Messiah Mandela's miracle moment


Nelson Mandela FreedI clearly remember what I was doing the day Nelson Mandela walked free from prison. I was scouring the dirt roads of the Kruger National Park for wildlife, cut off from all outside communication and woefully unaware that one of history's most significant events was unfolding in my very own country.

Later, on our way back out of the reserve, my now-husband and I stopped at a roadside café where the news stand casually informed us of the exhilarating event. Mandela's photo had been banned for my entire life; the vivid image of him leaving Victor Verster prison with his fist aloft was the first I had ever seen of this mythical person. I had missed out on his moment of deliverance, and felt utterly cheated.

But the real history was yet to unfold; though it riveted the nation, Mandela's release was no more significant as a stand-alone event than would be Aung San Suu Kyi's liberation from house arrest in Rangoon. For maximum impact, Mandela would need to be the human catalyst for superhuman change.

It was a calculated strategy, and it worked: the behemoth apartheid state shifted so thoroughly and so smoothly that even the erratic events of the past 20 years have done little to diminish South Africa's reputation as a miracle nation.

That black South Africans would follow the lead of Mandela, a Messiah-like figure who offered them the best chance of escaping decades of oppression, was a fait accompli. But a peaceful transition could only occur with the support of white South Africans, a group that was itself deeply divided across language and political lines and which was accustomed to the protection of a paternalistic regime.

White children of apartheid South Africa knew little more than what they were drip-fed by a manipulative, pro-censorship government: Mandela was a terrorist (he had pleaded guilty to sabotage but rejected violence), South Africa was threatened by neighbouring Marxist countries (hence its support of rebel groups like Renamo in Mozambique and Unita in Angola), and the ANC was violent, communistic and anti-white (as evidenced by the ANC-planted bombs that killed and maimed hundreds of civilians, military and police in the 1980s).

Apartheid politics was devoid not only of healthy debate and honest information, but of the nuances on which power turns. As they grappled with the notion of sharing 'their' country with all its inhabitants, how were whites to discern the real intentions of the ANC and other liberation groups? How was the media to undo decades of subtle brainwashing and coercion? And how would society dismantle the parallel, Truman Show-like universe that whites had inhabited for all these years?

Clearly, the racial divide forced upon South Africans in 1948 could be bridged only by a carefully constructed policy, one that would assuage white fears while restoring dignity and full rights to blacks. It was a policy whose foundations were laid by the gradual reforms of President F. W. de Klerk in the 1980s, and whose span was hoisted by Mandela and the conciliatory impetus which drove his agenda from the moment he left prison on 11 February 1990.

Mandela's poky cell on Robben Island was not a means of punishment; it was a laboratory in which the apartheid government had unwittingly grown a solution to an unavoidable problem: how to return power to its rightful owners. By the time the majority of whites effectively voted in favour of universal suffrage in a 1992 referendum, they were truly ready for a new South Africa.

Today, the Rainbow Nation is not without its storm clouds. As Mandela himself said, 'Nothing is black and white'. The country is plagued by corruption, rampant HIV infection, lingering cross-racial hatred and crime so virulent it provoked my own family to leave our beloved homeland and seek a safer existence in Australia.

While the burgeoning black middle class has redrawn the country's social landscape, millions still live below the poverty line, virtually invisible to those who swept to power — and wealth — on the 1994 elections. 'There was a huge hope that a new dawn was going to come. That sense of great optimism and hope has faded enormously,' lamented Moeletsi Mbeki of the South African Institute of International Affairs in a recent interview with AFP.

Injurious developments notwithstanding, South Africa's successes are hard to match: it has an entrenched bill of rights and a vigorous, free press in which citizens debate the issues of the day with unbridled assertiveness; it is the 27th largest economy in the world and generates two thirds of Africa's electricity; it has had three democratically elected leaders and one transitional president in the space of just 17 years, and, despite a history of hardship, its people still manage to exude a special happiness and sense of place.

As we celebrate the 20th anniversary of Mandela's release, what I remember most is the impact of his legacy on my fellow, black South Africans. But I also reflect with tremendous gratitude on the way in which he helped shape the post-apartheid psyches of white compatriots: his bold, forgiving leadership freed us from shackles we barely knew existed, permitted us to pursue friendships that might otherwise have foundered, gave us good reason to mend our fractured sense of national pride, and enabled us, at last, to live with unmitigated integrity.

Catherine MarshallCatherine Marshall is a South African journalist now living in Sydney.

Topic tags: catherine marshall, nelson mandela, south africa, apartheid



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Existing comments

A lovely, lovely piece. How refreshing to hear from a South African with hope in her hands.

Brian Doyle | 11 February 2010  

I can ony add to this wonderfully concise picture of South Africa's political history over the past 20 years - this amazing bloodless transition from apartheid to multiracial democracy, in which Mandela played the key role - do take yourself and your schoolkids if you have any to see Clint Eastwood's 'Invictus'. It wonderfully, with artistic if not literal truth, represents the momentous transition Catherine Marshsll recalls here.It is one of those rare movies that inspires, instructs and entertains at the same time.

tony kevin | 11 February 2010  

South African blacks exuding happiness! Only the confidence tricksters in the government who don't give a damn for the 45 million other blacks!

The vast majority are far worse off than they were under the paternalistic regime of the past. As for electricity for Africa! How many power breakdowns a day throughout the country ... Comparing the rest of Africa ... it's like comparing Phar Lap with the runners in the Birdsville Cup.

philip | 11 February 2010  

Catherine has beautifully and accurately encapsulated the "South African Story" of so many South Africans in this poignant and insightful article. May today's anniversary bring to the rich South African nation, a revelation of peace, purpose and unity.

Judy Schutte | 11 February 2010  


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