(Yesterday Nelson Mandela was buried in his hometown of Qunu, South Africa. Today the school where I work had a memorial assembly to show respect for this great man. Knowing that I come from South Africa, my colleagues asked me to say a few words about Madiba and how he changed the country. I wrote the following speech for an audience of children from 4 to 10 year olds. My aim was to give them a sense of how much the country changed without going into detail that they would not understand. I share the speech with you now as a contribution to the tributes that have been given to a man who helped change the history of my birthplace.)
“I was born in a segregated South Africa; a South Africa which worked at keeping the races separate. While I was growing up, I was surrounded by people who were the same race as me: at school, at church, when I went to the cinema. My neighbours and the friends I played with were the same skin colour as me. When I began university, I became aware of the inequalities that existed in my birth country. I began to read newspapers and participate in discussions on democracy and equal rights. I also came into close contact with people of other races that were my age.
I remember the Apartheid laws slowly being changed while I was at studying to be a teacher. “Whites Only” signs were taken down; washrooms were opened to people of all races; a person of any race could step onto any bus they wished; the faces of cinema-goers represented the different skin colours found in the country; schools were “opened” and white-only schools became a thing of the past.
The little changes happening in the country led to a momentous occasion in South African history: the release of Nelson Mandela. He was a man who fought all his life for the equal rights of all people in his country. The prison release became a symbol of political change in South Africa. I remember sitting huddled around the radio with my teaching colleagues, listening as Mandela walked through the gates of the Victor Verster prison in the Cape. A normally chatty group of people were silent as we all focused on the words that were being uttered. I remember the shouts of jubilation as the national representative for freedom left the shackles of his imprisonment behind.
It was once he was released from prison that the hard work of Nelson Mandela began. He believed firmly in non-violence and peaceful negotiations. There were so many moments during the negotiations that we, as ordinary people, feared there would be war in our country. Tempers ran high, and threats were made. Violence erupted between the different political factions. The assassination of a popular political leader brought the country to the brink of war. By this time negotiations between the major political parties had broken down. Thankfully Mandela and De Klerk agreed to begin negotiations again in order to curb the violence. Days turned into weeks of negotiations and I am always thankful that, somehow, these leaders prevented the occurring violence from becoming an outright war.
The first democratic election in South Africa was held on May 27, 1994. For the first time people of all races stood in lines to vote. Violence continued right until the day before the elections. We feared that violence would erupt on the day of voting but it seemed as if Mandela’s spirit of reconciliation calmed everyone down. The day dawned brightly on the violent-free voting day. I had voted only once before and that had been a quick and hushed affair. On this day, however, the lines were long and made by people with different skin colours. People were chatting in the lines as we waited for hours to make our cross on a piece of paper. Men and women who were grandparents stood with us to fulfil their life-long dream of voting for a democratic government. The sense of unity and jubilation, free from fear of violence, is a feeling I will not quickly forget.
Mandela headed the Government of National Unity as the first black South African president. He continued with his campaign for all people in his country to experience equality. He supported all peoples of his country – no matter what their race – and believed that all races could be unified as one. His role in ending the Apartheid regime in a peaceful way, and in building a new democratic South Africa, was recognised when he was given the Nobel peace prize in 1993. He was awarded this prize jointly with Willem de Klerk, the man with whom he worked during the negotiations. When Madiba, as he is respectfully known, stepped down as president he did not retire peacefully. He was still involved in charities, and worked with others in peaceful negotiations around the world. He worked tirelessly with world leaders until his health prevented him from frequent travelling.
Madiba was a man whose principles were not easily swayed. He was a man with a vision. He was a man who did not give up until his vision was realised. The New South African anthem includes the words “Nkosi Silelel’ iAfrika”, meaning “God bless Africa”. A part of Africa was truly blessed when this man strived to non-violently change the politics in South Africa – and succeeded.
Viva Mandela! Long live his spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation. Viva Madiba! You will be missed.”
Feel free to add comments in honour of Nelson Mandela, or links to posts you have written on your blog.
© Colline Kook-Chun, 2013