In October 1990, just a few months after his release from 27 years in prison, Nelson Mandela toured the world to thank those countries and people who agitated for his release and the end of apartheid. One of his stops was at St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney, Australia, for an non-denominational service where he captivated the packed church with his humility and dignity.
My brother and I lined up with a thousand others to greet this man and were able to have a brief moment with him. Just a man, Not perfect. And yet oh what he taught us.
A few years prior, in 1986, I’d lived in apartheid South Africa. It was a time of great violence and tension. Even as a seventeen year old exchange student, I could sense the change that was coming. The cracks of the old regime were widening. Most of what was really happening was censored. In fact there were events that year I only learned about after I returned to Australia. I was fortunate that one of the families I lived with were deeply involved anti-apartheid activism. In the darkened room of an artists’ commune in Hillbrow, Johannesburg, my host sister and her partner would carefully share underground newspaper articles and stories, teaching me about the other side of South African politics during weekend visits. On Mondays I would return to my wonderful, but very sheltered girls school in Pretoria. I recall a bold newspaper printing an issue that showed, with large blocks of blackened text, just how much of their content had been deemed incendiary by government censors. Almost three-quarters of each article was blocked out. But what a statement! To this day I wish I had kept a copy of it. I don’t know what happened to their editors. But I do know they were part of a larger group of people of all races fighting to end segregation.
Many countries and communities face racism. Those issues are far from over in our own country. But the difference at this time in South Africa was that racism had a name, and a body of legislation behind it called the Group Areas Act. Laws that said where you could live or not live, where you could work, or not work, even whether your homeland was called by its traditional name or the arbitrary “homeland” name assigned by the government.
In 1990 in Australia, Mandela was a free man. But apartheid, whilst crumbling, had not yet been dismantled. Even so, what my brother and I heard that day was consistent with everything I saw in him when he became South Africa’s first black President. Forgive. Reconcile. Move forward. Acknowledge all of humanity and bring people together. It is the only way.
Much of Madiba’s* dream for South Africa has not been realized. It has been too many years since I lived there for me to comment with authority on who is at fault or what has to change. But I do know what the potential was for devastation when the end of apartheid as a formal structure finally came. Mandela demonstrated from day one that he was a President for all of the people of South Africa. It is with that spirit, a passion for peace, a hunger for justice and equality that I will remember and honor this great leader.
I once heard Archbishop Desmond Tutu say that when Mandela asks you to do something, you say yes. The Archbishop is right. Mandela has asked all of us to stand up against poverty; to stand up for education; to stand up for equality and peace for all.
We are compelled by his legacy to say yes.
* Madiba is Mandela’s clan name and used to show affection for him by many throughout the world. Image: Nelson Mandela at a St Marys Cathedral mass in Sydney, October 1990 | News Limited
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