Mandela – A True African Soldier

Nelson Mandela, July 4 1993.
Nelson Mandela, July 4 1993. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I was growing up in London back in the day, I was not fully aware of racism. As most of my readers are aware, I grew up in a predominately-white neighbourhood with my mostly white friends where we all looked up to white role models (pops stars, children’s television presenters, etc), and played with our equally vanilla dolls. I had no idea that prejudice was alive and kicking in the area – actress and fellow Streathamite Amma Ashante recalls encountering bigots who would regularly daub her family home with racist graffiti, but what I also didn’t realise was that in another part of the world, not that far from my home country, the situation was so bad, racism was given another name.

I cannot imagine living in a country where I am unable to ride on the same bus, dine in the same restaurant, and buy my postal stamps in the same place as others simply because you can tell us apart by our colour; it’s an indirect way of claiming “Your money is good enough, but you’re not”). When my family left England to live in Nigeria, I shuddered at the images of apartheid shown on television. Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King believed in using peace as a means of conquering violence, but how the South African authorities would attack peaceful protestors is beyond me. Apart from being treated as outcasts, blacks were not allowed to vote or even own land in their own country, which meant that they could be forcibly relocated.

When Sun City first switched on its bright casino lights, it became a subject of controversy as revenue generated from its business was stigmatised as “apartheid money”. A number of Western artists were placed on the United Nations blacklist for performing at Sun City, including Rod Stewart, Queen, Cher, Elton John, The Osmonds (Seriously?), and Tina Turner, although the latter later regretted it. Several others, however, formed Artists United against Apartheid which released the protest song “Sun City”, and while it was unable to match the success of “We Are the World”, it helped raise awareness of the plight of black South Africans. As Daryl Hall rightfully said, “People [who perform in Sun City] are jerks for doing it [and] they should be called out for it”.  Yet the efforts of these protestors were often in vain. Steve Wonder, a long-time support of human rights, found that his songs were banned by the SABC, as did The Beatles. Other artists used hidden, if less subtle methods to get their message across (Yvonne Chaka Chaka may have portrayed a battered housewife in her video, but even an eleven-year-old as myself could tell that she was referring to her country when she sang “I Cry for Freedom”). And no reggae album in Nigeria was complete if the artist didn’t beg Jah Almighty to save their South African brothers from their predicament and release their true president, Nelson Mandela. And what a man Mandela was.

I remember when the film Mandela starring Danny Glover was shown frequently on Nigerian television in the eighties and you could tell that the story was set in a period before then, so I was surprised to learn that Mandela was still in prison up to that moment. His crime? Speaking for his oppressed countrymen who demanded equal rights. He was accused of sabotage and conspiring to overthrow the South African government by persuading blacks to use strikes and boycotts as an alternative of being polite as earlier attempts to use peaceful methods had failed – a scene in the movie showed scores of singing protestors shot dead by the police after refusing to report to their various workplaces. I watched it shaking my head in disbelief and asking myself “How can people do this to people?” His efforts would later see him branded as a terrorist by Margaret Thatcher, which was plain ridiculous – show me the bomb he planted, and I’ll apologise. Imprisoned for life, Mandela was reduced to hard labour, reportedly commanded like oxen and forced to survive dire conditions in his cell. Despite pleas from world leaders and public figures alike, he remained in prison; former president PW Botha offered his release on the condition that he renounced violent protest as a means to bring about change in South Africa, but as other forms of resistance had failed to restore peace, Mandela knew exactly where Botha could shove his offer, stating “I am not prepared to sell the birthright of the people to be free”. He may have seen hell in prison (In 1988 he reportedly contracted tuberculosis but miraculously survived), but by challenging the government he was the strongest man alive, albeit by no means physically.

I remember when Mandela was released in 1990. I was in boarding school then, and everybody rejoiced at this historical moment, but we also questioned if his freedom would spell the end of apartheid. A year later, it was abolished, and we all breathed a sigh a relief. I thought that Mandela would now rest at home with his long-suffering wife Winnie and their children, but he wasn’t finished yet. His decision to run for president of a new South African was met with mixed feelings. While I was happy that blacks were allowed to vote and indeed contest for the first time, I felt uneasy about a man in his mid-seventies attempting to rule a nation he hardly knew due to his long spell in prison. He may have been the poster-boy for black-and-white relations, but South Africa required more than national reconciliation. He may have done little to stem the spread of AIDS and crime in the Rainbow Nation, but what really touched me was his compassion. He could have used his new-found power to punish his former jailers, but found it in his heart to forgive them, and was adamant that his cabinet included different races, including former president Frederik de Klerk, and encouraged blacks to encourage the last remaining symbol of apartheid, South African rugby team The Springboks. He later admitted that the job of a president was for a younger man, so it was no surprise that he only lasted one term, but Mandela was truly an inspiring man.

As the world mourns the loss of a true African solider, let us all remember his legacy – stay true to your passion and make the best of any bad situation while standing tall with your head held high and marching proudly, remembering not to take any nonsense from oppressors. And learn to forgive.

Toodles, Tata!

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