This was supposed to be a column about former South Africa President Nelson Mandela, even as the world turns its collective attention toward his legacy. As many know, he was previously imprisoned and upon release, served his term of office from 1994 to 1999. During my conversations and research about the iconic leader, the full brunt of South Africa’s politics and policies (as well as the myriad of laws, created to enforce them) came glaringly to light. As a result, it all ultimately became too troubling for me not to write about and here’s why.
I’m no historian, but like most folks I can read, listen and put things together. So based on various credible reports and accounts, it’s become growingly apparent to me that without checks and balances, it’s human nature for people (and institutions) with great power to work to increase that power. They do it for their own self-interest and typically plays out at the expense of those with little to no power. There are many other places in the world where this is apparent, but none more relevant than in South Africa during the horrendous segregationist era infamously known as apartheid.
During that time, racist law after racist law was passed. Each successive law built on the previous. They were designed to conserve and hold power for one group of human beings over another. In South Africa it was white residents over people of color. And not just the indigenous black Africans but also those of Asian and Indian descent.
It didn’t happen overnight; it was a process that many there even denied – one that developed over time, sanctioned by the government and ultimately supported by that nation’s highest courts. The result? Bit by bit, South African people of color were ravaged by oppression, discrimination and intolerance. Yet during this time, just as it was in America during slavery and the Civil Rights era, there were some white people who stood shoulder to shoulder with those who were suffering.
If it seems like I’m singling out South Africa for its slide into power-driven purgatory, maybe so. Still, its people demonstrated (as most human beings can) the capacity for redemption, albeit forced politically in this case.
Back to Mandela, history tells us he was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1964 for carrying out acts of sabotage against the South African government. There, he became an international symbol of opposition to apartheid. By the 1980s, while still incarcerated, he worked to facilitate change. In 1990, he was unconditionally released from prison.
Upon his freedom, Mandela, pursued a policy of reconciliation between black, ‘colored’ and white South Africans. And though many apartheid laws were repealed in the early '90s, some remain on the books. Mandela became president of South Africa in 1994, but served only one term of office before stepping down to continue efforts toward national reconciliation. Some have criticized Mandela for placing too much emphasis on reconciliation and not transforming the country enough. Still, the vast majority of South Africans reportedly revere his legacy and its meaning in the society they are working to redefine.
Mandela’s work continues in South Africa. Within our own borders, we need to be doing more of our own work focused on issues of racism, segregation and the systems within our institutions that perpetuate it. We must be ever on guard against new and existing attitudes, policies and laws that exclude others based on race, be it accidental or intentional. Just because we ignore a thing, or deny it exists, doesn’t mean it’s not there. Let’s start talking openly about it. And then let’s act.