As world leaders mourn the passing of Nelson Mandela, international media are replete with recollections of that historic moment in history, on May 2, 1994, when in an all-race democratic election, South Africa voted Mandela as its first black president, dismantling its globally loathed apartheid policy of racial segregation of blacks, coloreds and whites in a society dominated by the Afrikaner white minority who were descended from Dutch-based European settlers.
The watershed election is widely credited for ending years of oppression under apartheid but more so ushered in an era of reconciliation initiated by Mandela after his election, despite his incarceration for 27 years as a leader of the antiaparthied movement.
Obituaries on Mandela, who was elected president at the late age of 75 after the prime of his life was stolen by nearly three decades in prison, have claimed, according to a report in London’s Financial Times, that “one of Mandela’s greatest successes was reconciling the Afrikaner community that controlled the military, government and much of the economy, realizing it would be crucial if the country was to make the transition to democracy and avoid civil war.”
The report went on: Once Mandela took office, “he made reconciliation his key priority … he was willing to reach out to the oppressors that jailed him for 27 years, with no signs of bitterness, helped him to attain his iconic status.”
As president, he retained the services of the white heads of the police and the central bank. “He knew that South Africa could ill-afford a mass exodus of those who in 1994 had the monopoly on skills and capital, according to this assessment,” the report said.
“Mandela’s efforts, including his support of traditionally Afrikaner sports such as rugby, helped overcome the mistrust many white Africans intrinsically felt toward black people. But today, with his death coming at a time of mounting economic and social pressures in South Africa since the end of apartheid almost 20 years ago, many Afrikaners worry about the future without its trusted moral compass,” the report added.
The significance of the May 1994 election of Mandela remains vivid to international journalists. Among those who covered the transcendental event was the Philippine observer team, which was sent by the United Nations to South Africa, along with teams from Western Europe, Eastern Europe, Canada and the United States.
The elections were one of the most widely covered in the world after the 1986 Edsa People Power Revolution.
I was posted at a polling station at Alexandra in the Soweto township, a slum suburb of Johannesburg where Mandela lived in his early 20s, as a lawyer campaigning against apartheid.
At the break of day on May 2, 1994, my team was roused from bed to be driven to our assigned polling station in Alexandra, a dusty and crime-ridden black community.
Alexandra stood in dramatic contrast to the wealthy, mostly white Sandton suburb of Johannesburg, with its high-rise towers dominating the landscape. Mandela moved to Alexandra in 1941 when he was 23, when the township’s residents were challenging white-minority rule.
Mandela is reported to have participated in bus boycotts there. He stayed in Alexandra until 1943, describing the house in his autobiography as “no more than a shack, with a dirt floor, no heat, no electricity, no running water,” but it “was a place of my own and I was happy to have it,” the Associated Press reported.
Noor Nieftagodien was a coauthor of a book on the history of Alexandra and a teacher at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. “There’s a sense among (Alexandra) residents, that they played such an important role. And people there will say they gave birth to Mandela, the radical politician. It completely transformed him. The lack of development of the old Alexandra is an indictment of the new South Africa,” he wrote.
Procession of people
I was started to see a procession of people shuffling across the horizon on their way to the polling stations. These were black people, poor and with very little education, who had never voted in their lives, taking their new right to suffrage seriously, without any mentorship on democracy from the apartheid regime.
The sight struck me deeply, when I recalled that here was a politically illiterate people who didn’t have to be carted to the polling stations to vote. I was disgusted to realize that in contrast to our system in the Philippines, a free election was taking place where there was no report of tampering of the process or irregularities even coming from the apartheid regime, the independent Electoral Commission, or the dominant antiaparthied black African National Congress (ANC) that fielded Mandela against the regime’s candidate.
We, foreign observers, were briefed by the Electoral Commission to be strictly neutral. At the polling station, inside the precinct, a black woman voter asked my assistance to write her vote on her behalf. I told her that I was forbidden to do so, so I referred her to the Electoral Commission official. The woman voted and left.
The ballot was simple. It carried only two sets of symbols, one for the ANC and the other for the regime’s candidate. The voter had only to tick party symbols, not write names. It was block voting at its simplest form.
By contrast, after democratic tutelage since our first election in 1902, Filipinos have to write scores of names on the ballot up until today. Every election since has been marked by charges of election cheating.
It shamed me to see the outcome of South Africa’s first all-race election as a clean and free election.
It not only elected Mandela. It was more than that. It marked a promising start for its democratic transition from apartheid.
Nelson Mandela lived so long that he outlasted all his contemporaries. One of them, Walter Sisulu, his friend, mentor, and comrade in the African National Congress who himself spent 26 years in jail, worried that his own frail health might not allow him to be present at his friend’s funeral to deliver his eulogy. So he did the next best thing. He wrote one shortly before he died, and titled it simply: “Thank you for your life, my friend.”
It is one of the finest tributes ever paid by any man to another. But, more than that, it is an intimate profile of Mandela written by one of the few people who saw him up close from the time he was a young activist to the time he became the most celebrated prisoner in the world and, later, the president of his country. Of his dear friend, Sisulu wrote: “He was born into oppression. There was no choice in that. But he never allowed this to preclude him from making choices about his life. If there is a message he would have liked to leave with each of us, it is embodied in one of his favorite poems [‘Invictus’ by W.E. Henley]: ‘I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul.’”
Sisulu elaborates on this theme—the need to take hold of one’s life and assume responsibility for the way one spends it—and offers a glimpse of the simple philosophy that guided Mandela throughout his life. “In subtle, often unnoticed ways, life is a matrix of chance, change, challenge and opportunity in which one makes choices. We make choices all the time—in the best of times and the worst of circumstances. Often we are unaware of the choices we make; nevertheless we make them. … Whether living the life of an outlaw, or of an accused in court, or of a prisoner, Mandela conducted himself with the demeanor and dignity of a free man. He never evaded the responsibilities that went with his choices, nor did he flinch from their consequences.”
Some may say that while he was born into oppression, like every black person in apartheid South Africa, Mandela was nevertheless uniquely positioned to lead his people. For, indeed, he was a scion of the Xhosa nobility, and he was groomed from childhood to be the chief of the Thembu people. Tall and dashing, he was also naturally gifted with enormous charm and a disarming personality. Even before he spoke, he stood out with a commanding presence in any crowd. And, best of all, he possessed a will to pursue everything he committed himself to with passion and relentlessness.
Still, he could have, by the same token, chosen to be the acquiescent leader of his people in a white supremacist society that reserved privileges to clans belonging to the tribal aristocracy. But by choosing to leave the tribal homeland that had nurtured him to be its leader, Mandela found himself creating a life in a more complex world. While studying law at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg, he met the freedom fighters of the ANC in whose company he was to spend the rest of his life.
They were young revolutionaries who were fired by the vision of a free modern nation, one that transcended tribal identities and hierarchies. Being accustomed to lead, Mandela did not always find it easy to adjust to the consultative and participatory norms of the ANC. His stubbornness was legendary.
Sisulu recalls: “In my simple way I have always believed that stubbornness against the apartheid enemy was a commendable quality, but that it was questionable in one’s interaction with one’s colleagues. Whatever Madiba (Mandela’s clan name) did, he did it with persistence, application, and zeal…. Once he embraced an idea, he would champion it vigorously. Truth for him was never something out there, clinically defined and dispassionately stated. He combined passion with his search for truth and understanding, and such understanding implied for him a commitment to act in accordance with it. He was at heart a man of action.”
In debates, says Sisulu, Mandela was tenacious, but he tempered this quality with an ability to remember the strong arguments of the other side and learn from these. This explains his openness to novel ideas and his willingness to explore courses of action that seem inconsistent with the rigid positions he took.
Indeed, Mandela was, according to Ahmed Kathrada, another one of his ANC comrades in prison, a bundle of contradictions. While underground, he continued to wear stylish and well-cut clothes, and for a while sported a beard that made him stand out even more in clandestine gatherings. Recognizing his stature, his jailers offered him better clothing and better food than the rest of the prisoners. They also exempted him from prison chores. He refused all these, yet he had the audacity to demand from prison authorities a particular brand of hair cream that would enable him to take care of his thick shock of hair through decades of prison life. His boldness and farsightedness kept his captors guessing as to what form of action he was capable of mounting when he put his mind to it.
It was, without doubt, this capacity for autonomy that permitted Mandela to imagine the improbable project of a unified South Africa, an inclusive society that is committed to ending poverty and ignorance and offers an equal place to blacks and whites alike. Instead of producing a bitter and broken man, prison transformed Mandela into a saint-like statesman. Emerging from 27 years of imprisonment, he had become the father of all South Africa, a figure of hope for all oppressed peoples, and an exemplar of what it means to be a fine human being in a conflict-ridden world. Thank you, Nelson Mandela.
“This is one of the countries that had been very successful in overcoming the legacy of colonialism, of poverty, of ignorance, and we stand to gain a great deal by associating with it.”
That was what Nelson Mandela said when he came here in March 1997. He was probably just being his normal gracious self. His host country might have been many things, but it wasn’t one that had successfully overcome colonialism, poverty and ignorance. Proof of it is that few Filipinos now even remember, or know, he was here.
As it was, even then few Filipinos understood they were in the presence of greatness. Certainly, not the officials who were on hand to meet him, which included President Fidel Ramos, Vice President Joseph Estrada, Senate President Ernesto Maceda, and House Speaker Jose de Venecia. A day or so after Mandela left, he was forgotten.
The saving grace in all this was Cory Aquino. Mandela’s remark was in fact induced by what Cory had done for this country. For which Mandela expressed deep admiration, and which Cory in no small measure returned. It takes the great to truly appreciate the great. That was a wonderful picture of the two of them shaking each other’s hand and beaming at the world when they met. Two of the simplest people on earth, two of the mightiest people on earth. And the exalted shall be humbled and the humble exalted.
That picture also offers an opportunity to compare the two.
There are of course considerable differences between them. But I’ll leave others to spell them out, I’ll just dwell on what I consider to be one of the most important. That was the difference in their concepts of reconciliation.
For them to have embarked on it at all was a feat of character. Both had suffered a great deal. Mandela had been jailed for 27 years, in the course of which he had endured not just tremendous physical deprivation but tremendous spiritual devastation in the deaths of comrades. Cory was never detained, but her husband was for over 10 years, only to come back from exile and be greeted by an assassin’s bullet. When they arose from such abject depths to topple regimes that seemed destined to last forever—Cory came first, which was writing on the wall about tyrants having been weighed and found wanting—they startled the world some more by calling for reconciliation.
Mandela’s, though, was by far the deeper. He might have called for forgiving—he realized, he said, that if he had taken on a more vindictive path, South Africa would have been locked in strife that would assure no end to bloodletting—but he did not call for forgetting. Instead he assured there would be no forgetting by mounting a Truth Commission headed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, himself a Nobel Peace Prize winner, whose purpose was not to prosecute those who had persecuted during apartheid but to make even them see the evil of their former cause. And in the process make the people remember.
Before forgiveness, there was acknowledgment of the monumental sin. Before reconciliation, there was atonement.
That was what we never had, thereby producing contrasting results. Today, despite the many problems that lie in the path of unifying South Africa, nobody will be found there extolling apartheid’s virtues and saying how so much better it was in the past. Today, the Marcoses are saying precisely that about martial law in YouTube and elsewhere. More to the point, having secured a foothold in government, they are making a bid to wrest it back.
Mandela wrought the far deeper change from a far worse situation. In that respect, he is without peer.
In many other respects however, he and Cory were the equal of each other. They were both of rocklike and unwavering faith, the kind that moved mountains. Cory with her religious conviction of the providential hand that guides human affairs, Mandela with his humanist conviction of the human capacity to transcend. That was what made them rise from adversity, that was what made them conquer adversity. If people could be taught to hate, Mandela said, they could be taught to love as well, the latter being more natural to the human heart. Wherever their faith came from, it gave them a sense of being part of something larger than themselves, the mover of a grand purpose that lay beyond themselves. Some call it selflessness, some call it prophetic vision, some call it a sense of destiny. Whatever it was, it made them move mountains.
All the while imagining themselves to have remained molehills. That was the other thing they had in common, a profound humility, a tremendous appreciation for others, a sense of being dwarfed by the expanse of human striving and the depth of human talent. It was no small irony that Mandela kept saying, while he was here, that no leader was irreplaceable, at a time when Ramos was contemplating of staying around a little longer than the law allowed. Cory would say the same thing: She had done her part, others could pick up where she left off and do even better. Ah, but the great never see themselves as great, they see themselves only as standing on the shoulders of giants.
When Cory died, the world stopped too. This country in particular, Cory having the remarkable distinction of toppling two tyrants during her sojourn on earth, the first while in the flush of life, the second while in the throes of death. It was her passing that sounded the death knell for the past regime too.
So has the world stopped for Mandela now. And fittingly so, at a time of year when, whatever your faith, Christian or non-Christian, religious or secular, your thoughts turn to hope. No one embodied hope more than Mandela, in the pain and glory of his struggle, in the depth and richness of his humanity, in the simplicity and grandness of his life. A simple man has gone.
After his release from prison, Nelson Mandela was always in the media eye; the long international campaign to set him free had made him a global celebrity. How wonderful, then, to catch a glimpse of that exact moment when he encountered overwhelming media attention for the first time, and he began to realize the true nature of his fame.
In “Long Walk To Freedom,” his famous autobiography, there is an extended, affecting account of the day of his release. It includes the following passage:
“At first, I could not really make out what was going on in front of us, but when I was within one hundred fifty feet or so, I saw a tremendous commotion and a great crowd of people: hundreds of photographers and television cameras and newspeople as well as several thousand well-wishers. I was astounded and a little bit alarmed. I had truly not expected such a scene; at most, I had imagined that there would be several dozen people, mainly the warders and their families. But this proved to be only the beginning; I realized we had not thoroughly prepared for all that was about to happen.
“Within twenty feet or so of the gate, the cameras started clicking, a noise that sounded like some great herd of metallic beasts. Reporters started shouting questions; television crews began crowding in; ANC supporters were yelling and cheering. It was a happy, if slightly disorienting chaos. When a television crew thrust a long, dark, furry object at me, I recoiled slightly, wondering if it were some newfangled weapon developed while I was in prison. Winnie informed me that it was a microphone.”
* * *
As Mandela notes in the same chapter, he had spoken at press conferences before, some of them clandestine—but the most recent one was three decades in the past. The last time he was free to conduct them, John F. Kennedy was president of the United States and John XXIII was the Bishop of Rome. There may have been a twinkle in his eye when he recalled that anecdote about the microphone to Richard Stengel, the editor who wrote “the latter parts” of the book. (The bulk of it Mandela wrote in prison, starting in 1974.) But the power of the passage lies in a striking inversion: Here we have the subject, looking out at the media.
* * *
Like John Paul II, Mandela was one for the ages. Unlike the staunchly anticommunist pope, however, Mandela was a fellow traveler. And yet both were acclaimed around the world as moral icons. Are we missing something?
Right-wing warriors in the United States, who cannot forget Mandela’s searing words about US military or economic power, have welcomed the statement from the South African Communist Party confirming that Mandela was a party member and was in fact part of the central committee when he was arrested in 1962—“acknowledging,” one of them wrote, self-servingly, “what was already well-known among experts.”
I find the controversy over Mandela’s communist background irrelevant, however. Even when he was already president of South Africa, he never disowned his communist allies; he was loyal, for instance, to Joe Slovo, the party’s longtime leader, and paid him high praise. As for resorting to the armed struggle, Mandela’s role as commander of the African National Congress’ armed wing has long been recognized.
But it is not for these that Mandela is remembered. It is for emerging from prison (his imprisonment lasted several months longer than John Paul II’s 26-year reign) an unbroken man, free of all ill will against his captors, committed to both the ideal of a truly inclusive country and a peaceful transition. He had tried other means, and found them wanting.
Some of the best coverage of Mandela’s death can be found in The Economist; two pieces written under the Baobab title are particularly noteworthy. In the longer piece, “The Long Walk,” Mandela’s true legacy is summed up after a careful weighing of the sometimes inconvenient facts.
“His greater achievement … was to see the need for reconciliation, to forswear retribution and then to act as midwife to a new, democratic South Africa built on the rule of law. This was something only he could do.”
* * *
My friend Dina Kraft is one of the best, most compassionate journalists I know. On the day Mandela died, she posted the following recollection on Facebook. Of all the personal anecdotes put on record after his death by journalists who had covered or encountered Mandela, this for me was the loveliest. It is a small memory—that is to say, it is about a fleeting moment, on the sidelines of a less than historic event, and yet it reveals something fundamental about Mandela and his effect on people.
“I arrived in South Africa during the bewildering HIV denial phase of Mandela’s successor, Thabo Mbeki. Mandela had begun to speak out cautiously, but critically. The ANC, fearing a fractured front, arranged a peace-making news conference with Mandela and Jacob Zuma, then deputy president, and now president. I asked Zuma a series of critical questions about why the government was being so slow in rolling out an important drug to HIV-positive pregnant women that dramatically cut the rate of transmission to their babies. Afterwards, as I retrieved my tape recorder from the podium, Mandela spoke to me while smiling that heart-melting smile of his. He said, ‘I am very impressed. You show no fear.’ Shaking his hand, I could barely squeak out, ‘You are the brave one, the bravest man in the world.’”
Before he became a global icon of freedom and peaceful change, Nelson Mandela was a rebel.
And in embarking on a life of rebellion, he had hoped to learn from a Filipino.
One of the books Mandela was known to have studied as he was helping build the armed underground movement against the apartheid regime in South Africa in the 1960s was “Born of the People,” the memoir of Luis Taruc, leader of the Partido Komunista ng Pilipinas and a leading figure in the Huk rebellion in the 1950s.
Since his death last week, Mandela has been lionized as a the man who spent nearly three decades in prison for fighting against racism and later led a non-violent revolution that ended one of the most brutal social and political systems in history.
But details of his life as a leader of the South African underground movement are also worth noting today, especially now that it’s been confirmed that Mandela was not only a member of the South African Communist Party, he was once part of its leadership.
That, no doubt, is a surprising, perhaps even disappointing, revelation to many who identify communists with the Gulags and totalitarian oppression.
Or, in the Philippine context, with acts of dogmatism and senseless violence, with bloody purges of cadres who strayed from party doctrine, with the bombing a political rally or with the recent attempt to kill a 78-year-old small town mayor in Mindanao.
But the revelation also speaks to the other, contradictory image of the underground left as exemplified by the lives led by the likes of Mandela, Chris Hani, Joe Slovo and, in the Philippines, Edgar Jopson, Eman Lacaba and Lean Alejandro.
In fact, Mandela’s story, his triumphs and failures, are relevant for Filipinos at a time of growing disillusionment with government and traditional politics, and when there are still many preaching armed revolution as an alternative.
For Mandela’s life covered both narratives. He was both the man at the top — and the outlaw who defied those who were on top.
That he once tried to draw lessons from Taruc’s life points to the similarities of the struggles in South Africa and the Philippines.
In fact, having read his autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom,” and the many articles on his life, I’ve been struck by the similarities between his story and the experiences of leaders of the Filipino left, which I had the chance to explore in “U.G. An Underground Tale,” a biography of the late activist Edgar Jopson.
Like Jopson, Mandela was drawn to politics as young man hoping to reform an unjust system. Realizing that peaceful reform was not possible under apartheid, he helped build a clandestine movement seeking change through armed revolution.
There are, to be sure, notable differences in the way the U.G. left evolved in South Africa and the Philippines.
The movement Edjop helped build displayed incredible bravery against a dictatorship backed by a Philippine military still notorious for trampling human rights.
That movement also gave birth to a political culture that was, in many ways, responsive to the needs of the weak and the powerless in Philippine society, one that acknowledged that it was important for the marginalized — farmers, workers, students, the urban poor — to become part of the process of changing society.
But that movement had a dark side, one that came to dominate the U.G., especially after Edjop’s death: For it was also a movement dominated by narrow-minded leaders who were capable of incredible cruelty and dogmatic violence.
On the other hand, the South African movement, led by the ANC, displayed a kind of political nimbleness that helped the ANC survive as an underground force for three decades. A key strength: they generally did not mistake dogmatism and arrogance for determination and perseverance.
The ANC had a clear political objective, but did not get blindsided by an obsession with “the correct line.” Mandela himself did not hesitate to address the excesses of people within his movement who used their power to harass and bully those who disagreed with the ANC.
And the movement Mandela led built a genuinely-broad coalition, including blacks, Indians, liberal democrats, communists and whites.
In fact, among the movement’s leaders were Joe Slovo and Ruth First, who were white and who are now remembered as among the heroes of the struggle against apartheid.
Ruth First was killed by South African security agents who sent her a letter bomb that exploded in her office in Mozambique in 1982, the same year Edgar Jopson was killed in a military raid in Davao.
I had the privilege of hearing Joe Slovo speak at a New York conference where he also regaled attendees with stories of the ANC struggle.
This was in 1991 when my biography of Edgar Jopson was republished in New York as part of a collection of novels, memoirs and works of non-fiction on resistance movements in different countries, including the Philippines and South Africa.
The series, called ‘Voices of Resistance,’ included “117 Days,” Ruth First’s memoir of her ordeal as a political prisoner, the book that inspired the award-winning film, “A World Apart,” starring Barbara Hershey.
The book recalls a desperate time, but also one in which she and other South African activists, including Mandela, “emerged from a spell of community jail life with morale marvelously unimpaired.”
“Every new stretch of prison for a group of political prisoners gave birth to a new batch of freedom songs,” she wrote. “Jail spells had not broken us; they had helped make us.”
It’s a portrait of defiance remarkably similar to the one painted by Filipino activists who endured torture and prison during the Marcos dictatorship.
Sadly, for South African and Filipino activists, life in the underground also meant a life of pain for their families.
One of the most moving materials I used to write Edgar Jopson’s story was a tape recording he and his wife Joy sent to their son Noy in the early 1980s. For their own children’s sake, they had decided not to have them live with them in the U.G.
And on the tape, they tell Noy Jopson (now an accomplished triathlete) how much they loved and missed him and how they hoped that one day they would all be together and not have to live apart because his parents had to fight a dictatorship.
That day never came for Edjop. He was killed shortly after recording that message.
Mandela was luckier in a sense, though he also acknowledged the life of separation and uncertainty his own children endured.
This was dramatized in a 1995 scene recalled by Gillian Slovo, daughter of Joe Slovo and Ruth First, in her memoir “Every Secret Thing.” It is a recollection that also highlights Mandela’s humanity and capacity for compassion.
Mandela visited the Slovos at their home to comfort his friend and comrade Joe Slovo, who was dying.
By then, Mandela was already a revered world figure. But in a solemn, quiet moment, he apparently found himself reflecting back on their days in the underground movement and how their families had suffered because of their involvement. He then turned to Slovo’s daughters to share a personal story.
He once tried to hug his own daughter, Mandela recalled, but she flinched away, saying, “You are the father to all the people, but you have never had the time to be a father to me.”
Mandela “let that last sentence hover before speaking again,” Gillian Slovo recalled.
“This, he said, was his greatest, perhaps the only regret: the fact that his children, and the children of his comrades, had been the ones to pay the price of their parents’ commitment.”
Gillian Slovo could have been describing the lives of Filipino underground activists who joined the fight against dictatorship as she continued:
“There it was – the one against the other: their work, our need, their commitment, our lives, there was no squaring the circle. They knew it, somewhere, all their generation: as the state had poured out its wrath, they had watched their children suffer. And yet, and yet – what else could they have done?”
To fully understand Nelson Mandela’s legacy—to South Africa and to the world—we need to address the issue of racism. This is especially important for us Filipinos, because we too often suffer from racial discrimination and, even sadder, we can be quite racist ourselves.
We hear the term “apartheid,” an Afrikaans (a Dutch dialect that evolved in southern Africa) term that translates as “apart-ness” or “apart-hood,” and think of parallels with the United States’ discriminatory policies against blacks. But apartheid was much more vicious, much more entrenched, justified by pseudoscience and religion.
We marvel at Mandela’s election as the first black president of South Africa shortly after being released from prison, where he had spent 27 years. But those 27 years pale in comparison to centuries of bloodshed that marked colonial racism. It was, as the title of Mandela’s popular biography, a long road to freedom.
Since time immemorial, humans have probably had some kind of discrimination against people different from themselves, but racism developed only during the period of western colonialism—as European and American colonizing powers invaded and occupied lands in Africa, South America and Asia, and began to differentiate people by the color of their skin, with the accompanying sense that people with darker skin belonged to an inferior race.
Anthropology and race
In the 19th century, anthropology emerged in the West as a science to study human beings and, unfortunately, was a major player in creating the pseudoscience of race. Physical anthropology was largely a study of “races,” with endless reports about physical differences among the so-called races, which would then be described as “primitive,” “savage,” “barbaric.” Such studies continued into the 20th century in the Philippines, with American researchers classifying Filipinos by their skin color, shape of ears, even feet (which were described as having prehensile qualities, insinuating we were close to monkeys). One American researcher even claimed to have found a new human species in one town in Rizal, again with suggestions of inferiority.
In the United States itself, laws were passed in many states prohibiting marriages between “whites” and various races—“Mongolian,” for example, which at one time included Filipinos. In the 1930s, a courageous Filipino migrant in California, Salvador Roldan, challenged the existing law to marry a British white woman, arguing that he was not Mongolian, but Malay. In response, the California State legislature quickly passed a law prohibiting marriages between Caucasians and Malays, but Roldan’s marriage remained valid. It was not until 1967 that the US Supreme Court ruled such laws to be unconstitutional.
Let’s return to southern Africa. The Dutch and the British fought many bloody wars against the native peoples, as well as with each other, to expand their claims over lands rich in natural resources, including gold. As they occupied more lands, the colonizers looked for more ways to segregate people by their skin color.
Mahatma Gandhi was himself an early victim of racism. At the age of 24, he had gone to what is South Africa today to become a lawyer for the growing Indian community. Shortly after he arrived, he was thrown off a train for refusing to move out of the first-class compartment. The next day he was able to board another train and use first class; but a few days later in a stagecoach, he was beaten by the driver for refusing to make room for a European passenger. After he reached his destination, he was barred from several hotels.
Gandhi’s experiences were to mold his views on civil rights, and on nonviolent resistance. But it is interesting that he continued to believe that the Indians were not the same as the native Africans, and that whites should be the predominant race. He helped to organize an ambulance drivers’ corps for the British in 1900, to prove that Indians could take on wartime tasks. Such was the power of racism, where the victims themselves come to accept the discrimination as natural.
One can imagine this idea of a natural order of things becoming even more powerful when the South African government, citing “science” and the Bible as justifications, established apartheid as a national policy in 1948. Four races were “declared”: black, white, colored and Indian, with all kinds of sub-classifications. For example, the “colored” races were broken down into Cape Coloured, Cape Malay (to which Filipinos probably would have been classified), Chinese, Griqua and “others.”
A Racial Classification Board established in 1954 took care of classifying people, and monitoring violations of laws around races. The experiences of this board should be used in history and social studies classes to show how ridiculous “race” was. The board used physical characteristics (skin complexion, eyes, hair) as well as education, residence and even friends, to “prove” one’s race. There were instances where people would be reclassified, sometimes on their own appeal, or sometimes because someone had reported them as being misclassified. (The most amusing one was a report in 1984 where two whites were reclassified as colored, Chinese.)
Apartheid meant keeping these races apart in their places of residence, schools, hospitals, transport, even beaches and benches. Marriage between races was prohibited.
Most importantly, civil rights were severely curtailed for non-whites. There was no way for non-whites to be elected into office. As black South Africans agitated for their rights, the apartheid regime responded with more violence, and protest rallies turned into massacres.
In his youth, Mandela had been influenced by Gandhi’s writings on nonviolence, but later he felt armed insurrection was necessary. He compared nonviolence to tackling a wild animal with bare hands.
Mandela was thrown into prison for 27 years by the South African apartheid regime, but his influence grew through the years, with pressure coming from the international community for his release. After his release, there were fears that he would take revenge against the white population but this did not happen. Not only that, he went out of his way to establish reconciliation between whites and blacks. Instead of establishing war tribunals to try the white oppressors, he supported the formation of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission where “oppressors,” black or white, would meet the families of people they had killed, tortured or imprisoned. After the hearings, there would be apologies, to bring closure. The hearings were so emotional even “judges” were reduced to tears.
South Africa remains gripped by racial tensions, and many other problems of economic inequality, but without Mandela, the situation could have been far worse. He has been praised with terms like “pragmatic,” “willing to compromise,” “reconciliatory,” but at the heart of his leadership was a powerful sense of anti-racism, whether of whites over blacks, or of blacks over whites.
Black and white, thousands bid farewell to Mandela
By Christopher Torchia
(Associated Press) | Updated December 12, 2013 - 8:37am
PRETORIA, South Africa — Black and white, old and young, South Africans by the thousands paid final tribute Wednesday to their beloved Nelson Mandela. In silence or murmuring, they filed past the coffin. Some glanced back, as if clinging to the sight, a moment in history.
One man raised his fist, the potent gesture of the struggle against white rule that Mandela led from prison. A woman fainted on the steps, and was helped into a wheelchair.
They had only a few seconds to look at the man many called "tata" — father in his native Xhosa — his face and upper body visible through a clear bubble atop the casket, dressed in a black-and-yellow shirt of the kind he favored as a statesman
"I wish I can say to him, 'Wake up and don't leave us,'" said Mary Kgobe, a 52-year-old teacher, after viewing the casket at the century-old Union Buildings, a sandstone government complex overlooking the capital, Pretoria, that was once the seat of white power.
Wearing the black, green and gold of the African National Congress, the ruling party Mandela once led, she was among the multitude who endured hours in the sun to say goodbye to the man they call their father, liberator and peacemaker.
Kgobe said losing Mandela, who died Dec. 5 at 95, was like losing a part of herself.
"This moment is really electrifying, knowing well what he did for us. I wish we could follow in his steps and be humble like he was," said Kgobe, whose grandfather, an ANC activist, was arrested several times.
Long lines of mourners snaked through the capital for a glimpse of Mandela's body as it lay in state for three days — an image reminiscent of the miles-long queues of voters who waited patiently to cast their ballots during South Africa's first all-race elections in 1994 that saw Mandela become the country's first black president.
At a parking lot where buses ferried people to the viewing, the mood was cheerful. When a bus carrying supporters of the ANC made a wrong turn and drove away from the Union Buildings, one man joked: "Do they think we will steal the body?"
There was order and respect once they disembarked at the foot of steps leading to a marquee that sheltered Mandela's casket. Signs on the wall said no firearms were allowed. Some people shielded themselves from the sun with squares of cardboard plastered with large images of Mandela.
"Today was the first day and the last day I saw him. ... I had to see him for myself even if I couldn't speak with him," said Amos Mafolo, who works in logistics for the South African police.
When his four children are older, Mafolo said, he will sit them down and tell them where he was on this day.
Silver Mogotlane opened his heart, saying he knew Mandela as a symbol and a historical figure, but still wondered in awe: "Who is this man?"
"I'm lost. My mind is lost," he said after passing the casket.
Police officers stood nearby, one holding a box of tissues.
Mandela was lying in state in the same hilltop building where he made a stirring inaugural address that marked the birth of South Africa's democracy — an irony that was not lost on the throngs.
"It's amazing to think that 19 years ago he was inaugurated there, and now he's lying there," said another viewer, Paul Letageng. "If he was not here, we would not have had peace in South Africa."
The mourners were joined by world leaders and Mandela family members, who walked silently past the casket at a special morning viewing, Mandela's widow, Graca Machel, and his former wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, among them.
By the afternoon, long lines had formed, but the government said the cutoff point had been reached, urging people to arrive early on the following two days to get their chance.
Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe, South African President Jacob Zuma and other leaders passed by the casket in two lines as four junior naval officers in white uniforms stood guard.
U2 frontman Bono also paid his respects, as did F.W. de Klerk, the last president of white rule who shared a Nobel Peace Prize with Mandela for ending apartheid.
"I hope that his focus on lasting reconciliation will live and bloom in South Africa," de Klerk said.
South Sudan's president, Salva Kiir Mayardit, stood transfixed before removing his trademark black cowboy hat and crossing himself.
The orderly proceedings were in contrast to a large-scale celebration Tuesday that went somewhat awry because of poor transport planning, faulty sound equipment and even an alleged impostor who, acting as an interpreter for the deaf, spouted nonsense rather than translating speeches by President Barack Obama and other statesmen.
The half-empty stands at that event led some to think the public had become apathetic, but the overwhelming response Wednesday showed South Africans' thirst for a simple way to say goodbye.
On Wednesday morning, police on motorcycles escorted a hearse bearing Mandela's flag-draped coffin from a military hospital outside Pretoria. Hundreds lined the streets, singing songs from the struggle against the apartheid regime and calling out farewells to Mandela.
Army helicopters circled overhead, but a sudden quiet fell over the amphitheater as the hearse arrived. Eight warrant officers representing the services and divisions of the South African military carried the casket, led by a military chaplain in a purple stole. The officers set down the coffin and removed the flag.
Mandela's body is to be flown Saturday to Qunu, his rural childhood village in Eastern Cape Province, where he will be buried Sunday.
Nelson Mandela will be laid to rest today. What would he have made of the minitempest that erupted when US President Barack Obama was photographed doing a “selfie” with UK Prime Minister David Cameron and Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt during the memorial service held in his honor?
Social media immediately erupted into a tsk-tsk flurry, chiding Obama for supposedly behaving inappropriately and lamenting what seemed like a slide into incivility that technology has brought about. It didn’t help that the photograph also showed a stern-looking US First Lady Michelle Obama on one side, which was interpreted to mean she disapproved of the behavior of her husband and the two other world leaders.
But it turned out the story was much more interesting than a textbook case of bad manners. The photographer who captured the “selfie seen ’round the world” subsequently explained that what happened was not at all how the moral scolds had made it out to be: “Suddenly this woman (the Danish PM) pulled out her mobile phone and took a photo of herself smiling with Cameron and the US president. I captured the scene reflexively. All around me in the stadium, South Africans were dancing, singing and laughing to honour their departed leader. It was more like a carnival atmosphere, not at all morbid. The ceremony had already gone on for two hours and would last another two. The atmosphere was totally relaxed—I didn’t see anything shocking in my viewfinder, president of the US or not.”
Context is important, especially in light of who was at the center of the occasion. We can never be certain, of course, how Mandela would have reacted to this kerfuffle, but those who had observed him closely knew that, especially in his later years, the stern, aristocratic firebrand of his youth had given way to a wise man of remarkable forbearance and equanimity. Laughter came easily to him, along with the ability to be patient, pragmatic and considerate of the other side of the divide.
That was how, despite his suspicion and distrust of the intentions of the last white president of South Africa, F.W. de Klerk, he chose to persevere in the partnership, despite the vocal misgivings of many of his allies. The man’s iron will—and iron patience—resulted not only in the dismantling of apartheid but also in the transition to black-majority rule that miraculously avoided the bloodshed and civil war that conventional wisdom said was unavoidable in post-apartheid South Africa. Mandela publicly forgave his white oppressors and preached tolerance, in the name of his “rainbow-nation ideal.”
It’s easy, then, to imagine him laughing at the fuss generated by the so-called faux pas of Obama and company. The man who had endured unspeakable privations as the world’s longest-held political prisoner emerged well-tempered against cant and empty niceties—in his inimitably twinkly-eyed way. “How often photos showed him roaring with laughter next to fawning leaders or dignitaries or whoever wanted a piece of him that day,” wrote Marina Hyde in The Guardian.
This is not to forget that, once upon a time, Mandela was a revolutionary who responded to the violence of white-man rule in full measure. “Mandela’s life covered both narratives. He was both the man at the top—and the outlaw who defied those who were on top,” Benjamin Pimentel wrote in INQUIRER.net. In fact, “one of the books Mandela was known to have studied as he was helping build the armed underground movement against the apartheid regime in South Africa in the 1960s was ‘Born of the People,’ the memoir of Luis Taruc, leader of the Partido Komunista ng Pilipinas and a leading figure in the Huk rebellion in the 1950s.”
Even as Mandela became a towering world figure, that dark and defiant part of his life should not be forgotten, especially in a world where people continue to be imprisoned for their political beliefs—not least in our own country—and injustice and oppression remain ugly realities. He was tender when needed—and tough where it mattered most.
South Africa still faces a “long walk” toward social justice and equality, but the greatness of Madiba, as he was fondly called by his people, was how he beat overwhelming odds with the contradictory elements of his nature all at play, the apt one deployed at the right place and time—tough and tender, principled and pragmatic, resolute and forgiving.
In this, Nelson Mandela was unique—sui generis. We may not see the likes of him again.