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Mzansi Fo Sho!

February 11, 2010

The men who had been staying with us for the last few days came in, had a chat with my parents, packed their bags and were waving goodbye within the hour. I never saw them again.

That was 1981. Years later, my mother told me they were British journalists. They’d been thrown out of South Africa for their coverage of the apartheid regime. They came and stayed with us for a few days whilst they worked out their next steps. They left that day because they’d recognised South African secret service following them in the Mall in Gaborone.

I’ve never asked who the journalists were. I don’t know whether they returned to the UK or tried to regain entry into South Africa via the Zimbabwe or Namibia. It’s never occurred to me to ask about that, until today.

I learnt more about the regime when we returned to the UK. I suspect it’s a combination of increased access to media coverage, and just being older and therefore it being more appropriate to tell me. Some of the accounts of what went on under apartheid make me feel physically sick. I cannot comprehend the mind that experiments to find out how long it takes to cook another human being alive.

When I look at the state of South Africa today I am floored by the courage and strength it has taken to commit to the processes of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. I stand in awe at the determination of the men and women who will see their nation rebuilt to one with honour and dignity.

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Today marks the 20th anniversary of the release of Nelson Mandela after 27 years of imprisonment, by then-President F. W. de Klerk on 11th February 1990. Four years later de Klerk announced the end of 46 years of apartheid rule. I wanted to put a video clip of Mandela’s release here but the embedding has been disabled, so it’s a link instead. Below is de Klerk’s speach announcing the government’s “firm decision to release Mr Mandela unconditionally.”

When apartheid ended I cheered, along with everyone else. I then did what I suspect an awful lot of other non-Southern African people did. I consigned apartheid to the history books. It was finished. Sure, the reconciliation and rebuilding was going on, but the hard work was done. The victory was won. It was over.

Except living here in Botswana over the last few months has made me realise that it’s not that simple. Yes, the rules changed. But every adult living in South Africa today, who wasn’t abroad at the time, lived under that regime. They lived as either ‘the oppressor’ or, more commonly, ‘the oppressed.’

A (black) South African friend of mine here recounted to me the shock he experienced the first day he arrived in Botswana as a political refugee, more than 20 years ago. He saw two black police officers arresting a white man. He was astounded.

One of my fellow-EEPs is working in a township in South Africa. It was specially ‘built’ during apartheid, for all the ‘undesirables.’ She is working with elderly women, who suffered for being black, for being women, and through being the wives, sisters and mothers of others who suffered.

South Africa has come a phenomenal way in the last 20 years. There are still problems, violence, poverty, housing, to name but three. People carry their pasts with them. You can’t consign your personal memories to dusty history books. They wake you in the dark, they whisper into your decisions, they colour the way you look at the world. It shouldn’t surprise us that there are still problems. What we should be marvelling at is exactly how far things have come!

In 119 days South Africa hosts the FIFA World Cup. It was one of the first goals Mandela set when he became President – that the world would join with Mzansi (as it’s known affectionately) in celebrating the Beautiful Game, as a clear demonstration of how much things had changed. The excitement building around the tournament is almost tangible – not just in South Africa – throughout the whole continent of Africa!

I’m not the biggest fan of football. It’s ok. I can take it or leave it. But when the opening ceremony starts, when Mandela stands and waves to the crowds, as God willing he surely will, I for one will add my cry to those of millions around the globe and pay my salute to one of the most inspirational men and inspirational nations in our history books.

That South Africa is becoming the ‘face of Africa’ to the rest of the world is a contentious good. But if we look deeper, look at the qualities that have enabled the Rainbow Nation to rise from the ashes of apartheid, we may just find the seeds that will enable us to start healing other areas of our damaged lives, our damaged nations and our damaged world. Truth not triumphalism. Reconciliation rather than retribution. A determination to forge a unified people from a mess of shattered lives. It’s not easy. It takes guts. And it starts with individuals. Will you join me?

Mzansi fo sho!

Additional Reading
BBC coverage of the anniversary
BBC Audio slideshow:Long Walk to Freedom
Nelson Mandela’s Biography
F.W. de Klerk’s Biography
Truth and Reconciliation Commission
Wikipedia’s explanation of South Africa under apartheid
The Apartheid Museum in Cape Town
The Robben Island Singers, spreading the message

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