THE EXTENSIVE NEWS COVERAGE of the death of Nelson Mandela has brought South Africa, along with Mandela’s remarkable life, back to into public consciousness for at least as long as any media event holds our attention these days. Does that matter?
Mandela had left office by the time I made two relatively brief trips to Cape Town in the last decade, though when I was there he retained, as he did at the time of his death, a powerful emotional bond with his nation and with much of the world. Unlike the creepy cults of personality enforced by dictators, we’ve been reminded over and over that Mandela’s genuine popularity stemmed from the suffering he endured at the hands of the brutal apartheid regime and from how he emerged from his struggles to lead a rebirth of his country. To judge from the press and from private conversations in South Africa, and as well from the boos that greeted current South African President Jacob Zuma at Mandela’s memorial Tuesday, all contemporary politicians are now judged by comparison to Nelson Mandela, and none has measured up. Cape Town is a sunlit port city at the base of a mountain on the edge of the South Atlantic Ocean. It’s a modern metropolis with freeways and malls, tall buildings and suburbs. Some of its European architecture dates back to the 17th century, when the Dutch settlers first arrived. Mandela was from a different part of the country much further east, but he spent many of the 27 years he was imprisoned by the apartheid government of the old South Africa near Cape Town in a prison camp on a desolate place called Robben Island. It’s now a museum, a World Heritage Site and a tourist attraction.
What struck me about Robben Island, a featureless, arid rock 2 miles long and a mile wide, was how remote it is: more than four miles from the nearest point on the African mainland. That’s three times father from land than the former federal penitentiary at Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay. The old South Africa government was certain it could silence Mandela and other anti-apartheid activists by isolating them there. It didn’t work; his importance only grew.
Our guide, a fellow prisoner with Mandela, described how apartheid strictures were meant to divide the inmates by assigning black Africans like Mandela worse food and clothing than prisoners who were classified as “colored” (of Indian descent) received. That, too, failed, and instead unified the prisoners under Mandela’s leadership.
You don’t have to make the trip to Robben Island to observe the remains of the old regime’s brutality. There’s a section near the center of Cape Town, a gently rising hillside strangely absent of buildings. It used to be a vibrant, multi-racial, religiously diverse neighborhood called District 6; poor, rowdy and overcrowded but full of life. On February 11, 1966, two years after Mandela was sentenced to life in prison, the white government suddenly tore it all down, saying whites needed the land.
About 60,000 people were suddenly driven from their homes with nothing but what they could carry. The population of Columbia County is 63,096, so imagine if the government simply arrived tomorrow and bulldozed all our homes and businesses. Yours, mine, our neighbors. All of them.
On the roster of atrocities committed by the white apartheid government, the destruction of District 6 hardly registers. This was a government, after all, that gunned down unarmed, peacefully protesting women and children, shooting some of them in the back as they fled. It tortured and murdered its opponents and effectively enslaved the majority of its population. And yet the assault on that Cape Town neighborhood gives anyone not familiar with oppression a recognizable scale for understanding the violence. It’s a reminder that whatever the tactics, all oppressors attempt to erase the humanity of those they oppress.
South Africa is an imperfect democracy. It still has huge disparities between rich and poor, corruption and misdeeds in public and private institutions, crime and pollution, in short, all the problems of both a developed and a developing nation. Mandela, as extraordinary as he was, could not resolve these challenges. What’s so amazing about him is that despite the odds he led not by violence and oppression but by appealing to human capacities for forgiveness and renewal. It’s well worth spending time to honor him for that gift to his fellow South Africans and the world.