Saturday 13 February 2010

Twenty Years Since Mandela's Release

I was following the recent events in South Africa to mark 20 years since Nelson Mandela was released from Victor Verster prison on that fateful day in February1990. For South Africa, there can be no doubt that this day will go down in history as one of the most significant, if not THE most significant, in its history. I have the feeling that I have grown up with the young multi-racial South Africa, albeit from a slight distance.

The 20 year celebration brought a ton of personal memories flooding back for me. I remember so clearly the day that President FW De Klerk announced that he was unbanning the ANC, and that he would be releasing Mandela from prison. Rumours had circulated all day about the importance of the announcement that De Klerk would be making on TV that evening. When the announcement came, few South Africans could have been prepared for the enormity of its contents. It seemed to me to be a sudden change of direction from the policies that had been pursued in the preceding years. There was no gradual build-up to the dramatic political change. In current political terminology, it would be called a "turn-around" of the most extreme kind. I suppose I would have preferred it if there had been some warning about the events that were on the verge of unfolding in order to allow us to prepare ourselves for them.

Growing up in apartheid South Africa proved to be challenging for a Jewish kid in a small town. Even though it was clear that the apartheid system was not just or democratic, it is tough for people born into such a situation to differentiate. It was all that I knew and, by virtue of that fact, I grew to accept it as such. Despite this fact, I found my years at the University of Cape Town during the mid and late eighties to be quite tumultuous. Universities are inevitably highly politicised and liberal environments, and South African universities were a dramatic hotbed of anti-apartheid activity during the final years of apartheid. It is also true that the eighties proved to be particularly volatile years in the history of South Africa. My memories of politics on the university campus include a combination of undercover security agents spying on all activities, daily anti-government protests, lengthy detentions without trial and a general air of defiance and protest. Even though I was more focused on earning my degree, I could not avoid being affected by the general environment which prevailed on the campus and around the country. The security services seemed to have free reign to do almost as they pleased in depressing anti-government protest. Many protesters were arrested, detained for lengthy periods without trial and even killed by the forces in their attempts to do the impossible and quell the uprising. It was against this background that the sudden announcement of Mandela's release was received.

After giving a short period for the South African public to consume this huge change to the political landscape, a date was set for Mandela's release from prison. A massive welcoming gathering was arranged on Cape Town's Grand Parade. I remember sitting in my apartment on Sunday 11th February 1990 with our television tuned into the live feed from the prison showing the latest exciting developments. Through my lounge window, I could hear the noise of the expectant crowd awaiting Mandela's arrival at the Grand Parade. I decided that these events were too significant for me to be watching on my television, when I was only a stone's throw from live history in the making. The delay in Mandela's release from prison and arrival at the welcoming party allowed me sufficient time to get to the Parade to witness the unfolding events. It is a moment that will live with me forever.

Six months after these events, Janene and I left South Africa. This means that we have lived out of South Africa for almost as long as Mandela has been out of prison. The 20 years that have gone by have been as significant in our personal lives as they have been for South Africa. We have learned a great deal about survival, raising children and searching for our own identities. South Africa has similarly been through a "growing up" process by learning to cope with a new fully-democratic and multi-racial environment.

Hearing that 20 years have passed since these events brought me to a realisation as to how long ago I left South Africa. The truth is that, although I have found happiness and a real belonging living in the Jewish homeland, I can never get away from my South African roots. And I am not seeking to escape from them as they represent much about who I am as a person, and the values that I hold. The memories of my childhood days in rural South Africa are still very fresh in my mind, and feel like they occurred only yesterday. They will continue to be a very important part of me in my future as well.

Now that Mandela has all but completed his journey in helping to determine South Africa's future, it is clear that South Africa has a long path yet to tread. Even from my new homeland, I will continue to take a keen and active interest in all that happens in South Africa, and I will be willing her and her citizens every success in the future. Viva Africa.


Cliff Savren said...

Very moving piece. I am glad you wrote it.


Anthony Reich said...

Your comments is appreciated. It certainly stirred up emotions in me when writing it.