Thursday, December 05, 2013

The Honorable Rolihlahla Mandela July 18, 1908-Dec. 4, 2013

Matthew Willman, photo credit
Baba Mandela passed today after a lengthy illness. Though he was not without faults, he was a great man and such a decent human being who loved his people so much he literally gave his liberty for their freedom. He sacrificed his life and his life with his family for the liberation of South Africans through the African National Congress, an organization he, as a young attorney, helped found.

In Jo'burg at the Anti-Apartheid Museum I read what he wrote in his letters to his family.  His apologies to his daughters who missed him and didn't understand why he wasn't there with them.

Such a beautiful and understanding letter from a father to his children.

He was 95, my great aunt made 95 Sunday, Dec. 1.  95 is a significant length of time to be around. At 95 one truly has a bit of perspective on life. . . . One sees trends and a recursive patterns those younger might miss, even the more astute.
I was on stage when Mandela came to Oakland after his 27 years on Robben Island. I also remember getting up really early and watching him leave the prison holding Mama Winnie Mandela's hand.

That Saturday afternoon, the Oakland Coliseum was full as Vukani Mawethu, a part of the Bay Area Mass Choir sang. My friends Monica and Hayward sat in the audience with my children who spent many Wednesday nights at Finn Hall in Berkeley studying or playing or being dragged to protest marches and anti-apartheid events for South Africans.

The Hon. Ron Dellums was still in Congress, but he was there on stage too. Baba Harry Belafonte nearby. I remember thinking, My God the man is so handsome (smile).

Reuters /Landov
My kids saw me carrying a list that I checked before I purchased anything for years. It was to make sure the businesses that produced the products I purchased whether that was toothpaste or bath soap, breakfast cereal or airline tickets were not invested in South Africa. I was about to take all my money out of Security Pacific National Bank when Bank of America bought it out, and then BofA divested, just in time.

I remember learning that day on stage that Mandela had trouble standing and walking after imprisonment. I think it was neuropathy. But there he was with his queen, standing so near. I was on the first row and there he was. I was so excited. I remember reading his biography and that of Mariam Makeba, listening to the music of Hugh Masekela and Abdullah Ibrahim.

Over the decade I was active in the anti-apartheid movement I met many people, some no longer with us like the late Sechaba Mokeoena, ex-pat, founder of Zulu Spear, Thamsanq (Sarafina cast) who with his wife at that time, Mujah Shakir would host South African expatriates and revolutionaries. Jikelele Dance Theater is Thamsanq's latest project;  Dumile Sadiqa Vokwana, co-founder of Amandla Poets (who is now in Capetown), with his partner at that time, the lovely vocalist Ms. Elouise Burrell, would perform often in the San Francisco Bay. We were a destination for dignitaries who were traveling worldwide trying to end this racist repressive regime in South Africa. So to perform for Bishop Desmond Tutu's visit to San Francisco at the Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Assumption, was not a surprise, but it was exciting to meet such a great man (smile). Julia Morgan Theatre hosted South African playwright Selaelo Maredi whom I visited in Alexandria Township in South Africa a few years ago. He is still producing powerful work, his focus on women and addressing the violence against women prevalent cross racial and economic lines.

When Apartheid ended we went to the Kaiser Auditorium for the elections held here hosted by Supervisor Keith Carson. A few people here like Gerald Lenoir, co-director, Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI) and one of the founders of Priority African Network, were in South Africa to witness this first vote for a Democratic South Africa. They returned with flags and ballots and many many stories of the long lines filled with elders. Mama Mariam mentioned at a concert at UC Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall that she was going home to vote for the first time at age 60-70. I remembered my excitement registering to vote when I turned eighteen and my belief then in democracy (smile).

I still believe, but the belief is a bit rusted or jaded now. 

I remember going to see the first big film Mandela and then the more recent film about the soccer match in  South Africa with Morgan Freeman channeling Madiba. There are so many parallels to team sports and community life, especially that between former enemies asked to play together. And they did, for a moment.

South Africa, post-apartheid South Africa is a place where sorrow resides. There is a lot of internalized pain and suffering there which makes it dangerous, perhaps more so than when the enemy was more clearly defined.

There is a new film not yet released about him; Mandela as militant (smile). I wonder if the parallel is that of Martin King on the Vietnam War and jobs for the unemployed with equal wages for equal work.

In New Orleans, there is an African Film Festival. One year I was there in the summer and South Africa was the featured country and a director from South Africa was in town at the screenings of his films. One film was on zenophobia.  The other on Saartjie "Sarah" Baartman or Hottentot Venus (1789-1815) , a Khoikhoi woman from Gamtoos river in what is now known as the Eastern Cape. Other famous South Africans born there are Nelson Mandela, Steve Biko and Thabo Mbeki.

Baartman was tricked into traveling to Europe where she thought she would be a maid, instead conscripted into service as a freak in a carnival show then later held in a museum on display. The Londoners and Parisians were fascinated by her large buttocks and dark skin.  

She like Ota Benga was treated worse than an animal by her European captors. Baartman was so objectified, the abuse continued after death when her dead body was mutilated--her genitalia cut off and brain dissected and pickled.  The jars were on display in the Musée del'Homme(Museum of Man) until 1974. The film covers this history and the body parts discovery in a lab and President Mandela's request to the French government that they return the 26 year old's remains, so she could have a proper burial. It took the French government eight additional years to craft legal language so that Africans could not reclaim stolen property.  Women's Day, August 9, 2002, Ms. Baartman's repatriated body was laid to rest, her soul finally resting in peace. See

I think it is so wonderful that her people didn't forget her once her whereabouts were published. After the screening their was a reception with the director.

Another time I was visiting home, Ashé, Community Center in New Orleans as well, there was a show and party complete with cake for Mandela's birthday. All I remember was wondering how they were going to fit 80 candles on the cake.

While he was traveling in South Africa, Robert H. King (A-3) kept getting called Madiba, (Mandela's ancestral name) his visage so strikingly like Mandela's.

In Jo'burg there is a bridge, named after Madiba, the Nelson Mandela Bridge, that at night lights up like a rainbow alternating colors. One night three of us went out for a walk. I think it was Friday night and we wanted to find some music or something to get into. We didn't find a party or club, but the bridge was a fun meditation at nearly midnight that night. We leaned over and watched the lesser fortunate prepare for a night out on the cement sofas below, the only comfort if any the somnolent night--trains shuffling into the yard to join those too poor to ride in slumber.

Shosholoza . . .

Mandela was like our Martin King had King lived. Although, King was not imprisoned for such a lengthy time period, and King wouldn't have left Coretta (smile).

I hope his ascension is without interruption, that his sins are forgiven and that his country grows into a true free and just society, one where black people have access to the same economic and educational opportunities as the whites.



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