As a child and young teenager, I clearly remember the feelings I had during certain televised events. I remember how I felt watching the videotape of Rodney King’s beating, Mike Tyson losing to Buster Douglas, and Nelson Mandela being freed from prison in 1990. I was nine years old and never forgot the amount of joy my mother and maternal grandmother expressed after his release. When Nelson Mandela with his former wife Winnie walked out of prison with their fists in the air, an electrical jolt filled with pride and sadness ran through me. I was not quite the same since that day.
My mom first went to South Africa in the late 1990s and fell in love with the people, particularly those active in throwing off the shackles of apartheid. After she returned from her trips, my mom told my little brother, dad, and I about the parties, meetings with government officials, the music, dances, and repercussions of apartheid. My mom was viewed as coloured and more positively in certain quarters because of her lighter skin. This struck me as absurd and unfortunate, but very real since America’s segregationist past was not far-gone, and still exists today in some forms.
As a college student in the early 2000s, one of the required readings was Randall Robinson’sThe Debt. After reading The Debt, I dug deeper and began learning about Mr. Robinson, his founding of TransAfrica Forum (TAF), and their role in dismantling apartheid. I was inspired by Randall Robinson and began volunteering at TAF in 2004 after I graduated from undergraduate school. Randall Robinson had left TAF, however I was very fortunate to meet and become friends with Mwiza Munthali, a vital piece of TAF’s successes. Mwiza asked me to volunteer at their annual conference where I met a young TAF intern named Norma Toussaint. I was instantly smitten and thus began the road toward courtship and eventually marriage in 2008.
Norma, my mom, cousin, and I traveled to Cape Town, Johannesburg, and Soweto, South Africa together in 2011. It was a soul shaking trip. Many memories stand out including South Africa’s beautiful landscapes and visiting the Mandela Exhibition; however I was uncomfortable with the extreme wealth inequities between the white South African communities and the majority of black South African communities. The black South Africans were still entrenched in a cycle of poverty many years after Mandela was elected President, which was very disheartening. Another constant theme was the commercialization of Nelson Mandela. His face and name were on many products including designer shirts, wines, and blow up dolls. I wondered if Mandela was uncomfortable being revered and marketed at a high level.
Since Nelson Mandela passed away on December 5th, 2013 at 95 years old, a series of condolences and tributes have been published praising his humility (see links below). I am grateful his life inspired my family’s curiosity to learn more about South Africa, a beautiful and complicated place full of potential. I hope the conditions of South Africans continues to improve for all its citizens and future generations do not forget Nelson Mandela.