Hail, Farewell, and Thank You So Much
This is a story of three threads. Thread one was spun many years ago when, as a graduate student in history at Northwestern University, I took a course in archeology. In that course, taught by a professor we affectionately called “Goofy”, I learned about the Egyptian practice of keeping a Book of the Dead. Literally known as Reu nu pert em hru—The Chapters of Coming Forth by Day—the book was a series of funerary chapters written on papyrus. It contained the names of pharaohs, along with deeds, magic spells, and formulas that would help them navigate their way through the underworld after their death to join the gods. Later civilizations took up this practice of recording the names of their dead for commemorative purposes.
I became so fascinated with the concept I decided to start my own “Book of the Dead”, to record the names and deeds of persons I wanted to remember. My first entry was on April 7, 1984: Frank Church, Senator from Idaho; my last (to now), was on December 18, 2013: Audrey Totter, actress. In between was an eclectic group of performers, politicians, sports figures, scientists, academicians, and friends. The year 2013 includes Stan Musial (Cardinals’ Hall of Famer), Earl Pionke (the Earl of Old Town), Roger Ebert (film critic), Edmund Morgan (Puritan historian), Dawn Clark Netsch (legal scholar and neighbor), Elmore Leonard (crime novelist), Scott Carpenter (astronaut), Charlie Trotter (Chicago chef), Tom Boerwinkle (Chicago Bulls Center), and Peter O’Toole (actor).
Alumnae of 2013: Hail and Farewell
But it is the entry made on December 5, 2013, recorded between Judy Rodgers, (chef); and Eleanor Parker, (actress) that I would like to weave into my story. That is the name of Nelson Mandela.
Thread two lays out the story of Rolihlalah Mandela, born in 1918 in a thatched hut in Qunu, an agricultural village in the Transkei region of South Africa. His father was counselor to a Xhosa king, who later became the boy’s guardian. When Mandela entered a mission school at the age of seven, he was given the name Nelson. Although he was an excellent student, he was asked to leave Fort Hare University for leading protests against what he perceived to be unjust school policies. When his father tried to arrange a marriage with a bride he didn’t love, Mandela ran away to Johannesburg where he worked briefly in a mine, then became a law clerk and took classes to complete his university and law degrees.
Racial injustice was rife in Mandela’s South Africa, where a small minority of white British and Dutch residents (Africaners) ruled over a majority of uneducated and impoverished native black residents. In 1944, influenced by the nonviolent methods of Mohandas Ghandi, Mandela and some of his friends founded the African National Congress (ANC) to advocate for black rights. When the Africaner-dominated Parliament passed laws instituting the system of apartheid, the strict separation of South Africa by race, Mandela and the ANC devoted themselves to overthrowing those laws.
Throughout the 1950s, Mandela and the ANC led anti-apartheid protests and boycotts. Though Mandela was committed to nonviolence, more militant black groups staged riots. The government became a brutal police state to enforce minority rule. Matters came to a climax in March 1960 with the Sharpeville Massacre. White police killed 69 unarmed black protesters and injured hundreds more. When angry blacks rioted, the government outlawed the ANC, forcing its leaders underground. The ANC resorted to guerilla warfare tactics to fight back. In 1964, the government arrested Mandela. He thought they would put him to death. Instead, they condemned him a life sentence at the Robben Island prison outside Cape Town. He was 46 years old.
Mandela spent his first years in a tiny cell with no bed, no sink, no toilet, no lamp, and no reading or writing materials. He was allowed only one 30-minute visit every six months from a family member and two highly censored letters a year. He was not allowed to attend the funerals of his mother or his son. He worked day after day crushing rocks in a lime quarry. The glare of the sun on the rocks permanently damaged his eyesight. The damp conditions in his cell created health problems from which he never recovered.
The prison hierarchy changed in 1971, and Mandela’s living condition improved. He left the quarries and was allowed to read, play sports, and even perform plays. Through good and bad, he maintained his strength and his dignity. He got to know his Afrikaner guards. He studied their language and their history. He made a conscious decision not to harbor bitterness or swear revenge toward his captors. He began writing his memoirs, which he hid in a plastic container and buried in the prison yard. When they were accidentally discovered by a work detail, the prison authorities destroyed them. Fortunately the pages had been copied by another inmate, who smuggled them out. They became the basis for Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom.
As younger anti-apartheid prisoners were incarcerated at Robben Island, the white regime suspected that Mandela was exerting too much influence over them, and they transferred him to Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town, where he was allowed contact with the outside world, and had television privileges. The outside world was also learning more about the man who condemned apartheid and insisted that every South African should participate in their government.
When the Afrikaner government put Nelson Mandela and other ANC leaders in prison for life, they congratulated themselves on ridding the country of anti-apartheid trouble-makers without making martyrs of them. Their decision backfired. Mandela became a martyr-in-waiting. The perception of mystery and power surrounding him were only enhanced by his invisibility. As his prison sentence dragged on, anti-apartheid and Free Mandela movements spread worldwide. The United Nations imposed an arms embargo on South Africa—not as effective as economic sanctions, but a start. “Free Mandela” stickers bumper stickers and lapel buttons appeared; and the mantra was preached from pulpits and chanted by children. Movies, plays, and novels brought the plight of black South Africans to light: Cry Freedom, an award-winning movie about black activist Steve Biko; the anti-apartheid dramas of Athol Fugard, and the novels of Nadine Gordimer and Alan Paton. The genie was coming out of the bottle.
With the exception of the United States and Britain, nation after nation enforced sanctions against South Africa. In 1986, many Senate Republicans joined with Democrats to override Ronald Reagan’s veto of a bill establishing tough sanctions against South Africa. Corporations sold off their businesses in South Africa, including shares in the nation’s largest firms. When major international banks began withdrawing credit, it became clear that the country was heading for financial bankruptcy.
The approach of Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday increased cries for his release. In London, 72,000 people attended a birthday rock concert for him; 200 million more watched the concert on television. On February 11, 1990, three months after the fall of the Berlin Wall and 27 years after his imprisonment, the prison gates opened, and Nelson Mandela walked out—a free man. He was 71 years old.
The bloodshed did not end with Mandela’s release from prison. Some 15,000 South Africans were killed between 1990 and 1993—much of the violence due to the De Klerk government’s support of black against black fighting. But Mandela continued to negotiate with the government and with other black African groups. When an election was held in 1993, the outcome was inevitable. Only one man was capable of uniting the country’s warring factions; and in April 1994, at the age of 75, Nelson Mandela took the oath as South Africa’s first black president. The ANC Party had won 62% of the vote. De Klerk’s National Party received 20%, and the black Inkatha Freedom Party, 10%. For the first time in the country’s history, all of the people had spoken.
Weaving the Threads Together
Thread three brings me back to my Book of the Dead and Nelson Mandela. When Mandela began serving his life sentence, I was teaching a class on Vital Issues of the Constitution to a group of high school history teachers. The object was to educate students about such constitutional issues as free expression, suffrage, and civil rights and to teach them the method of logical reasoning. It was a great class—and my students were an inspired group. After a particularly lively session, one teacher stopped me with a strange question. “Shirley,” he asked, “what do you do when you reach a certain age, and you know you are not going to get any smarter, any more successful, or any better looking?” I looked at him and said, “I don’t know, Woody. I’m not there yet.”
Woody (seated at desk) and Shirley in the 1970s
Bringing the Threads Together
I have asked that question many times through the years—and my answer was always the same, “I’m not there yet.” Until this year—when I found myself facing some crucial “where do I go from here?” decisions. My life had changed in many ways, and I actually began to think, “ Maybe it’s time, maybe I’m there.”
Then, Nelson Mandela died, and reading about his life, several things stood out. He was in his 40s when he went to prison; 71 when he got out. At 75 he became President of South Africa and won the Nobel Peace Prize. At 80, he remarried and found new happiness. He was 95 when he ended his journey. I have a way to go before I hit that milestone. Maybe it’s true that your new life begins whenever you want it to; and maybe I can put off facing the question a little longer. Thank you, Nelson Mandela.
Filed under: Living in Interesting Times