There are really no words to describe Mandela’s contributions to the world that haven’t already been said. I’m devastated about his death, but want to loudly celebrate his life’s work. I’m fortunate enough to have visited his home country and truly hope to get to go back one day. My parents also visited South Africa. They, and several other American politicians and their spouses, were guests of the South African Embassy in 1988. I was 12 when they went. My impression of their visit then compared to what I know now are so vastly different. What I knew about their trip then:
- Charged by bull elephant while Land Rover was stuck on sand dune in Mala Mala Game Reserve.
- Impala – the animal, not the car
- Banana batiks
- Something about Winnie? The Pooh? I don’t know – I zoned out then
- They couldn’t leave their hotel after 5 p.m. without a chaperone
The 12 year old Shannon didn’t quite get what was happening. So yesterday morning, the 29 (it’s new math, people) year old Shannon asked her mother about it. It turns out that the South African Embassy had invited these politicians/influencers/people to their lovely (and it really is) country to see that Apartheid REALLY HAD ENDED. They wanted us to lift commerce embargoes and what not. They wanted to prove just how great it was to live there for all races of people.
But that’s not exactly the impression that my Mama got. Granted, she was just a lowly little old school teacher in Shelby County, AL, but she went into Soweto and saw the living conditions. She saw the houses built of corrugated metal and cardboard. She drove past Mandela’s house and glimpsed Winnie Mandela through the open gate. She saw the piles of rocks lining the street outside the house where there were usually young men ready to fight back at any oncoming threat. She heard the fear in the white men’s voices as they told their “tourists” that no, they could not stop the van in Soweto.
Remember, Mandela was still imprisoned (a life sentence for trying to overthrow the government) in 1988. The South African government had started some reforms at that time, but Apartheid didn’t really end until 1994 when Mandela was elected president. When coming home, my parent’s group couldn’t even take a flight directly from Johannesburg into the United States because of the embargoes. They had to fly into England, then on to the States. While in South Africa, my parents bought a lot of traditional folk art. Armed with that and a LOT of pictures, my Mama still occasionally gives presentations on South Africa. Because of their trip, I grew up with the art of South Africa surrounding me.
Imagine my surprise when, after starting work in the “real world,” one of my college professors was offering a trip/college credit/mini-term thing to South Africa. I had taken a class studying South African literature while still in school (love me some post-colonial lit) from the same professor. My parents really wanted me to have the opportunity, so they cashed in a BUNCH of frequent flyer miles and paid for the rest of my trip. I will be eternally grateful. It was 2000, and things had changed quite a bit since my parents’ visit. Mandela had had his term as President, and Apartheid had officially ended 6 years prior, the year I was graduated from high school. Here is the list of BIG impressions from my trip:
- Johannesburg – at the time it was listed as one of the 10 most dangerous cities in the world
- Learning that there were 11 official languages in South Africa at the time
- The wine lands – the vineyard where the people were trying to recover from forced alcoholism/indentured servitude
- Spending the night in Kruger National Park – baboons & a young male lion right outside of our bus
- Cape Town and the breathtaking views from Table Mountain
- Robben Island – standing outside the closed cell that Mandela had once occupied
- The delicious smell of Fynbos on the Cape Peninsula
- Eating Soul Food at a Wandie’s Place in Soweto
- Drinking home-brewed beer out of a tin bucket off of a packed-dirt floor at the home of a former Shebeen Queen
- Standing mere feet away from Winnie Mandela on the steps of Parliament
- Going INSIDE Mandela’s Soweto home – seeing the bullet holes where the police had shot at the house from the hill across the way
- The incredible kindness and hospitality of all of the people we encountered
- Learning that I could have been classified as colored under Apartheid’s arbitrary rules
- Being robbed in Gugulethu where Amy Biehl was murdered just 7 years before
Our little group was traveling around in a VW van, because…why wouldn’t we? We had about a day and a half left of our trip. We were in Gugulethu and were going into a church to see some ladies perform traditional dance and to look at their beadwork, some of which still hangs in my dining room. When we came out, my bag was gone from the back seat of the van. In it had been a pair of Oakley sunglasses, my film from ALL of the pictures I had taken on the trip, my camera, my Mama’s Paddington Bear who was a world traveler, a bottle of port wine, a hair dryer, a journal I had been keeping of our trip, and…my plane ticket home.
You can imagine the ensuing madness. We went to the police station to report the incident. We had a series of 3 or 4 languages being translated as I listed off the items that had been inside my bag. As the police officer began to write down all the things I was listing off, with their corresponding dollar values, he began to weep. I was bewildered. Our guide for the day had to explain to me that the trinkets in my bag were worth more than an entire family in Gugulethu would earn in a year. And then something wonderful and strange happened:
I saw what community really looked like.
The police officers started searching for my things throughout the town – even searching THROUGH THE GARBAGE. The mothers started searching for my things – in their homes and all through all of their children’s things. After I met with a detective, got fingerprinted, answered a lot of questions, and cried on the phone to my parents, my professor and classmates went back up to the police station. They saw 3 mothers marching 3 young boys, aged 12, 12, and 14, into the station, as what seemed like the entire town watched. The 14 year old had been found walking down the street with my bag on his shoulder, only the alcohol left in the bag, the scamp! The 12 year olds’ mothers found some of my belongings and turned their children in. The community turned out to make sure that this spoiled American girl got her things back. All I really wanted was my plane ticket – and that was found in a trash can by a police officer. I was asked if I wanted to press charges. I decided that the mothers and fathers of the community, which relied on money from tourism, would mete out plenty of justice. The ONLY reason I hesitated was because if I pressed charges, I’d have to come back to visit, and I wouldn’t have minded another visit!
I realized that, had this happened in ANY town in America, I (or a Russian or a European or a South African) would have been SOL. A stolen plane ticket and some memories and souvenirs just wouldn’t rate that high. Also, most children’s mothers would most certainly not have turned them in.
So here’s what I learned:
- I learned that I have more than anyone could ever need.
- I learned what kindness people are capable of.
- I learned not to judge – not only based on the color of someone’s skin, but not on any outward appearance, socioeconomic or otherwise.
- I learned that tragedy happens – on a personal level and on a global scale.
- And I learned that people, when working together, can overcome anything.
So, I got robbed in South Africa. By normal, mischievous, young boys. They were acting like young boys will. And I saw their parents, their elders act in a way that I would have never expected. Mandela had taught his country not to hate based on race, but they learned so much more by listening to him. He once said:
For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.
Those people in Gugulethu did just that. They helped a scared American girl get home. They helped her not feel violated by robbery. They showed her what self respect looked like.
I may not have any actual pictures from my trip, but they gave me so much more.