New Civil Rights Movement contributor Clinton Fein, who was born and grew up in South Africa under apartheid, shares his thoughts on today’s passing of Nelson Mandela.
Nelson Mandela is dead.
Millions of people are weeping today, me among them.
The world has lost a man who had become a living legend, respected, admired and loved in a way that no other figure, political or otherwise, comes to mind. Across the globe.
Nelson Mandela is ours. He is a man of the people. He belongs to us. At least that’s how it feels. And why, in his final days, there was so much tension around the coverage of his illness. The barrage of media presence was a constant reminder that the worst might be true. Unscrupulous behavior fashioned around who might be first to break the inevitable story. But their massive presence also a solemn recognition of Mr. Mandela’s global stature.
“The media are here to support us,” Gerald Moshe, a student told the New York Times. “They have come from overseas to cry with us and support us in this difficult moment.”
For millions of South Africans, whether living in South Africa or abroad, black or white, Nelson Mandela represents the highest aspiration of what South Africa is. In him and through him, we see ourselves at our very best. Through him, we shine.
Our desire to believe that we can move forward with the capacity for forgiveness in our hearts for the transgressions of others; at peace and forgiven for our own transgressions; and in appreciation for humanity that transcends race, gender, orientation, social status, and privilege.
Nelson Mandela was that special enough, one-in-a-billion personality that comes along and shows us what true greatness looks like in the embodiment of a human being.
Other than some of the hard-core, still-existing racists, most South Africans among us, who grew up in the age of Apartheid, feel his strong, powerful resilience that one, to some extent, feels at liberty to claim as one’s own. It’s a South African thing. Not in the context of nationalism though. Apartheid didn’t inspire nationalism for most of the population — other than its architects.
In one of the many email chain-letters sent among South Africans joking about how you know you’re a South African, is the one that you know someone who knows someone who met Nelson Mandela. That alone may provide some insight as to why it seemed so difficult to let a 95-year old man go. So much external goodwill and self-identity is tied up in the perception of the man.
For any South African who grew up during Apartheid, there are two distinct ages. There’s Apartheid, and Post-Apartheid. Nelson Mandela became the miracle. His release from prison after twenty-seven years signaled the end of Apartheid perhaps even more than his election as President. Our lives changed the day he was released, and are inextricably intertwined. It’s like that for all South Africans really.
In order to explain Mandela as the phenomenon he is — this revered and adored “everyman Superman” — one has to view it through the lens of personal experience. What he means to South African blacks as a liberator is different to what he means to whites. Or other meaningless racial classifications that once meant something dangerously real in South Africa.
In Apartheid South Africa, separation existed on multiple levels. Whites were primarily divided into English speaking whites and Afrikaans speaking whites, which were the two national languages of South Africa. Learning both was mandatory at school. Afrikaners dominated the Apartheid government, but English was the more global language, and although there was a certain amount of animosity between English and Afrikaans, language barriers paled by comparison to the racial barriers.
And as much as I wish it were different, Apartheid is still too fresh in our history to conflate the experience of Nelson Mandela collectively without sounding like a fraud. Apartheid saw to it that everything from education to social participation was separate.
Growing up as an affluent white South African Jew was a startlingly different experience for me than it was for Hector Pieterson, who was shot and killed protesting on June 16, 1976, and whose death precipitated the Soweto Riots when we were both 12 years-old. The effects of one’s upbringing are not erased overnight. But Nelson Mandela, without doubt, liberated white South Africa from the yoke of Apartheid too.
For many of us who grew up white during Apartheid, our interactions with blacks are embarrassing to articulate. Most white South African children had significant interaction with their family’s “domestic servants” who were black. Almost every white household had at least one live-in maid and often two maids and a gardener or “houseboy”. (The term “boy” or “girl” was frequently used to describe “domestic servants” regardless of their age, and was considered far less offensive than many of the other terms used at the time).
Live-in maids didn’t quite live-in either. The “servants’ quarters” were very seldom part of the main house, but rather stand-alone rooms and bathroom accessible only through the kitchen. Maybe, on occasion, you might get to interact with your maid’s children, who might have come to visit on holidays, perhaps once or twice a year if your parents were “kind” enough to permit it.
Although there was a lot of interaction with blacks, it was in the context of their day-to-day work. Blacks would be bagging groceries, filling cars with gas, working on street repairs, mowing lawns or making deliveries. Relationships were illegal. Friendships almost impossible.
So without it sounding hokey or offensive, Mr. Mandela’s release and subsequent rise to lead South Africa represented liberation for whites too. Mr. Mandela was able to make whites feel okay for their inaction if not their active participation in Apartheid; even though they were the direct recipients of the fruits it yielded. Mr. Mandela understood how Apartheid worked far more deeply than those upon who it was foisted, and designed to mislead rather than oppress.
The propaganda of Apartheid ran deep. The government’s execution of Apartheid was far too cunning to allow one to realize they were being controlled. Certain things were explicitly, if not proudly, banned, like pornography and adult materials, but history was taught from a white racist perspective and in essence suggested that blacks were savages and unreceptive to white infiltration – or rather civilized Christian society – that they owed whites an enormous amount of gratitude and were forever beholden to them.
“Liberal schools” managed to sneak in books like Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, probably because they missed the message. You didn’t question how it was that you had black labor performing menial tasks at home. You were led to believe that providing jobs and housing to “these people” was virtuous and another example of how superior, good and decent whites were. From a sound Judeo-Christian standpoint, naturally.
One never realized the extent to which we were being controlled by the government. Or how much one didn’t know. Or that one didn’t know at all. And one certainly didn’t ask questions. Even if you knew instinctively that there were even questions to be asked. Somewhere in the recesses of your mind, you knew something was amiss.
The government, with a heavy-handed force, controlled all media. All media was thus local media and was transmitted through the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) which itself was the only broadcaster allowed to transmit news over radio or television, and which was really nothing more than a propaganda machine for the Apartheid regime.
Although there was quite a bit of underground or alternative journalism going on, life for those journalists was dangerous and unpredictable, and their work not really accessible to the mainstream. The government, using its extraordinary power declared that the presence of journalists — and cameras especially — was directly responsible for the inciting of riots and so most areas of civil unrest were declared off-limits to the press so that the government could control the images that were being broadcast around the world.
Many journalists were detained, often without a trial, which was one of the benefits of declaring a State of Emergency, which happened in 1985 — soon before I left South Africa.
It was impossible to not be affected by Apartheid. The privilege I enjoyed as a white person; the deprivation of any friendship or meaningful relationships with black people; the incessant force-fed diet of controlled misinformation that was designed to instill notions of white superiority; the deep rooted fear that police and government inspired; the deliberate robbing of my ability to think for myself and make my own choices; the decision to leave South Africa rather than be forced to go into the townships and kill other South Africans. So much of who I am today, and what I do is directly attributable to or shaped by Apartheid.
In a remarkable speech Mr. Mandela made as President honoring Steve Biko in September 1997, he used the opportunity to steer a conversation about the Black Consciousness Movement into a broader challenge aimed at internalizing forgiveness and compassion by transforming it into a humanitarian focus without losing or compromising racial identity. Yet cautioning against the potential to mirror Afrikaner nationalism.
“While Steve Biko espoused, inspired, and promoted black pride, he never made blackness a fetish. At the end of the day, as he himself pointed out, accepting one’s blackness is a critical starting point: an important foundation for engaging in struggle. Today, it must be a foundation for reconstruction and development, for a common human effort to end war, poverty, ignorance and disease.”
“It means working together, government in each sphere and all sectors from society, in bringing prosperity to the province, the country and the continent which spawned him. It means all of us helping to take South Africa across the threshold of greatness on which it stands. That will be achieved by each of us respecting ourselves first and foremost, and in turn respecting the humanity in each one of us. It means an attitude of mind and a way of life that appreciates the joy in the honest labor of creating a new society. In time, we must bestow on South Africa the greatest gift – a more humane society.”
The violence of the transition and the mistakes that were made, including some by Mr. Mandela, are lost to history for the most part. The painful process of the Mandela government’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission was also a remarkable and cathartic exercise in closure and forgiveness. Unlike America’s refusal to acknowledge its transgressions, South Africa was empowered to indeed “look forward” because she had bothered to look back. And to learn and grow from her sins, rather than be doomed to repeat them.
Through Mr. Mandela’s government, the transition was about acknowledgement rather than blame. As he met with those who hated him, and smiled and extended the hand of friendship to those who were scared of him, the pain and the fear, and the anger and the bitterness subsided. Some of his actions are now legendary.
He had tea with 94-year old Betsie Verwoerd, whose husband — considered the architect of Apartheid — had jailed him in 1963, where he remained imprisoned for 27 years. And remembered her warmly when she died.
Despite the crap offered up in Hollywood’s Invictus, Mr. Mandela’s embrace of the Springboks did indeed unite the country in an amazing way.
Through the actions and attitude and behavior of one man, he moved mountains and reshaped attitudes wherever he went and whenever he spoke. It is difficult to express just how powerful that is. To South Africans Nelson Mandela represented their highest aspirations. And to some extent, he always will.
I asked my friends to try and articulate what it is about Mr. Mandela that was so magical, and whether it would live on after he died. And as expected, there is a reverence that is difficult for words to convey.
“He’s a legend. He’s superhuman. How do you do justice to that? Simply by covering his history, one can try understand his greatness,” wrote Kim Gardi Abelman from Columbus, Ohio.
Guy Miller, who got to shake his hand in a chance meeting in a gym on a quiet Saturday afternoon in Johannesburg wrote from Australia: “As with Ghandi and Martin Luther King we felt the impact of Nelson Mandela a leader of immense proportions. Not many leaders change the landscape so deeply without resorting to force. He extended the hand of peace to those who incarcerated him, he spoke to those who did not wish to speak to him, he reached out through gestures that always surprised us and endeared us to him. A little humility goes a long way but in Mandela’s case he has it by the truck loads.”
Debbie Helman wrote from Netanya, Israel about the time she reached over three bodyguards at a mall in Cape Town to shake his hand when she chanced upon him, and didn’t wash her hands for days but cherishes the “five brief personal seconds with the man himself.”
Tracey Posniak Ellison from Miami, USA was working with the Department of Trade and Industry in South Africa in 2005 and got to attend a talk he gave in Cape Town. “The entire audience was awed…..humbled…and painfully aware of frail he looked then already. But when he spoke, his voice had the strength of a leader who could unite a nation divided.”
People who saw him were as moved by the experience as those who met him. “He had messianic moral force. His jailers couldn’t help admiring and befriending him,” wrote my friend, Gary van Wyk, who actively fought against Apartheid and was forced to flee South Africa and live in exile. Today, a renowned art historian and co-owner of New York’s Axis Gallery, his personal encounter with Mandela speaks to the respect and dignity he inspired (and Gary’s gracious offer of solitude): “Once, (it must have been before he became President) I had just checked in for an international flight and saw Mandela resting on a bench in a corner, with one or two attendants. He looked so tired, and having a private moment, that I resisted going to shake his hand. His humanity had always been obvious, even when his face and words were banned. At that moment I saw his human frailty to which mortality is the terminus.”
And human he was. A few years ago, to my forever jealous consternation, my sister, Candice, who co-runs Feed SA, an organization in South Africa dedicated to feeding and clothing the less fortunate, got to go meet him at his home in Houghton, Johannesburg. In a typically South African fashion, or perhaps typical Candice style, she told him how much he meant to her and what a “stunning energy” he had, and naturally asked if he would mind if she had a photo taken with him. He didn’t mind having photos with pretty girls was his playful response, as is evidenced in the photo below. (Contrast this image with the controversy earlier this year over the unsmiling, frail and tired photos of Mr. Mandela with Jacob Zuma that resulted in accusations that the ANC were exploiting him.)
Mandela was a teacher. Patrick Matanjana “Bra Pat” was a prisoner for twenty years on Robben Island along with Mr. Mandela, who became a tour guide once the prison was turned into a museum. After a guided tour of the island on one of my visits back to South Africa, I had a chance to have a discussion with Patrick. He had been imprisoned at the age of 19 for “terrorist activities”.
I told him that what struck me as the most remarkable was that both he and Mandela appeared not to be bitter, despite all they had gone through, and wondered how he was able to stomach giving tours to people like me.
He remarked that one of the things he had learned was that when you are faced with oppression and dedicate your life to overturning the system that fosters it, you have to be able to move beyond making the same mistakes, or simply turning the tables. That to successfully end oppression, one has to consider the plight of the oppressor as much as the plight of the oppressed. To that end, education was the most sustaining life force on the island, and he and his comrades or fellow prisoners ended up teaching their wardens – the same people who were in essence censoring their letters and thwarting their communications – how to read.
I was profoundly moved by what he told me, and to this day am awed at the enormity of such internal strength.
That’s the spiritual essence from which the magic emanates. It takes an extraordinary capacity for forgiveness and a remarkable restraint when given the reins of power to live up to and be that promise.
For all his grit, courage, determination and integrity, Nelson Mandela knew how to love and how to forgive. Therein rests his power, and why the world is a better place for him having lived in it. Now and forever.
Comparing him with other politicians is pointless, but inevitable. As my friend, Hanna Regev, who grew up in Israel, remarked how great it is that the historic judgment of him was made during his lifetime: “In my humble opinion, there will be no monument that will capture the courage and the essence of this man, this icon. He remains a legend, a hero.”
There was a genuine excitement I felt along with many Americans when President Obama was first elected. Not because of Obama the man, truthfully, but because America had broken a racial barrier similar to the one I had witnessed and partaken in in May 1994. But President Obama always falls short when I made comparisons, and I made them often. From the meaning behind their respective Nobel Peace prizes then, to President Obama’s draconian disrespect for the constitution now.
Nelson Mandela wrote the framework of the world’s most progressive constitutions ever — the first ever to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation – whilst seeking shade in “The University” – a refuge from the blazing, unforgiving sun dug into the wall of a mine quarry on Robben Island. A dry hole that served as a toilet and a place to rest.
Barack Obama, a constitutional scholar, desecrated one from the luxury of the White House.
As someone who dedicated his life to ensuring the right to vote, had he been well enough, he would have been appalled at Supreme Court Justice, Clarence Thomas, who played a role this week in striking down a critical section of the Voting Rights Act that determined which jurisdictions must pre-clear their election laws with the federal government. Mr. Mandela understood that eradicating racism wasn’t about pretending it didn’t exist. Clarence Thomas would probably have upheld Apartheid.
It is not hyperbolic to state that Nelson Mandela shaped the core of who I am and the direction of my life. In every way. My passionate advocacy for freedom of expression, which had me challenge the United States government twice in federal lawsuits — one that was decided by the United States Supreme Court — was driven by a fearlessness that was inspired by Nelson Mandela.
In 1997, I declared as much under the penalty of perjury: “It is important for me to state for the record that I was born and raised in South Africa during Apartheid. My desire to be a journalist was thwarted by the repressive censorship, as I lived in a country where one could be imprisoned for quoting Nelson Mandela (who at the time was in prison for revolutionary activities). I underwent the often difficult process of immigration, becoming an American citizen in 1994, partly because of the First Amendment’s promise of free speech. … I took an oath to protect the principles of the Constitution from enemies foreign and domestic. A strong motivation for my wanting to bring this lawsuit is to fulfill that promise and have America live up to its promise of freedom.”
Those words have shaped my career as an artist, as a writer, as an activist, as a technologist and as a humanitarian. And continue to drive my motivation. I owe my strength, perseverance and passion to one man. No other person on earth has taught me the true meaning of integrity like Nelson Mandela has. Of living what you speak. Of walking the walk not just talking the talk.
There will be countless obituaries that try to capture the essence of Nelson Mandela. In his final speech to Parliament on March 26, 1999, however, Mr. Mandela articulated himself how he perceived himself and his legacy as a man and as a South African.
To the extent that I have been able to achieve anything, I know hat this is because I am the product of the people of South Africa.
I am the product of the rural masses who inspired in me the pride in our past and the spirit of resistance.
I am the product of the workers of South Africa who, in the mines, factories, fields and offices of our country, have pursued the principle that the interests of each are founded in the common interest of all.
I am the product of South Africa’s intelligentsia, of every color, who have labored to give our society knowledge of itself and to fashion our people’s aspirations into a realizable dream.
I am the product of South Africa’s business people – in industry and agriculture, commerce and finance – whose spirit of enterprise has helped turn our country’s immense natural resources into the wealth of our nation.
To the extent that I have been able to take our country forward to this new era it is because I am the product of the people of the world who have cherished the vision of a better life for all people everywhere.
They insisted, in a spirit of self-sacrifice, that that vision should be realized in South Africa too.
They gave us hope because we knew by their solidarity that our ideas could not be silenced since they were the ideas of all humanity.
I am the product of Africa and her long-cherished dream of a rebirth that can now be realized so that all of her children may play in the sun.
Nelson Mandela — Madiba — your legacy will live on long after you have departed us. You gave us absolutely everything you had to give, and now you deserve nothing less than the loving nod of an eternally grateful world to call it a day.
It is up to us to take the courageous mantle you left us, follow the course of universal peace and freedom you charted, and strive with the same passionate resolve with every fiber of our beings to make sure that South Africa’s children – and indeed children everywhere — enjoy their chance to play in the sun.
Rest in peace, dear, graceful, honorable and beautiful man.
And from the bottom of my aching heart, I love you and thank you.
Madiba and Madiba’s Blue Tie are images of paintings by South African artist, Rene Veldsman. The image of Mr. Mandela and the author’s sister is courtesy Candice Etberg.
Clinton Fein is an internationally acclaimed author, artist, and First Amendment activist, best-known for his 1997 First Amendment Supreme Court victory against United States Attorney General Janet Reno. Fein has also gained international recognition for his Annoy.com site, and for his work as a political artist. Fein is on the Board of Directors of the First Amendment Project, “a nonprofit advocacy organization dedicated to protecting and promoting freedom of information, expression, and petition.” Fein’s political and privacy activism have been widely covered around the world. His work also led him to be nominated for a 2001 PEN/Newman’s Own First Amendment Award.
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