As I See It

School days in Nelson Mandela’s shadow

Updated: 2013-12-17T23:55:17Z

It was on the playground at my high school when I first encountered Nelson Mandela.

We’d been boycotting classes for weeks and part of our daily ritual at this ordinary yet segregated “coloured” school along the eastern seaboard of South Africa was singing protest songs. Mandela of course, was in jail, but his spirit was there in song. It was in the chants, the speeches and amidst the waves of mass resistance that led our high school to join the nationwide upheaval.

I wondered what the teachers in their empty classrooms made of us teenage rabble-rousers in our uniforms electing not to explore Shakespeare, digesting defiance politics over dissecting frogs and, whether we were pursuing the right angle to our problems without Pythagoras.

More than anything that was taught in the classroom, Politics 101 was out there on the bumpy playground, where freedom, justice and equality were words we could spell but had no real meaning. Between the goalposts and the patchy lawn, democratic values got kicked around and demands articulated.

Pretty soon the bane of the poor community’s struggles — disunity, took on a new meaning. We stood united with our African brothers and sisters by calling for Mandela’s release along with other political prisoners, the abolishment of all apartheid laws and the scrapping of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in schools.

My political activity progressed to involvement with a cabal of 15 to 20 activists in the community. We met in secret at different locations, discussing and planning peaceful opposition to the government’s policies. One notable strategy was the Release Mandela Campaign, viewed as the key to paving the way for negotiations toward democracy.

Mandela, after all, was unquestionably the man whom we considered our leader, a struggle icon whose defiance we applauded and aspired to emulate, whose sacrifices showed our inadequacies, a man whose selfless contribution to the fight for justice we imagined, would one day drive across the Rubicon.

And when that triumphant day arrived, a rainbow nation of cultures celebrated. The euphoria was infectious. Viewers were glued to their TV screens, car horns blared, supporters took to the streets.

With government signaling its intent with a range of sweeping announcements, the optimism for a better future became palpable.

My experience as a journalist covering political violence in the run up to the first democratic elections shook my belief in a peaceful transition of power.

But with Mandela reaching out to an unlikely foe in former President F.W. de Klerk, the two restored my waning faith by finding a solution to the crisis.

Credit, of course, also goes to the large number of peace-loving South Africans who embraced unity and nation building. But Mandela was the towering figure.

He had a remarkable ability to show forgiveness, including to his captors for the 27 years he spent in jail. He understood how to reconcile a nation’s differences — typified in him wearing a Springbok rugby jersey, long a symbol of white privilege. If not for those extraordinary traits, who is to say how the country’s history would have evolved?

I wish I could be back at the school ground where it all started.

If not to share Mandela’s legacy with a new generation of pupils, then at least to pay tribute to a man whose leadership is not just a yardstick for a bedeviled continent, but for the world.

Denzyl Janneker is a freelance journalist from South Africa based in Kansas City.

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