Dear Hildegard, I want to share some memories with you about South Africa and Mandela. Hearing the news today of his death has reminded me of so many things ….
I remember coming into Cape Town and being so sea sick that I couldn’t get off the ship. I was 11. I could see Table Mountain and I knew it was Africa and in another ten days or so we would be home in Australia.
I remember the day the Springboks played in Adelaide – it was my first year in High School and the match had to be abandoned. Those protesters heralded the beginning of the sporting boycott of South Africa. Proud I lived in a city that began that act of solidarity.
I remember going to dinners, marches, putting up posters, organising prayer services, talking to friends, selling raffle tickets, singing songs of freedom, learning all the words of God Bless Africa to support the end of apartheid.
I remember meeting Leah Tutu in Adelaide and asking her how does she keep going when her husband was constantly facing death threats and always so close to trouble and tragedy. She told me – I dance, we dance.
I remember staying up all night to see Mandela released from prison and having the ABC satellite loose transmission just a few moments before it happened because Mandela’s release was delayed.
I remember taking the family to the city for a peace march to celebrate Mandela’s release. I did not want our children to miss the moment. I wanted to be a part of history.
I remember crying and dancing the day Mandela became President and hearing him say Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people will not feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone and as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give others permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others. (Marianne Williamson). I remember this being printed off in my office and carrying it around with me for years as a constant reminder to be courageous and in the light.
I remember being in Perth Airport and seeing a very tired and, I thought, inebriated, Kerry O’Brien heading off to South Africa to interview Mandela. I was on my way to Mozambique and would be passing through Johannesburg.
I remember being in Johannesburg and going to Alexandra and being shocked by the poverty on one side of the road and the wealth on the other. I remember the energy of the student and church activists who kept me company that day.
I remember searching for the new South African flag in the market in J’burg so I could bring it home to keep reminding me how a new nation was finally re-born and a flag no longer outlawed.
I remember driving Donald Woods to an event at Annesley College and the hall was packed to the rafters and he mainly wanted to talk to me about Australian cricket. The irony of the ordinary passions amidst the politics of sheer survival caused me to chuckle!
I remember feeling proud of the Commonwealth Eminent Persons, with former PM Malcolm Fraser making real and important contributions to bring about peace and to stand with the people of South Africa. I always felt this was one of the finest acts of the Commonwealth. It also rehabilitated Fraser for me as I had lost all respect for him back in 1975!
I remember being inspired by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and seeing Tutu cry night after night in hearing the evidence. I was so inspired by this magnificent restorative justice experience.
I remember singing all the songs on Freedom is Coming over and over again until everyone in the house knew every word.
I remember getting a beautiful copy from the dearest of friends of Long Walk to Freedom – a coffee table version – chosen so all the photos could be seen and shared easily with the children.
I remember being in Glasgow and a South African delegation thanking me as an Australian for standing shoulder to shoulder with black South Africa to help end apartheid. I felt a fraud for the little I had done and humbled to receive their thanks – two of them had been imprisoned for their politics. I remember seeing in the Glasgow Town Hall a thank you note from Mandela to the people of Scotland that same trip and it bore the date of my birthday.
I remember going to Mandela’s house 8115 Vilakazi Street, Orlando, Soweto the womb in which many of his earliest thoughts and plans were made. The only street in the world where two Nobel Prize winners have lived.
I remember going to the Hektor Pietersen Museum and being so inspired by the youthfulness of protest and the courage of school students.
I remember being in the Apartheid Museum and learning for the first time that I had seen more footage on my television on what had been going on in South Africa, than many of the South Africans themselves because of the censorship. I remember the tablecloth on which the ideas and constitutional changes were etched.
I remember being on the Parliament House balustrade in Pretoria and buying stamps that commemorated Mandela’s Presidency and a few year’s later being in Cape Town and walking through the doors of the National Parliament and seeing the fruits of democracy on the walls and in the conversations.
I remember walking the labyrinth in Cape Town behind Tutu’s St Georges Cathedral and marking each step for the long walk South Africa had behind it as well as the one in front of it.
I remember listening to the former political prisoner at Robben Island tell the story of what it was like to be there and the University they created to support and keep learning together. Mandela taught his fellow prisoners.
I remember the District 6 Museum and being delighted with the storyteller and the generosity of the tales of hope and resilience as well as nonviolent resistance in the harshest and dehumanising of circumstances.
I remember sitting next to one of the great elders of the trade union movement at dinner and being so honoured to be in his company while presenting at a conference on democracy for Gaetung Province. How amazing it was to have this opportunity and he thanked me for all Australia had done to help end.
I remember in 2012 being sad to say goodbye once again to South Africa and wondering when I might be back. I am very grateful that one of my now adult children had a taste by coming with me on that trip. He was 5 at the rally when Mandela had been released.
I remember listening to Johnny Clegg at WOMADelaide and enjoying every single minute of his talk and his band. It was my WOMADelaide highlight that year.
I remember all the South Africans I have met in South Africa and around the world. I remember their kindness and patience with me. Their love of their country and that they will be mourning for Mandiba in their own ways and for their own reasons.
These and many more memories of my little thread of connection to the story of Mandela and his beautiful country have been flooding back. I wept when I heard the news. I gave thanks for his life. I pray for the future of South Africa. I have always felt that while there was breath in his body, it was an insurance for the whole country to protect and to guide. I pray that his spirit will inspire a new generation of activists who will understand that there can never be peace without justice.
I am ashamed that I came to learn more about racism from South Africa first before I came to know it closer to home in my own country and community. But I am grateful I was able to apply some of those lessons. The lesson of solidarity is what I learnt most from being a tiny part of the anti-apartheid movement.
It was the words of Bonhoeffer that added to my understanding of solidarity:
“First they came for the Communists, but I was not a Communist so I did not speak out. Then they came for the socialists and the trade unionists, and I was neither so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew so I did not speak out. And when they came for me, there was no one left to speak out for me.”
And so this day I am in solidarity with all those who mourn Mandela’s death and celebrate his life. I will do a dance to the Soweto Gospel choir, sing Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika, unhaul the flag, look over my photos and books, send messages to friends in South Africa and say a prayer for his family and his country, and raise my hand with a fist – Amandla!