  Depending on who your parents were, you were either raised on the story of  Mandela as a “terrorist”, a man to be feared and hated, or you were educated and well versed on the evils of apartheid and aware of how little violence had been used by the vast majority of an oppressed population, in an attempt to overthrow this brutal regime. 

One man could persuade a nation to resist without the carnage and horror we see occurring globally each time we switch on the news today.  That man was Nelson Mandela.  You may ask, in what language did Mandela speak to his people from his cell on the island?  In what language did he reach them from there?  In what language could he speak to the world?

If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head.  If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”

Nelson Mandela.

Nelson Mandela spoke to the heart of our magnificent country. 

Mandela also spoke to the world.  The world was listening, and an international campaign lobbied for his release.

In 1990, Nelson Mandela was released after 27 years in prison. Remarkably without anger or bitterness nor any trace of what would have been entirely justifiable “hatred”, Nelson Mandela led negotiations with President FW De Klerk to abolish apartheid and lead us all to the first multi racial, democratic elections in our country, held in 1994. 

If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy.  Then he becomes your partner.”

Nelson Mandela

Early, on the morning of the 27th of April 1994, I arose from the bed in my hotel room in Durban and went immediately to the window.  I wanted to watch the sunrise over the sea on this, the most auspicious occasion in my life to date. 

There was a strange silence that morning, as though the world were standing still. Blue Skies smiled benignly down on Durban’s beaches, while the Indian ocean spread wide across the earth like a blank page on which history was about to be written.  That is how it felt to me that morning.

The beautiful Kwazulu Natal coastline stretched out to the North and South of my view, as far as the eye could see in each direction.  Sunlight danced across gentle waves and a cool early morning breeze drifted into my room through the open window.   It was that idiosyncratic   “Durban breeze”, which tastes of salt.  I found myself unable to stem a flood of tears.

I was here to vote for Nelson Mandela, Madiba, President of the African National Congress.  I was here to take my place in the first multi racial queue ever formed  in South Africa.  I was here to stand beside my brothers and sisters in a queue of millions that, voting over the next three days, would lead the ANC to victory.

It always seems impossible until it is done.”

Nelson Mandela.

Mandela was elected President and formed a Government of National Unity in an attempt to diffuse ethnic tensions.

The rest is indeed, his story.  A history, unfolding from then to where we are today.

This is a brief and humble outline of who Nelson Mandela was, and what happened to him.  Yet he was this too:  Nelson Mandela was also the backdrop against whom the history of my childhood was played.  He was the backdrop against which the childhood of an entire generation was played.  He was a history we all shared, a part of all our lives.

Perhaps my political awareness was first awakened through finding a tiny little plastic hand in my father’s drawer.  On close inspection it was two hands: a black hand shaking a white hand.  I can see it clearly in my mind’s eye as I write this. I can feel how it felt in my young hand.

In fact, it was a brooch.  My father explained that what I had found was the badge of the Liberal Party.  A group of political activists, some with communist sympathies, some academics, some merely conscientious objectors had joined forces and formed a party united in the struggle against apartheid.  One Man One Vote was its franchise policy.  One may well hear derisive comments about this party today.  There is not a lot of time for “ Liberal Lefties” in any political struggle, let alone predominantly “white” Liberal Lefties in Africa!

However, the founding members of this party included renowned novelist, Alan Paton, most known for his book: Cry The Beloved Country, which was later turned into a film.  Read it, if you would like a closer look into events around this time.  The Liberal Party  was formed in 1953 out of the belief that the United Party in South Africa  was unable to achieve any real liberal progress against apartheid.

To me, members of the Liberal Party were heroes.  I heard stories of arrests, and threats and people being followed by the secret police.  Our house phone was tapped.  My father was followed.  Arrests, murders, police brutality, and random raids into people’s homes in the early hours of the morning were all stories on which we were raised. The Secret Police were everywhere, not least of all on our campus at University. Betrayals were rife by people we knew as “friends”. This was the world in which we lived.  While we were the minority of the population, even us “white” folk had heard of and even experienced much of this tyranny. The police were dangerous and not to be trusted.  But there was hope. This hope was presented to me in the shape of a little black and white handshake, tucked away amongst my father’s socks. 

This hope was also presented to us in the form of Nelson Mandela.  One day he would be released.  One day he would be free.

Many of us who grew up during those years can tell stories of  police brutality, murders, betrayals and political crimes.  Some of these stories have become the subject of books, films and lengthy debates held over a glass or two of brandy on a veranda in Durban, over beers in a bar, in conversations held at army camps across Africa, or talked of in whispers in prison cells throughout the land.  Everyone had a story. 

Yet, amidst the struggle against apartheid we were surrounded by the beauty and magic that is South Africa.  Not just the magic of the witchdoctors in the woods, nor merely the majesty of the wide open sky, oceans and mountains of that incredible landscape, but also the sounds of Africa which surrounded and held us so close to the heart of our land.  Many of us grew up serenaded by the magnificent voice of Miriam Makeba singing to us of places where the lilies grow, and twisting her tongue around the most impossible Xhosa clicks!  The first note of Township Jazz heard today will have us up and dancing, while each and every one of us share the profoundest nostalgia for all those complex and magical memories of a childhood experienced under one of the most extreme political regimes in the world. 

The beauty of South Africa stood tall and proud against the ferocious, merciless cruelty that was the beast of apartheid.   

If there are dreams about a beautiful South Africa, there are also roads that lead to their goal.  Two of these roads could be named Goodness and Forgiveness.”

Nelson Mandela

I asked my father to contribute to this blog. To say something of Nelson Mandela.  Here is his reply, proving as ever that less is indeed more:

“I doubt I can find anything to say.  As Wilfred Owen said of the millions of young men who died in WW1: “ENGLISH POETRY IS NOT YET FIT TO SPEAK OF THEM.” I don’t feel fit.”

Andrew Gialerakis.

Throughout the years, from childhood to where we all are now, Mandela advised, nurtured and guided a whole generation from the darkest despair though to freedom.

“There is no passion to be found playing small – in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.”

Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela, never settling for a small life, you gave all to us that you were capable of giving!  We thank you for this. We thank you with all our hearts for your work.  We thank God that we were present in your lifetime as witnesses to all you have done.  A shining example to us all, and to all leaders everywhere in the world, you will never be forgotten.

Nelson Mandela, the day has come.  You have left us, and you have taken a whole generation with you.  Today, 5th December 2013, as you died something has died in all of us.  You take with you the dreams of millions, you take with you the very sound of Africa, and you carry with you the voice of your people as you are released into that wide, lonely, magnificent African sky.

We call for you to rest finally in the peace you have so righteously earned. May our voices carry you safely into the hands of God.

 PHUMLA E LXOLWENI Nelson Mandela!

 Mandela pic two


3 thoughts on “Nelson Mandela and Me

  1. And I was in Ireland while you were in SA, with Nelson Mandela equally woven into the tapestry of my history there. He was a vivid symbol of the triumph of dignity over oppression in my university days, a hemisphere away.

    I cried like a child when he was freed. I cried when he was elected President of the Rainbow Nation. I truly believed that anything was possible for our generation at that time. Reading your blog, I wonder what we purchased with the precious coin of that possibility in the last two decades.

    I will cry like a child again when Nelson Mandela passes to his eternal reward and ponder the power and necessity of heroism in our world. Who are the new beacons of promise for this generation of young people who want and need so much to believe.

    May the road rise with you, Madiba.
    May the wind be always at your back
    And may God hold you safe in the palm of His hand.

    Slan abhaile thu!

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