Author’s note: It is a testament to the legacy of a person like Nelson Mandela that his life affects not just the most imminent stakeholders, but also those of us who watch from a distance or who brush up against his influence. In 1994, just after Mandela was elected president of South Africa, I visited that new democracy on behalf of the Poynter Institute. My job was to work with school teachers on the development of writing and journalism programs. The idea was that you cannot just declare a nation a democracy. You must build democratic institutions that can support it. This essay, abridged from a version in the literary journal River Teeth, describes my brief experience and its lasting influence on me and my family.
The wind that evening was so strong it blew the American flag stiff, knocked over rows and rows of folding chairs, and sent the black caps of high school graduates spinning along the ground like tumbleweed. From our seats in the bleachers, we stared west, hoping that another kaleidoscopic Florida sunset would add symbolic luster to this most American rite of passage. But rain clouds roiled behind us.
They don’t have high school graduations in South Africa. That’s what I learned from my two visitors that evening, June 3, 1999. South African students finish their exams, go home, and wait for the results in the mail. Perhaps it was the hip pageantry that so intrigued these two journalists, Hugh Lewin and Fiona Lloyd. Or their vicarious pride at my daughter’s tender graduation speech. Or the raw suspense of wondering whether the 300 or so Lakewood High School students would be graduated before the storm clouds exploded.
They never did. Hugh shot photos as if he were the proud father. Fiona, who first met my daughter that night, got weepy with sentiment. I think they were pleased and delighted to see a demonstration of racial solidarity in a city, St. Petersburg, Fla., where racial violence in 1996 had torn the community apart. At Lakewood the principal was African-American, the student body diverse, the prom king white, two prom queens black, and families of all colors mingled and celebrated together.
No one in the crowd could know that the tall thin white man beside me, Hugh Lewin, had spent more than seven years in a South African prison, punishment for acts of sabotage against the apartheid system. Fed up with the slow pace of political reform, Hugh had joined a loose band of rebels and, on three occasions, had blown up pylons supporting power lines.
He was tried at age 24, got out of prison at 32, and flew out of the country immediately to avoid house arrest. He dedicated his 1981 book Bandiet to “All political prisoners inside South African jails.”
I first met Hugh in 1994 at the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism, a school to prepare South African journalists to meet the challenges posed by the election of a new democratic form of government. My job in Johannesburg was to work with the teachers of student writers. The country had just elected Nelson Mandela as its first president, a man who himself had spent 26 years as a political prisoner. It was beginning to appear as if prison time was a badge of honor in the new South Africa.
Two weeks after my daughter’s graduation, Mandela was succeeded as South African president by a man I’d never heard of, Thabo Mbeki. It had been argued that this new democracy could not survive without Mandela, but that had not proven to be true. Political change, the healing of old wounds, the scourge of AIDS, solutions to the problems of crime and poverty – all have come with painful slowness. Mandela remained near the top of lists for person of the century.
It was said of George Washington that his democratic genius was not in becoming the first president of the United States. It was in not appointing his son to succeed him. In the same way, it may be said that evidence of Mandela’s greatness has been in creating a democracy that will outlive him.
The photos of my daughter taken by Hugh Lewin, the righteous South African saboteur, are now part of our family history. They join another collection, the snapshots I took in his country, the new South Africa, during the African winter of 1994, weeks after the election of Mandela. It was an astonishing historical moment, like being in Philadelphia in 1776.
My adventure began on the Fourth of July 1994, American Independence Day. I stood in a classroom in Johannesburg, South Africa, freezing. It was winter in the Southern Hemisphere, the coldest winter in 30 years. I was not prepared. I looked a sight. I wore a wool sweater, a black satin Lakewood High School soccer jacket, and a multi-colored Nigerian World Cup Soccer cap. I waved a tiny American flag.
I arrived July 3. My friends who had been here warned me that South Africa was a “hard” country, that I should be cautious against political violence and crime. Last spring, before the elections, there was an increase in political terrorism: car bombs exploded downtown and the black townships were seething. Friends and family, frightened by images of bloodshed and burning, begged me not to go. I joked and reassured them: “Hey, I survived trips to New York and Miami, haven’t I?” They didn’t laugh.
When I stepped off the British Airways plane, I began to look for signs of “hardness.” I expected security barriers and police guards armed with assault weapons. But nothing. Just a bland terminal building with an obsolete luggage conveyor belt and one immigration officer welcoming us to the city.
I checked in to the Sunnyside Park Hotel, a historic building dating to the origins of this gold-mining town, and now being restored. The cozy hotel crawled with workmen: carpenters, electricians, and plasterers. The sounds of jackhammers and drills shook the walls until you closed the door of your room.
By late afternoon, one of my hosts, Sue Sparks, who is white, was driving us into Alexandra, a black township north of the city. We visited a ramshackle building used as a schoolhouse. We met the pastor of the Catholic Church and the man who kept its immaculate little garden. We stopped at a corner fruit stand, bought some oranges, and were photographed with the grocer. Children played in the streets and mugged for the camera.
The temperature dropped with the sun, and folks began to huddle in their tiny houses and makeshift shacks. Coal is the cheapest fuel, and small fires from coal burners were everywhere. Foul smoke from these fires filled the evening sky surrounding the township with an eerie aura of dust and ash.
On July 5 our class decided that we should all write stories. This was, after all, a week-long seminar on writing and the teaching of writing. About 30 teachers had signed up for the class, eager to find new ways to teach in a new country. They were interested in student journalism, in making classrooms laboratories of democracy, and in teaching in multi-racial settings. The teachers were white and black, and ranged in experience from old pro to rookie. Some taught in wealthy suburban schools, others came in from the townships. At least one young woman, Gloria Mashego, taught her students from Tembisa not in a classroom, but under a tree.
Our group of six teachers was assigned to cover the streets near the old railroad station in downtown Johannesburg. We split up, walked around, notebooks in our hands, looking to capture some interesting vignette of the city. For one of the few moments in my life, I felt what it is like to be The Other, a thoroughly white man striding streets bustling with black South Africans.
Everywhere along the street were mini-vans used as “taxis” to bring black workers in from the townships. I counted 10 people in a van that can hold half that many with comfort. Street vendors lined the sidewalks, selling fruit, cosmetics, music tapes, clothing and more exotic items: a wreath of herbs that could put you in contact with the spirit world. The most popular items seemed to be sports caps. What a surprise to see the Chicago Bulls and Orlando Magic and New York Yankee logos so far from home.
I stepped off the crowded streets into a beautiful church, The Cathedral of St. Mary the Virgin. Inside, a banner read “Let Justice Roll Down Like Waters.” Under it sat a solitary black man, his head bowed in prayer, his hands moving back and forth across his knees. This place, like so many in this city, was associated with the struggle against apartheid. Martyrs of the movement had their funerals here. Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu has preached from its pulpit. And armed South African police have stood on its front balcony, watching and photographing the crowds of mourners.
But today, back on the street, there was no sense of that. Only a boom box blasting “When Doves Cry,” and folks filing in to Pep, The Cheapest Store in Town.
A new friend in my group, Shireen Brandt, gave me my first souvenir: A South African key chain with a picture of the country’s new flag on one side and an image of Nelson Mandela on the other. She explained to me the colors of the new flag, which looks like a peace symbol resting on its side in a rectangle. “The red is for the blood shed in the struggle for liberation,” she said. “The green is for the land. The blue is for the sky. The black is for the people. The gold is for the natural resources. And the white is for the peace.”
We returned to our classroom, a beautiful old house on a hillside, now the home of the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism, a place created loosely on the model of my own school, The Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla. Inside the front door sat a young African woman whose name is Happiness Mabuya. The name fits her, both in terms of her disposition and her warm smile.
Allister Sparks founded this place. He is one of the country’s most respected journalists. His partner is another, Hugh Lewin, who would visit us years later in St. Petersburg. Organizer of my course was Michael Rice, a veteran writer and teacher. He is the son-in-law of the late Bram Fischer, the legendary friend and lawyer of Nelson Mandela, a white man whose fight against apartheid led to his long imprisonment and eventual death. I feel surrounded by characters in a great historical narrative.
At the very mention of the elections last April, a woman in my class got teary-eyed with sentiment. “I can’t help it,” she said. They all remembered waiting for hours on serpentine lines to cast their first votes in a multi-racial democracy. The long wait made it all seem more worthwhile. It symbolized the country’s long wait for liberation. Richard Cawker was the palest young man in the class, only six months a teacher, but full of democratic enthusiasm. He told me the story of how he listened to the radio on the day of the election and heard an interview with an 84-year-old black woman who had voted for the first time in her life. “I finally have my dignity,” she said. Richard cried when he heard this.
Two young teachers work on their stories side by side. Both are slight and are dressed alike in dark sweaters and jeans. But Rosemary Morris has porcelain skin and platinum hair, while Jacqui Hlongwane has skin the color of coffee and ebony hair. “I’ve got to capture these two great faces,” I said, pointing my camera. They were both pleased. They leaned together, arm in arm, almost cheek to cheek, beaming the most luminous smiles. As I click, Jacqui whispers, “the new South Africa.”