Update: 3:09 p.m. EST
Nelson Mandela was imprisoned on Robben Island, several miles from where I grew up in Cape Town, South Africa. While he was jailed for 27 years and forced to perform hard labor, I went to privileged schools reserved for whites and received an excellent education. I lived in a suburb of Cape Town with big houses and swimming pools, where the only black faces you saw on the streets were domestic servants. These servants had to wait hours for buses reserved for blacks only that would take them home to their “townships,” where electricity and hot running water were not taken for granted. All the best restaurants, movie theaters, schools, hospitals and even beaches in this beautiful city were reserved for whites. Restrooms and benches were also segregated according to race.
At the University of Cape Town, where I studied, a small number of blacks were enrolled in the 1980s, but most of my classmates were white. I studied political science at university. I had to get special permission to read books and essays about Nelson Mandela and his party, the African National Congress, which had been banned by the white regime in the 1960s. Mandela was imprisoned in 1962 after being found guilty of treason at the Rivonia Trials and was regarded as a terrorist. He was the leader of the armed wing of the ANC and said that he only advocated violence after all attempts at civil communications with the white-minority government failed.
South Africa was a country obsessed with race. There were four designated racial groups in the country: whites, or “Europeans,” as they were called, were the privileged race, then comprising about 20 percent of the population; “coloreds” (mixed-race people) and Indians were second-ranking; and black Africans (who comprised the overwhelming majority of the population) ranked the lowest. The white-minority National Party government forced most blacks to live in “homelands,” rural, impoverished areas of the country, but blacks who fueled the mines and factories were allowed to live on the outskirts of cities in “townships.” All blacks had to carry “passes,” which they needed to show when stopped by police -- a regular occurrence. The best schools and jobs in the country went exclusively to whites.
In South Africa we only got television in the mid-1970s because the apartheid regime did not want us to see how people lived overseas. Books, magazines, movies and songs were censored for political, racial and sexual content. There were strict press restrictions. But South Africa remained ostracized in the international community: South African planes were not allowed to fly over African countries, foreign entertainers shunned the country, and many sports teams refused to play against South African clubs.
After university, I moved to the United States with my family. The mid- to late-1980s was a turbulent time in South Africa, with the white government ruling with an iron fist and suppressing a number of demonstrations against apartheid. There was a liberal, ineffectual opposition party, the Democratic Party. I followed the events from afar, convinced that the ruling National Party would never give up power. Like many South Africans, my family had left the country because they were insecure living in a militarized country. White males had to serve in the army for two years. At the time, the white government found it had allies in the Conservative Party in Britain under Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in the United States, who both regarded Mandela as a terrorist and applauded the white government for being anti-communist. Reagan opposed sanctions against South Africa, but the movement to disinvest from corporations that invested in South Africa hurt the country's economy. Anti-apartheid rock concerts around the world also galvanized support for the cause.
I studied journalism at graduate school in the United States. Then, in the spring of 1990 I returned to South Africa to complete my application for a green card, or permanent residence visa, from the United States Consulate. South Africa had a new president, F.W. de Klerk, whom everybody assumed would continue the racist policies of his predecessors. But, amazingly, in 1990, President de Klerk lifted the ban on political parties like the ANC. A week after arriving in South Africa in late April 1990, I attended a homecoming rally for the ANC leader Mandela and the South African Communist Party chief Joe Slovo, who had lived in exile overseas but had returned to South Africa that March.
The rally took place at a dusty soccer field in a black township outside Cape Town. The mainly black crowd of 50,000 was hugely excited to see Mandela, who had been freed from prison in February of that year. He spoke about liberation from apartheid and economic justice for the masses. He reassured that his party was committed to democracy.
Some white people were fearful that Mandela’s release from prison and the unbanning of parties would create a civil war between blacks and whites, but that never happened. Instead, over the next few years, murders and armed struggle did take place, largely provoked by the Zulu Inkatha Freedom Party -- supported by right-wing white extremists -- against those who supported Mandela’s party.
Under de Klerk’s leadership and with Mandela out of prison, the structures of apartheid, established in 1948, began to crumble in the early 1990s. Residential areas were desegregated, and de Klerk and Mandela negotiated an often tense end to apartheid. Both men were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993. Finally, blacks got to vote for the first time in 1994, and the ANC won an overwhelming victory at the polls. I voted at the South African Consulate in 1994, an incredible day that many people thought would never come. The photographs and videos of long lines of people patiently waiting to vote are an amazing sight.
Mandela was president for one term, during which time the process of reconciliation between races began and the new democracy took root. On return trips to South Africa, I was amazed to see multiracial couples in restaurants, a newfound sense of optimism, international tourism and investment. South Africa hosted and won the rugby World Cup, memorably depicted in the movie “Invictus,” starring Morgan Freeman in the role of Mandela.
Mandela decided in prison that he could achieve democracy for his country through peaceful negotiation and reconciliation. It is stunning that this man did not seem bitter after 27 years in prison. Mandela’s legacy is that he is the person responsible for South Africa being the democratic, liberal, non-racial country it is today. South Africa’s challenge is to continue his legacy into the future.
The two presidents that have succeeded Mandela have been marred by controversy, bad policies and scandals. Thabo Mbeki, his chosen successor, is notorious for denying the scientific existence of the AIDS virus. While he was in denial, and the government did nothing, millions of South Africans became infected with HIV.
Current President Jacob Zuma, meanwhile, is facing charges of corruption and was booed when he appeared at Mandela's memorial Dec. 10. Next year, elections take place in South Africa.