In the late 80s I began to pay close attention to what was going on in South Africa thanks to the television program, “South Africa Now.” A half hour news show, it came right into my bedroom and took me to the streets of Soweto where the violence was up close and personal and horrendous. It was quite an education. My son would join me in this ritual of sharing on Sunday mornings.
In 1990 I became the project director for the Chicago premiere of the touring production of Sarafina! featuring the original New York cast of extremely talented South African youngsters reenacting the Soweto riots protesting the Afrikaans language. Mandela had just been released from prison after 27 years and all I could see was that giant of a man taking that stage on opening night at the New Regal Theater on the Southside of Chicago! It would be a historic moment. Working with the leading anti-apartheid scholars and activists in Chicago, we pursued the idea - Getting Mandela to Chicago. When it became clear that it wasn’t going to happen, we began to work towards a videotaped message for the opening night audience. And although there was great cooperation from all quarters, logistics and conflicting time zones prevented it from materializing. But, on opening night when the curtain came down on that powerful show of resistance, the spirit of Tata was evident among both the South African cast and that American audience.
The following year I began attending a small church with a large congregation on the South side of Chicago. Trinity United Church of Christ was actively involved in the anti-apartheid movement – so much so that they had a Free South Africa sign on the front lawn of the church. I was drawn to its activism, its political consciousness, its stance on issues in the world beginning with South Africa so I joined the church.
I was in Brazil in April of 1994 when the first Democratic elections of all races happened in South Africa. The excitement was palpable everywhere we went. In fact, returning home there were a number of Chicagoans on the plane who were returning from observing the election in South Africa. And then he became president.
In 2000 I traveled to Cape Town, South Africa where I visited Robben Island and the prison that held Mandela for 18 of the 27 years he was in prison. Sitting like a fortress in the middle of the shark-infested Atlantic Ocean, I peered through the bars of the tiny, stark cell where Mandela persevered all those years. The tour guide, a former political prisoner himself, talked about the horrible treatment accorded Blacks. The daily diet provided to Coloreds and Asians versus what was served to Blacks. How Black inmates had to wear short pants and go barefoot while other inmates wore long pants and shoes. I also visited the yard where prisoners chipped away at white stones, exposing their eyes to damage from the rays of the sun reflecting against the white stone and respiratory problems.
Yesterday Tata Rolihlahla Nelson Madika Mandela made his transition. Ninety Five years on the planet; a lifetime of service. I resisted tears. They just didn’t seem appropriate for such a giant as this. Prayers, yes, but not tears. Then when I turned on the television and saw the South Africans singing and dancing as only South Africans can sing and dance, I knew that this was the time for celebration. Because he dared. Because he cared. Because he lived.
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