Even if most of us baby boomers never met the man or even saw him in person, Nelson Mandela was a fixture in our minds for most of our adult lives. That’s why BoomerCafé co-founder and executive editor Greg Dobbs shares a few of his own recollections and excerpts from his personal journal as a television correspondent of the South Africa that Mandela worked to build.
By Greg Dobbs
Back in the 1970s and 80s, when I made occasional trips to our ABC News bureau in Johannesburg, South Africa, it was for only one reason: to be in a good position to cover the war that seemed inevitable, once black South Africans began to move en masse from protest to violence to end white minority rule. There was no question in anyone’s mind that the nation would go down that path — every major western news organization had a bureau there, for the same reason we did.
But the war didn’t happen, and that was thanks, more than you might realize, to Nelson Mandela. Almost singlehandedly, with a spirit of both practicality and forgiveness, Mandela overcame the natural urges of most of his compatriots to punish the whites who had long oppressed them. Like Abraham Lincoln at the end of our own Civil War, he said, we’ve won what we wanted, let’s just move on.
And South Africa did. But sadly, not to match the dreams of its first black leaders; to the contrary, the schools in predominately black areas still stink, the housing in all-black townships still stinks, the healthcare for poorer South Africans still stinks, the economy for anyone below the ranks of the middle class still stinks. To carry the comparison to its linguistic end, seven years ago I shot a documentary in South Africa to report on the successes and failures of black majority rule about a dozen years after the end of apartheid. The report card was decidedly mixed, and as part of our coverage, we spent some time in a shanty town which I could describe for a thousand words, but I’ll let one simple fact tell the story: there was one concrete outhouse — not a very pleasant thing itself — for every 106 people in the township. Not quite what Nelson Mandela hoped for years earlier, when he was set free.
On the flight home, I wrote a letter about the people, the place, and the story itself, and with Mandela’s death today, I’m pasting, below, the segment I wrote about Mandela in prison. No, he didn’t create a utopia for his brothers, but he did set an example that hopefully will persist, long after he’s gone and far beyond his nation.
(Excerpted from my letter of August, 2006)
I asked many to reflect after so many years on the peaceful transition from white to black rule. How did it happen? Why did it happen? Perhaps the best explanation came from a man named Ahmed Khatrada, who was locked up on Robben Island with Nelson Mandela.
All the time they were there — Mandela for 18 of his 27 years of punishment for high treason (political activities to protest apartheid), Khatrada for more than 20 — they found ways as prisoners always do to communicate in violation of the rules. And what they talked or wrote about was the South Africa of their dreams. A multi-racial democracy of equal opportunity. Khatrada says they never got down to the nuts and bolts of who would govern if it ever happened — nobody talked about Nelson Mandela as a future president of the country, it was too remote — but they literally drafted their versions of a new South African constitution, incorporating those principles.
And then, once the unimaginable happened, and they were released, and their political parties were “unbanned,” and there were democratic elections, and they won, they realized that while they had really been thinking about the oppressed when they projected the principles of multi-racial democracy and equal opportunity, that had to apply to the whites who now were in not just the racial minority but the political minority. If it didn’t, Khatrada said, they wouldn’t have been true to their word. Many had expected that with a revolution by the black majority, the swimming pools of white South Africans would run red with blood. It never happened. Although many of the new black leaders had been put behind bars or pushed into exile by the apartheid regime, they chose reconciliation over revenge. As for Khatrada, although locked up from the age of 34 to the age of 60, he ended up in Parliament, and as an official advisor to the President.
By the way, Robben Island — which simply means Seal Island in Dutch — is tantalizingly close to Cape Town, almost as close as Alcatraz is to San Francisco. But the political prisoners there might as well have been on the South Pole. For a long time they were allowed no news, no books, no leisure, and 40-minute no-contact family visits every six months. They didn’t know in 1969 that man landed on the moon until three months later. They didn’t know in 1976 that there had been an uprising and massacre in Soweto — something like 600 died, which really was the beginning of the revolution — until new prisoners arrived from the site of the uprising.
Mandela and all the others initially spent seven days a week at hard labor, whether hot or cold, rainy or dry, digging lime from a quarry on the island. But it was never exported; it was only used to solidify roads on the island itself. And when there was no more need for lime, they had to dig it anyway, shovel it into wheelbarrows, then push them across the sandy surface of the quarry to dump the load at the other end and go back for more. But maybe most moving of all the stories is something Ahmed Khatrada told me: for his first 20 years of incarceration, he never once laid eyes on a child. He had his 75th birthday the day before our interview, and says as his birthday gift he asked friends to bring their godsons and grandchildren.
That’s why it seems so remarkable that the transformation of the nation came so peacefully. Thousands died and many more suffered during the black struggle against apartheid, but that was over the course of years; there never was an explosive civil war, as most expected.
As I re-read my letter, I realize I left out an interesting fact about life on Robben Island. (This is what happens when I write a long letter on an even longer overnight flight.) When Mandela and Khatrada and the others worked in the quarries, they managed to meet surreptitiously through an ingenious deceit. One man at a time, they’d go to a guard and say, “I gotta piss.” The guard, hot and bored himself, would direct the prisoner to a cave in the wall of the quarry and tell him, “Don’t take too long.” Well, three or four at a time would play this trick, each with a separate guard, until they could sneak maybe ten minutes together in the smelly cave. And that’s where they’d discuss the South Africa of their dreams, the South Africa run by its black majority. And that’s where Nelson Mandela fought for the principle that all men deserve to be treated equally. Where that became important was in the aftermath of the transition, when many of his partners wanted to take revenge, but Mandela fought them with the argument that when they talked about all men being treated with equality, it wasn’t just all black men, it was all men, black and brown and white. He prevailed. That is his legacy.
You might also be interested in one other excerpt which is not specifically about Nelson Mandela, but it’s about the leaders who, along with Mandela, tried to set their nation on a new course:
(Excerpted from my letter of August, 2006)
Some of the people who are desperately poor expect the black-majority government to help them, and some just hope it will, but in interviews we did with people in both the highest and the lowest places, I heard a variety of explanations for their continued plight. The legacy of apartheid was one, the underestimation by the nation’s newly-minted leaders of endemic problems was another, the absence of a background in governance was yet another, the short time-span of 12 years to solve 300 years of inequality was yet another, as well as the loss of superpower interest (freedom in South Africa more or less coincided with the fall of Soviet Communism and the end of superpower rivalries, which frankly had been a boon to developing countries).
But the best explanation I got was from Archbishop Desmond Tutu, now a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, who managed to stay out of jail and help organize what became the peaceful overthrow of apartheid. When I asked him why fulfilling a dream of prosperity has not gone hand-in-hand with the dream of political freedom, he laughed and said, “How naïve we were, thinking that just because our struggle was noble and our motives were altruistic, we would govern without many of the flaws of the governments that preceded us. What we have learned the hard way is, corruption and selfishness and greed are not just products of people with white skin.”