WILLIAMS: Thoughts on Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela, a leader in apartheid and post-apartheid South Africa, passed away last week at a hospital in Johannesburg, South Africa.

As Nelson Mandela lies in state this week, the world will recount his prominent role in the end of apartheid, South Africa’s policy of strict racial segregation, which persisted from 1943 to 1994.

The perspective I offer is that of a young, white boy, the son of American missionary parents, who grew up amid the military and racial conflict of southern Africa. My family lived in southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), one of the “frontline states” where much of the military conflict took place. Though officially anti-apartheid, Rhodesia was nevertheless quite friendly to the South African government, principally for reasons of commerce. At the time, South Africa seemed a wealthy fortress, where reasonable people held dominion. My childhood memories are of conflict between evil terrorists and brave defenders of civility. I saw the frontline conflict in those black and white terms.

The frontline violence was all around us; during the Rhodesian war, we all lived in fear. Foods and petrol were rationed. Many parts of the surrounding countries were too dangerous to enter. In fact, the sanctions advocated by the West seemed to have worst effect outside South Africa. During the Rhodesian war, the “troopies” — white boys in fatigues — were our protectors and heroes. In school, I heard stories of their brave battles out in the bush, and we sang troopie songs to lighten the mood as we travelled in armed convoys across the Limpopo river into South Africa, to fetch our supplies.

To me, the African National Congress (ANC), which was cofounded by Mandela, was a band of revolutionary Marxist terrorists, armed with weapons supplied by the Soviets. Evidence for this was everywhere. We saw gun runners transiting Bophuthatswana — one of the “homelands” or temporary, separate territories that South Africa set up as part of the apartheid policy. Some white farmers welded iron plates to the undersides of their jeeps to avoid injury from the landmines planted by the terrorists. The South African newspapers frequently showed huge caches of weapons discovered by police in and around South Africa. Occasionally, the South African Defense Force (SADF) would cross a border into one of the frontline states and destroy an ANC safehouse. My family witnessed one such mission in Gaborone, Botswana … and frankly, I cheered for the SADF. They were targeting terrorists.

If you lived in southern Africa at the time, you had lost friends to the war or at least knew someone who had. To me, a teenager at the time, Nelson Mandela was a terrorist. In fact, he was the top villain, and we were fortunate that he was locked up on an island off the coast. We’d all be safe as long as people like Mandela were kept apart. Unfortunately, Mandela’s wife, Winnie, didn’t do much to counter that perception that the ANC was a violent organization; she was associated with the ‘necklacing’ of black youths to her domination in the township of Soweto. Necklacing was the brutal practice of fitting a tire around the victim, filling it with gasoline, and setting it alight — a particular brutal form of execution. It was easy to believe that the ANC stood for violence.

The first cracks in the fortress wall surrounding the South African government appeared after Frederik de Klerk replaced Pieter ‘Pik’ Botha in 1989. Somehow — I still don’t understand how it was possible — de Klerk came to know Nelson Mandela as a man … an intelligent, patient, courageous man with whom he could discuss a different future. To many whites, de Klerk at first seemed a traitor to the South African nation. Mandela could lead an uprising and destroy the country.

Mandela would destroy South Africa as thoroughly as Mugabe had destroyed Zimbabwe. We were sure of it. And then, although it seemed impossible, there Mandela was, walking out of prison. His fist-pump seemed to presage horrible violence ahead; white South Africa held its collective breath, and actually a lot of non-white South Africa did too. The Zimbabwean example was still very fresh in our minds, and violence was everywhere.

What happened next, an almost miraculous occurrence, is the reason why many of us now consider Nelson Mandela a great man. It’s not simply that he was a perfect human who had been locked up by the cruel apartheid regime, as was often reported in the West. The truth was far more complex, and far more interesting. And Mandela was an even greater a man because of it. Mandela was not who we thought he was; he wasn’t that violent figure that we’d seen in the papers. Nor was he the violent firebrand that some in the ANC wanted him to be. Nelson Mandela was a thoughtful, dignified man who spoke eloquently about reconciliation, peace and a better future … for everyone. He seemed to have forgiven his captors because he believed that was the best step forward for his country. I still find it so difficult to believe that any man could do that. That act of forgiveness is what will inscribe Nelson Mandela’s name among the greatest leaders of history.

Without Mandela, I do fear for the future of South Africa, and for the continent as a whole. A country has lost a moral leader whose message transcended the politics and the violence.

Mandela’s message wasn’t about how conditions were; it was about how they could be. And so I worry, because I cannot identify any political figures in Africa who can deliver that message with as much courage and conviction. I pray for the young nation of South Africa, that it will recall the greatness of Nelson Mandela and uphold his wonderful example.

Keith Williams is a visiting professor of electrical and computer engineering.

Published December 8, 2013 in Opinion

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