February 11th, 1990, 16:15 (GMT+2), I know where I was. Because it was a major, major event – in my part of the world somewhat more than most. Being only 11 at the time, I didn’t quite understand why, or who this person really was. All I’d had to go on was what little I’d been told about him and the group he’d worked for, and that wasn’t terribly flattering to him.
My family had moved to South Africa when I was three. From what I can remember of the first few years there, I was aware that there were white people, and that there were black people. I was vaguely aware that there was little interaction between the two. At the two nursery schools I attended, there were no black children. I think there were black menial staff at those places, but no black teachers. I would see black people in the street, though never seemingly as affluent as white people. My family had a black maid for a time – it was not at all unusual for white people to have black domestic staff. This was what Apartheid created – not merely a system of racial segregation, but a racialised class system, too.
In March 1985, we moved north of the border to Botswana. In Botswana, there was not even a sign of apartheid. In fact, the first President of that country, Seretse Khama, had been exiled from the country in the early 50s when it was still the British Protectorate of Bechuanaland, for the “crime” of marrying a white woman he’d met while studying at Oxford. The South Africans had complained to the British about the marriage. Britain, not wishing to compromise mineral trading with the South Africans, weakly submitted to the complaint. Thankfully, the exile lasted only five years.
But the inequality between black and white that I saw in South Africa was simply not there in Botswana – the black and white stripes on the country’s flag, in fact, are there to symbolise that very equality. There was still something of a racial class system – the white ex-patriates tended to be the more affluent and have the better jobs – but wealth and power were by no means the preserve of the whites. The country, and indeed the town, were run by native Batswana people. Before moving there, I recall my parents telling me that there would be black and white students in my school, which seemed like an odd thing at the time – something I hadn’t experienced. But we got there, and sure enough – black and white kids running around the playground not really caring (for the most part) whether their playmates were black or white. The only separation was languages – when the white kids went off to learn Afrikaans, the Batswana kids went off to learn their first language, Setswana.
So on that day in February 1990, I think I’d only known what apartheid was for a short period of time; maybe less than a year. If memory serves, we’d all known that this Mandela guy was going to be released in the run up to it, and I’d only known his name for a matter of weeks, maybe days. And all I knew of him was that he was a terrorist with the African National Congress. I’m not sure if I understood why such a person was being released. But there I was, watching a major event in African history, from the living room floor of D66, Tshkudu Crescent, EU III, Jwaneng, Botswana. An event that was to cause all sorts of turmoil in South Africa, until it seemed to settle (to a degree) in 1994, when Mandela became President.
As the years have gone, of course, I’ve grown older and gained a greater understanding of what happened in South Africa over those years. The world at large has come to see Mandela as less of a terrorist and more of a figurehead of a civil rights movement – and that includes me. Not everybody has this opinion, of course. I have to say that being a person who disagrees with terrorist methods (which I’ll loosely define as political violence against civilian rather than military targets), this does cause some conflict with me. The terrorist vs. freedom fighter debate is an old one, and you’ll all have your own views about which category Mandela falls into.
For my part, I don’t believe that what he did with Umkhonto we Sizwe was right, even if as a means to justify an end. But does that mean that I should ignore what he’s done since his release from prison? His leadership of the civil rights movement that smashed apartheid and brought some equality to South Africa, his charity work, his role in international diplomacy? Of course not. After all, other figures in history have done much worse, and for some reason still have a pristine press to the majority. There was, for instance, the genocidal maniac who, in a fit of impatience, decided to indiscriminately slaughter 2,700 men, women and children after the fall of Acre in 1189. Nowadays, we call that person “Richard the Lionheart”.
As such, all of the tributes paid to Mandela since his death are not unjustified – though I get the impression that some are purely for show. It would be wrong for history to forget why he was put in prison, but it would also be wrong to forget what he did after he was finally released. So let us remember him for the good that he did, but likewise, let us learn from his mistakes, and try to quosh oppression by non-violent means where there’s even a chance it’s possible.