I lived in South Africa for thirteen and a half months in 1988 and 1989, first teaching in a small Baptist college in Cape Town and then studying for about three months at the University of Stellenbosch. Before I learned I would be going to South Africa, I knew two things about the country: the evils of apartheid and the courage of people like Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu. As soon as I found out I would be living there for the next year, I immediately started reading all I could about the country's history and its current political climate. It was with both trepidation and excitement that I stepped off the plane at the D.F. Malan Airport (now renamed Cape Town International Airport) with my wife and baby daughter. I knew it would be an exciting time, but I didn't know that my year in the country would turn out to be the most educational and inspirational experience of my life.
Nelson Mandela was in jail on Robben Island when I arrived in Cape Town. On occasion when I was near the bay, I would look out at the island and wonder what kind of life he was living. There were no official news reports on Mandela, because the South African government prohibited any mention of Mandela in either the television media (which they completely controlled) or the print media (which they largely controlled). It was illegal to print any of Mandela's words, or those of other South African opponents of apartheid like Helen Joseph, Thabo Mbeki, or Joe Slovo. It was also illegal to publish any photos of Mandela more recent than 1962, when he was arrested and incarcerated.
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Saying there were no official news reports on Mandela is not the same as saying there was no news at all. It's just that if you wanted to find news about him, you had to read it in unofficial newspapers or on flyers stapled to telephone poles or taped to the sides of buildings. That's also how people found out about protest meetings featuring South African notables like Archbishop Tutu, Frank Chikane, or Allan Boesak. Anti-apartheid activists would drive around in the morning putting up the flyers; police or SADF members would drive by afterwards and remove the flyers; other activists would then swing by the same locations and repost the flyers. If you happened to drive by after the activists had posted a flyer and before the government forces had removed it, you could find out where and when the meeting would be held. Usually the flyers announced meetings the same day so that the government would not have time to block them.
I vividly remember one meeting held at a large downtown church in Cape Town. On that occasion Tutu, Boesak, and Chikane were all present, along with many others involved in the movement. I went with a couple of my students, who were intent on educating me about what really went on in South Africa. At the end of the meeting I sang for the first time--not the last--what was then the unofficial national anthem, Nkosi Sikelel' Iafrika, "God bless Africa." After a meeting that lasted little more than an hour, and was attended by a standing-room only crowd, we exited the church to find that the entire building was surrounded by police with rifles. I was terrified, but my students directed me through a roundabout path away from the police. We learned later that the police had fired water cannons on the crowd and beat some of them with sjamboks, leather whips that were regularly carried by police and SADF personnel. Nelson Mandela wasn't at the meeting in person, but he was definitely there in spirit, as every speaker mentioned him by name and lauded the sacrifice he had made, and was still making, for his country.
During my time in South Africa I taught religion classes to my students, and they taught me how to put faith into action as nonviolent opponents of an evil government system. I have no doubt that the lessons they taught me were both more profound and more long lasting than the lessons I taught them. It was in South Africa that I was first exposed to liberation theology, a movement that got its name from Peruvian priest Gustavo Gutiérrez's book A Theology of Liberation. I read every book on the subject I could get my hands on, books by Latin Americans like Jon Sobrino, Juan Segundo, Leonardo and Clodovis Boff, and José Míguez Bonino; African Americans like James Cone; and even Jewish and Palestinian theologies of liberation written by a Jew and a Palestinian who struggled together for peace in the Middle East. I also read The Kairos Document, a South African biblical and theological manifesto calling for an end to apartheid. I talked to academics, clergy, and laypeople who struggled against apartheid. I was taken on a tour of black townships, slums (at best) and shantytowns (at worst), many with limited running water and electricity, where the black population of the cities was forced to live by a law called the Group Areas Act (many rural blacks lived in so-called "homelands," also called "Bantustans," which were analogous to the reservations Native Americans were forced to live on). It was during my first visit to one of these townships that I was introduced to the word "conscientization," the purposeful exposure of a person to shocking conditions in order to force a confrontation with his or her own preconceptions about the world, good, and evil. I learned firsthand about structural injustice, both from what I observed and from the stories I heard people tell. One of my students, for example, was beaten and forcibly removed from a whites-only beach because he was black. Other students told me about their high schools being shut down for over a year because of unrest among the student body. My time in South Africa resulted in a profound conversion experience in every sense of the word.
The whole time I was in South Africa rumors abounded that Nelson Mandela would be released from prison any day, but that day never seemed to come. In my final weeks in the country I witnessed mass rallies of anti-apartheid activists on the streets of Cape Town, and I heard about other protests around the country. About three months after returning to the U.S., we woke up at 4:00 in the morning to witness a miracle: Nelson Mandela walking out of prison, his 1962-era black hair from the official photos replaced by a stately gray. He smiled, waved to the crowds, and even danced. I'm not much of a cryer, but I have to admit that I had tears in my eyes as I watched him walk into a cheering crowd that morning.
I also got a little teary-eyed a few years ago when watching the movie Invictus, which portrayed Mandela's courageous stance in favor of peacemaking and reconciliation revolving around the 1995 Rugby World Cup in Cape Town, mostly because of the many scenes shot in and around Cape Town that I remember so well. And, even though I knew he had been very sick for a long time, I got tears in my eyes again today when I heard he had died. The first thing I did was text my daughter from my office and ask her to hang my South African flag on the flagpole on my front porch as a tribute to Nelson Mandela. Father of the nation, Nobel Peace Prize winner, first black president of South Africa, proponent of nonviolent change, and inspiration to billions around the globe, including me, Nelson Mandela was perhaps the greatest man who has lived during my lifetime. RIP Nelson Mandela, and Nkosi sikelel' iafrika!