As the life of the greatest man of our generation, is precariously on the line, I recall the incredible day when I shook his hand. That same hand which he would hold up, fist clenched and raised and you could hear Mayibuye i Africa! coming from his eyes almost with a faint echo of the joyous hearts by his supporters chanting in sing song .. Freedom to Africa!
I first learned about Nelson Mandela from a childhood school friend from Bolivia, Cathy, who had returned to the UK where her family was from. We kept a correspondence over the years and whilst i was readjusting to life in Australia, she was settling in to life at an English boarding school. It was from there that she became an anti apartheid activist and taught me about what was going on in South Africa. She explained to me about why the world needed to build pressure against such an evil regime of racism.
My parents had some South African friends so I’d visit them and talk to them about what I was hearing, reading and learning and they confirmed it to be true. But added to that, they told me about what their experience had been when they lived there and the ugliness of unjust and aggressive treatment, simply for the color of their skin. These were very dear family friends, I’d even had a crush on the son when I was too young to know what a crush was.
Immediately I empathized with the anti apartheid movement and began listening to all their protest music which these friends gave me 2 full 90min cassette tapes of. I played these tapes over and over, some were in English, some in Xhosa & Zulu.. i couldn’t understand their words but i could understand the emotion, so i learnt to sing along. Asimbonanga being my favourite song which even now, 28 yrs later i can still remember off by heart.
I tried talking to friends at school about it, but their thoughts were on other things. So i would spend time alone at the library reading all the material I could on new developments and S.A’s history… meanwhile Cathy’s letters about what they were doing in London inspired me to believe it was possible to Free Nelson Mandela. I was 15. I found out what the requirements were to make a political petition valid internationally, arranged the paperwork, and then found out the address of the office in London where such signed petitions were sent.
The first signatures were of course family, friends, school friends. I was a relatively shy teenager, but the urgency to gather signatures was overwhelming, and so I stopped being shy long enough for the time I needed to go house to house in my neighbourhood. Long enough to explain what I was doing and requesting their support.
Many people refused to sign and gave me lectures about Nelson Mandela being the leader of a terrorist organisation and that they wouldn’t support that. I reminded them that once upon a time even Jesus was considered undesirable for his subversive talk against the status quo. Sometimes rebellion is necessary. I’d tell them about my South African friends who’d escaped apartheid and I’d tell them about Cathy. Once I managed to overcome my shyness and speak from the heart, people started signing.
For the next 3 yrs I carried my petition sheets nearly everywhere I went and when I saw the chance, I’d ask for signatures. By the second year I nearly gave up hope. But simply imagining Nelson Mandela in that jail cell, and knowing that it took an island and a locked room, with bars, to try to silence him .. yet here was I, one of many who had heard his message and was free to move and speak… his words would breathe on through those of us who’d understood the struggle. The struggle to end apartheid was not only about South Africa, it was about setting the standard for human relations that was simply unacceptable in this day and age, or ever.
The revolution Steve Biko started, which Mandela continued, was about social evolution.
Knowing that his love for the soul of mankind was so large that his hope and positivity extended beyond that island and was, if one believes in the Spirit, touching the hearts and souls of thousands if not millions. Armed with trust in him, I continued to photocopy new petitions in solidarity and kept filling them out with signatures of Australians who believed in positive change… then photocopying a copy I’d keep myself and sending the originals to London.
The reality of what was on my mind and where i was living, were poles apart. As a new migrant, there were enough differences, but my political passions became one more reason to have less in common with my peers. C’est la vie. There would be a time for fun soon enough.
The first time we arrived to Australia, in the mid 1970s, my father wanted to work in community development in an Aboriginal community here, similarly to how he had in Bolivia, developing media programs among rural living Quechua people. The Anglo-Saxon Australians told him that the Aboriginal population in Melbourne was too small and it was a waste of time to take our family up north to do something which had very little to no infrastructure nor support, reiterating to us it would not be a good life on any level for our family. Disheartened, and with little English, my father started exploring other work options, despite that having been his passion.
My parents weren’t racist. I was fortunate I never experienced that at home. My father always encouraged curiosity and respect for other cultures & peoples.
Growing up in South America, in Bolivia and Peru, it is impossible to escape the virtual caste system created by skin colour. We call ourselves a ‘bronze race’. The shades ranging from every human skin tone.
In Bolivia we have 36 Amerindian groups: Aymaras, Quechuas, Chiquitanos, Guaranis, Chiriguanos, Guarayos, Mojenos, Araona, Ayoreo, Baure, Caichana, Cavineno, Cyabuba, Chacobo, Chiman, Chama, Guarayo, Guarasugwe, Itonama, Joaquiniano, Leco, More, Machineri Yine, Moseten, Movima, Pacahuara, Reyesano/Maropa, Siriono, Tacana, Tapiete, Urus, Mataco, Yaminawa, Yuqui, Yurakare and Afro Bolivians.
Some of the words from the language of each, depending on the region, ends up filtering into the sort of Spanish we use.
When we learn English, we don’t just speak Spanglish in Bolivia, we speak Amerindian Spanglish!
We are such a mixed country and continent that it’s said our genes sometimes play checkers.
In one group of siblings you can have children that are quite fair with blonde hair and their sibling will have much darker skin with the typical very straight black indigenous hair .. and no, the parents weren’t playing extra marital games, the same 2 parents will produce incredible racial variations. My genetic background has indigenous Quechua, Sephardic Spanish and Arabic Spanish. Within my family alone there are all shades of the spectrum from blondes with blue-green eyes to dark skin, black hair, tight curls & straight.
Racism is like a weed. A few weeds never bother too much. But soon enough they take over and destroy the beauty of a garden.
Whilst South Africa had clear apartheid enforced by law; my lessons in racism were more subtle. I observed that lighter features were preferred over darker ones. But it never made any sense and i could never embrace racism. In fact it exasperated me. I had grown up with racial diversity. There is always a choice you make when you encounter “difference”, whatever that may be. You either become defensive which leads to rejecting it in any way possible. Or you greet it with interest, even if at first that is expressed cautiously. I had enjoyed he company and culture of many nationalities. Unless an individual was hateful, and divisive it didn’t bother me how different they were from me or my life. Therefore, I could not accept that the apartheid regime would be allowed to exist and I couldn’t accept that such a beautiful, kind, intelligent man that is Nelson Mandela, could see out the rest of his days from that cell.
It was 1990. I was doing my last year of highschool.
That year I received the best news anyone could have told me, better than if I’d aced all my exams:
NELSON MANDELA WAS RELEASED!
He was FREE as the day he was born! We, globally, succeeded!
I thanked G-d for this blessing and prayed he would have many wonderful years to catch up on those he lost.
I was able to get tickets to see him when he came to Melbourne. A sell out concert was organised to welcome him.
I had one last batch of petitions that I had been planning to mail the following month. I put them in a yellow envelope with a note and my little sister did a drawing of butterflies which i also enclosed.
Once I was at the concert, I could see from my seat where he was sitting. I got up and approached the security people near him and asked them to please deliver to him the envelope, which I was happy to see they did.
I’m Latin, and we can be emotional, but when I saw Nelson Mandela receive that envelope and open it…. silent, deliriously happy tears ran down my cheeks as i saw him pull out my note to him which read:
Dear Mr. Mandela,
I cannot imagine any day being greater for me than this one, where I’m about to see you safe in Melbourne. I’ve shed many tears of frustration for what your countrymen suffer and for what you have sacrificed of your life in the fight for an ideal that is goodness.
I am just a teenage girl, but I have done what I can to help for your release with petitions but more importantly, with prayers. I don’t know how to make sculptures but I used clay to make the freedom fist of the ANC based on your hand in a picture. It turned out very realistic because i am always inspired by you to do anything, even if i don’t know how.
You are the way all men should be. I suspect you are an angel. Thank you for existing and showing the world that it is possible to do great things no matter where you are, or who you are.
G-d Bless you and may you enjoy many, many years in your future. I’m glad these are the last petitions for your release and that i wont need to mail them this month!
Sincerely with much love,
(ps: my little sister did some drawings for you of butterflies because to her they are free)
At one point in the concert Nelson Mandela started making his way out. The aisle he was walking through was right next to me. I saw him approaching nearer. My heart was racing. I was so overwhelmed with emotion I was close to having an asthma attack… but didn’t. His smile beaming. A woman pushed in front of me, but i managed to still take his picture and then I stretched out my hand toward him, time suddenly seemed to slow down ….he shook it, looked me in the eyes and smiled …. this was the most beautiful moment in my life.
I told him, I wrote that note, in the envelope, with the butterfly pictures and petitions.
He gave a chuckle and said, “Ah yes! thank you!” …….. and with those words … nothing else mattered…I had connected with the love energy and positive power of an angel of peace. I was sure of it . I felt blessed.
As he prepares to leave us… and be free of the physical world, we need to realise how truly blessed we have been with his wisdom, his heart, his determination and unwillingness to be broken. A more shining example of a brilliant man there could not be.
He will leave a better world thanks to the power of his convictions and the courage of his spirit to live them out. He is not leaving a perfect world behind but definitely a better one! The rest is up to us.