“Even the heavens cried,” an observer said of the rain at a memorial for Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg. I almost cried, when I learned Nelson Mandala had died because I remembered a place far away and long ago - South Africa.
Memories never die, they just fade away. Nothing is ever blotted out. I went to South Africa in search of travel and adventure. I remember the clear blue skies and mild weather of a Southern Africa winter in July. Southern Africa is in the southern hemisphere. My world was turned upside down.
In 1967, I made a long journey from a white university in Louisiana to a white university in South Africa. The Civil Rights Movement was just beginning in the deep South that I had left.
I had a teaching job in the Eastern Cape at Rhodes University in Grahamstown. The English colonized the Eastern Cape in 1820. English was the first language in the Eastern Cape. Rhodes University was named after the British imperialist, Cecil Rhodes.
South Africa was divided by language and race. The minority of whites or Europeans were divided between English and Afrikaans. The non-Europeans were divided between Xhosa, Zulu, Indian and others. Nelson Mandela was an Xhosa from the Eastern Cape.
The hostility and suspicion I encountered when I arrived in South Africa was my own fault. The conventional port of entry to South Africa from the United States or Europe is Johannesburg. I changed my plane ticket in Lisbon and arrived in South Africa at Windhoek, South-West Africa from Luanda in the Portuguese colony of Angola.
In the 1960s South-West Africa was occupied by South Africa. It was disputed territory.
Today South-West Africa is a new country, Namibia. I had a lot of explaining to do before I was allowed to enter South Africa. My world was turned upside down.
When I went to South Africa, Nelson Mandela had been in prison five years. I was an outsider, an American, who observed apartheid or separateness, in an English speaking region of South Africa far from Capetown, Durban or Johannesburg.
The police patrolled Grahamstown in pickup trucks with cages. Blacks without passes were arrested.
Blacks were allowed to work in Grahamstown although at night they were forced to return to their homes outside of the city.
Fear had replaced hope in South Africa. A few whites had the courage to oppose apartheid, the university teacher I replaced was one of them.
I asked if he had been tortured in prison. He said, “They deprived me of sleep.”
I remember watching a demonstration against apartheid. A group of whites with signs were marching in a circle in front of the Anglican Cathedral. An outer ring of police were taking photographs of the marchers. The protest was not mentioned in the newspaper or radio news. South Africa did not have television until 1976.
Nelson Mandela was in prison for 27 years. He led his country in a peaceful transition to a multiracial society. He wasn’t interested in black supremacy. South Africa narrowly avoided a civil war. In 1994, he was elected president of a new South Africa.
Nelson Mandela believed that if people could be taught to hate, they could learn to love. For love is more natural to the human spirit than hate. He had the greatest qualities of the human spirit, courage, compassion, endurance, and forgiveness. He said, “We are one people. We are one nation. We are all South Africans.”
His legacy is an inspiration to all people who cherish liberty, justice, and peace - all over the world.
My father was born in Canada. My wife and I teach English to immigrants from Burma, Bhutan, Thailand, China, Japan, Mexico, and EI Salvador. We are one people.
There are no red states or blue states. We are one people regardless of color, age, politics, economic status, or country of origin. As Americans we must be thankful for the things we have that we want and thankful for the things we don’t have that we don’t want.
We are one people, one country, one world.