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Thanks to Nelson Mandela

Dec 06, 2013 Thanks to Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela has left his body. I thank him deeply for his leadership in ultimately ending apartheid in South Africa, and, insodoing, in helping to advance the dismantling of racism worldwide.

Here are some of my related thoughts and experiences concerning Mandela, South Africa, and dismantling racism:

One day in the early Eighties, a South African-born woman from my hometown said that when people ask if she left South Africa for America because of apartheid — a question I had asked her a few years earlier — she would answer "yes", in order to get the matter out of the way. This white Jewish woman (plenty of bigotry against Jewish people was found in South Africa then) added that the real reason she left was a career opportunity in America, not apartheid.  

For decades, General Electric has been headquartered in my hometown of Fairfield, Connecticut. I knew one of their executives, and when I mentioned my concern about General Electric’s doing business in then-apartheid era South Africa, she passionately insisted that people in South Africa also need refrigerators. Of course, as such a huge company, G.E. was manufacturing and investing in plenty beyond refrigerators, including the military industry.

A few weeks before I graduated from Tufts university in 1985, student activists repeated their 1983 tenure-related sit-in turned takeover of the university administration building, this time to pressure the university to divest its stock portfolio of companies doing business in South Africa. I did not join either sit-in or takeover. I preferred dialogue.

Two years later in 1987, when a law student in Washington, D.C., I called the South African embassy. I told the man answering the call — apparently a diplomat — that I wanted to express that I am opposed to apartheid. Little did I expect his reply: "So am I. Why don’t you come visit me here, so we can chat about it?" I figured this was some sort of public relations ploy and never followed up with him. Maybe not. Maybe this man was speaking his own voice, or not.

Two years later in 1989, Nelson Mandela was released from prison, after having been treated with such indignities as being required to wear short pants as an inmate.

In the same year, 1989, the Berlin Wall was destroyed.

Apartheid ended by 1994.

In 1995, in spite of Joe Slovo’s having been a communist, I attended his memorial after Slovo’s passing, at Howard University, expecting to meet some kindred spirits. How uplifting and alive an experience it was. The speakers included a local labor organizer who diffused an N-word-spouting incident by white neighborhood children towards his African-American children, by turning them around starting with inviting them to join his track team. A poet performed amazingly to the beat of a spirited drumming background. Not one to be endeared by too many politicians, I was taken by the optimism of South Africa’s ambassador Franklin Sonn, who turned out to be so down-to-earth that when I saw him later stopped at a traffic light near the Jefferson Memorial, he reached his hand through his window to shake mine, and, at the downtown YMCA that I joined, opted for the regular membership rather than for the VIP locker room add-on. The excitement over the post-apartheid era was so palpable in that university hall.

Fourteen years after Mandela was elected South Africa’s president, in 2008, Barack Obama became the first African American president of the United States.

Still virulent racism is all too prevalent in the world. All we can do is to move forward in dismantling it. The end of apartheid and the election of Barack Obama — as much as I am not thrilled about plenty of what he does as president, which describes most of the other presidents during my lifetime — are major catalysts towards such dismantling.

Mandela did not mirror Gandhi’s non-violence, but ultimately moved away from violence in the campaign to end apartheid.

Mandela was able to transcend the worst brutality of apartheid-era oppressors, to work with them in moving South Africa forward.

South Africa continues to have deep social problems, many of which would not exist had apartheid never inflicted such deep damage there in the first place.

I thank and bow to Nelson Mandela.

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