By Benita M. Dodd
I came from a simple family; neither of my parents graduated high school. But my mother had a nose for trouble back in the days when the grapevine still worked. Somehow she learned that I was one of the students behind plastering my high school in South Africa with protest posters in 1976 during the Soweto riots. “Free Mandela,” was scrawled on one of the posters.
My mother, always the disciplinarian, beat the living daylights out of me for it. Looking back, I know it’s because she was worried about what could happen to people who supported Nelson Mandela during the apartheid years. I know, because some of them were my friends. They “slipped on the soap” and fell in the shower – from the 10th floor of police headquarters. They were “detained” and tortured. They were “banned” and “exiled.” They opened their front door to a knock in the middle of the night and were gunned down. They were journalists afraid to spend consecutive nights under the same roof.
There were anti-apartheid activists – black and white – and government spies and informants, black and white. It’s why I still choose to judge people by the content of their character, to quote Martin Luther King Jr.
If you had to ask me who Mandela was back when I was in high school, I probably couldn’t have told you much. The government kept a tight and vicious grip on information. I was in college in 1980 when some of our student council went to offer guidance at Fairvale High School, where students were boycotting class. The Security Branch – South Africa’s KGB – surrounded the school to search for us, room by room. I hid in the male teachers’ restroom; one teacher lent me her wig and I was smuggled out of the school in a teacher’s car. I thought it was a little funny at the time. Looking back, not so much.
I probably still couldn’t have told you much about Mandela when I was at Rhodes University, studying for my Bachelor’s degree in Journalism and Media Studies. Mention of him was taboo. Even though my second major was African Political Studies, Nelson Mandela was a ghost back in 1983. If I needed to read about the banned African National Congress and its leaders, I had to seek special permission at the university library, where I had to stay in the special reading room for books that the government had banned from distribution. We protested apartheid by refusing to use university facilities for anything but academics.
I was gone from South Africa when apartheid ended and Nelson Mandela was released. I had the opportunity to meet him once after his 1990 release, when I was working at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He was a gray-haired, gracious and quiet gentleman. It was an honor to be in his presence. I may not always have agreed with what he did or how he did it. But I am forever grateful for his pragmatism during the sea change from apartheid South Africa.
Today, Nelson Mandela, age 94, is ailing and not much longer for this world. Many of my conservative friends will read his obituary and wonder how I could have admiration for a man who led an organization that sought the help of Russia and Cuba, consorted with Communists and orchestrated bombings … a “terrorist.” Others will wonder why so many South Africans saw socialism as their salvation.
In a country where 13 percent of the population orchestrated or abided by the oppression of the vast majority, a drowning man – a drowning nation – doesn’t ask who tossed the life preserver. You grab it, hold onto it and use it. In a country where 87 percent of the people are deprived of opportunity and advancement simply because of the color of their skin, a system of socialism where everyone has a little of something seems vastly superior to one where so many have nothing – not even hope. After years of non-violent protest, desperation set in among anti-apartheid activists.
I am not justifying their actions. I’m trying to explain them as I saw them. But understand this: Nelson Mandela saved South Africa.
One word from him could have led to a bloody uprising. But this man, who had spent 27 years in prison, much of them breaking rocks on a lonely island off the Cape coast of Cape Town, set aside bitterness and embraced a future of reconciliation for the country.
Believe me, I’m sure he thought about revenge. A lot. It’s hard to fathom the depths of his suffering, away from his family and friends, abused by his captors. A peaceful transition from apartheid was something I had never envisioned. Most South Africans expected a bloodbath, truth be told.
South Africa has a long way to go. In many ways, it exchanged one bad government for another. But every time I go home, I am amazed by the tenacity of South Africans, about their eagerness to advance and their entrepreneurship. Like the organization I work for, there’s a Free Market Foundation – a think tank that advances limited government ideas and a market-based approach – that does wonderful work.
There is hope in South Africa. There’s a future for South Africans. Without the vision of Nelson Mandela, there would be neither hope nor a future. I barely have the words to express my admiration. So when South Africa weeps, stop a moment to understand their heartfelt gratitude for Madiba, who shepherded their new nation into being.