I am remembering today our many visits to South Africa during the term of Mandela’s presidency. We were in Angola in the 90’s, and we made frequent work-related trips to Pretoria, Johannesburg, and Cape Town.
I remember hearing Nkosi Sikelel, the South African National Anthem performed, by choirs and especially by the Soweto String Quartet, and I remember hearing diffused within the music the spirit of hope, of enthusiasm, of new possibilities (Of course, South Africa has two. I also grew up with two national anthems, the white one, Star-Spangled Banner, and the black one, Lift Every Voice and Sing. they were equal in our estimation and there was no confusion there). I remember going to commercial and academic bookshops (because that is what I do whenever I visit a place), and I remember the students, of various races and nationalities, excited about the opportunity to acquire knowledge in an environment not tinged by hatred. I remember talks with South African diplomats, and learning that the foreign ministry was the earliest part of government to shuffle off the coil of apartheid, even before it was fashionable to do so, because they lived and worked overseas, in the real world (or so they told me) where silly race lies did not hold water.
But I also remember going to restaurants and even shopping malls, in Pretoria, moreso than in Johannesburg, where the only people of color I saw were the maintenance staff and workers, and all the shoppers were white. I remember thinking that the vestiges of apartheid, the physical structure itself, would take a long time to fade away, a structural reality we saw in other southern Africa countries, like Namibia, and Botswana. I reflected on how long it took to “integrate” institutions in my own country, a self-proclaimed bastion of democracy and equal rights, and thinking that the work was still not yet completed.
I remember those Mandela shirts, and his seeming stylish rejection of the necktie. I dug it. They lynched blacks in South Africa just like they did in my country. Liberation from the necktie is its own rejection of lynching and the lynch mob.
I never met Mandela. I was far too far down the totem pole for that. But I felt I understood him, and I felt I understood what he was trying to do, the movement he was building, not just for South Africa, but for all of humanity. A white lady in a bookshop recommended Country of My Skull. It was a worthy read.