When I was your age, the great Nelson Mandela was in prison, and his African National Congress was considered the Al-Qaeda, or IS, of its time in South Africa. We grew up in an atmosphere of security that gradually turned to fear as the ANC’s terrorist activities increased. Our parents would restrict us from going out in case “they” bombed the place. We were a nation at war. Cuban- and Soviet-backed guerilla fighters clashed with government forces on the border. All young men – white young men – had to fight or be forever the shame of their family. One of my “cousins” was one such man who refused conscription as a matter of conscience. He was spoken of only in hushed tones and sad shakes of the head.
They talked about Mandela at school. They must have, but I don’t remember much of that. I went to a convent that started out as mostly segregated. In those days, though, they bravely allowed Chinese students in. In South Africa, you were either white or non-white. This status determined where you could live and where you went to school. Which buses you could take, which train carriage you sat in and who you could fall in a love with.
It was accepted as the norm, and it’s hard to get people to understand that. We didn’t ever meet the Mandelas of the world. The black people in our lives were maids and gardeners.
When I began working as a journalist at Bona magazine, only then did I begin to understand the true meaning of apartheid. Educated black people became my friends. But still, for the most part, Mandela was a terrorist and – almost as bad in those days – branded as a communist.
So my own allegiance lay with another African leader, Mangosuthu Buthelezi of the Inkatha Freedom Party. He, too, stood for equality of all South Africa’s people, but he had not chosen violence as his means to the end, and he was a decided capitalist.
Mandela’s release from prison in 1990 was a joyful and frightening time. I was happy because it was the right thing to do. But all whites feared that there would be a bloody uprising against them. This fear was not unfounded; we had seen what had happened in other countries in Africa. The general global misconception at the time was that whites could “return to Europe”. We could not. We were no longer Europeans, and so we were treated like every other immigrant. Those who could get out went. My elder sister was the first in my family to leave.
As the first multi-race elections drew near, there was an upsurge in terrible violence between Mandela’s ANC and Buthelezi’s IFP. It seemed to be an endless cycle of killing and funerals, uncertainty and fear. It has always been hard for me to reconcile the world image of Mandela with the deaths of friends in that time. It was, and always has been, hard to reconcile that image of a Nobel Peace Prize winner with the image of his wife, Winnie, calling for people to be murdered in the unspeakably cruel “necklace” method that was to be a hallmark of the struggle.
Going into the elections of 1994 was a heady time for journalists. People’s expectations of what would happen afterwards ranged into the bizarre. Some whites wanted to form their own homeland where they would be the majority and they would interact with black-run South Africa. I think everyone knew that Mandela would win. The ANC was by far the largest party.
He inherited a country that was divided along racial lines and along economic lines, too. It is a testament to him that there was no uprising. That life continued, freedom grew. South Africa’s new constitution is one of the best in the world, I believe.
He earned my respect and love as a leader and statesman, and I began to see him in a whole different light. Those were tough days, when tough choices had to be made. Everyone thought what they were doing was for the best. But in the end, he gave us pride in him and our nation, South Africa.