Celebrating Nelson Mandela Day

The 18thJuly is the date the UN General Assembly declared as Nelson Mandela International Day. It is a day to celebrate his life and contribution to the culture of peace and freedom, and began in 2009.

In 1993, after his release from prison, Nelson Mandela, along with FW de Kierk, the then President of South Africa were both awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their work in the peaceful termination of the apartheid regime, and for laying the foundations for a new democratic South Africa.

When Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990, there were serious worries about civil war and unrest. He and FW De Kierk’s government began negotiations. They ended in 1994 with the first multiracial general election, and Nelson Mandela becoming president.

How did Apartheid come about?

As far back as 1946, the government of India requested the UN General Assembly to include an agenda about the treatment of Indians in South Africa. Like Africans, they were also discriminated against under the country’s political system which favoured whites.

Nelson Mandela studied as a lawyer in Johannesburg and in 1944 joined the ANC (African National Congress). They wanted black South Africans to have the same human rights as the white population.  Things worsened in 1948 when the government created apartheid laws to keep black and white people apart.  You could no longer marry; not share a table at a restaurant; sit together on the bus and were forced to go to different schools.

Nelson Mandela formed the first South African Black law firm with his friend, Oliver Tambo, which in its existence was an act of defiance against the new laws. 

He travelled to many other countries to gain support, for the ANC’s stance against discrimination, but on his return in 1962, was arrested for plotting to overthrow the government.

He was imprisoned in 1962 for attempting to overthrow the South African apartheid rule.  At that time, black people were the poorest members of the population, working as servants, in factories or on farms. In 1964 he was sentenced to life imprisonment.

Holidaying in South Africa as a mixed-race couple

In 2004, we holidayed in South Africa, along with a white South African friend who had been born there, in Zulu Natal.

This was only 10 years after Nelson Mandela’s release from prison.  

On many occasions during our visit, we could help but remind ourselves that ten years earlier apartheid laws would have meant restrictions in terms of travelling together as a married couple, eating together or staying in the same hotel.  It was a shocking idea, because ten years is a very short time. In fact the same length of time we had been together, and we had never had to consider any restrictions in the UK.

There were still many reminders of apartheid when travelling around.  Our friend would point out places where only white people had been able to go, or where black people were not allowed to enter. 

Our experience was interesting, mainly in people’s response to seeing us together.  On visiting our friend’s town, it was noticeable that the people who are locally referred to as Cape Coloured, tended to stare at us quite a lot. We didn’t see that many other mixed-race couples either.

When we went on a short safari, the black ‘spotter’ was fascinated about us, and spent a lot of time chatting to us both. Where we stayed, all of the people serving us were black, and my husband was the only black guest.

Robben Island

We visited Robben Island, now a tourist ‘attraction’ to see where Nelson Mandela had been imprisoned.

The person showing us around had been a prisoner himself, and was a former ANC member. He told us several of them had chosen to stay on the island and now work as guides to the visiting tourist groups.

It was an incredibly moving experience, mainly seeing the vast difference in the way the Bantu (Black prisoners) were treated compared to white, Coloureds and Asiatic (non-white, but not Black) prisoners.

There was a sign saying how much food the prisoners were allowed. After the Red Cross intervention, the weekly diet was:

Mealie(corn) porridge, Mealie rice, soup, fat, meat, (6 oz for Coloured and Asiatic, 5 oz for Bantu), sugar and coffee. Coloured and Asiatics were allowed jam/syrup and bread, but not the Bantu.  White prisoners were allowed a larger diet than both of these groups.

Nelson Mandela spent 18 years in the prison where he was forced to do hard labour, and they had to wear the same outfits in both winter and summer. Winter months are cold, particularly at night time.

Visiting French Nuns

 We were taken, (by friends), to meet some nuns who had lived and worked in South Africa for years, even during apartheid. During that time, as they were all white, they had not been able to live with their ‘flock’.  Now, they lived in one of the ‘coloured’ townships.

They were over-joyed when they found out we were married. They hugged and kissed us and were so happy. 

Our visit to south Africa was a wonderful experience, and the term ‘God’s country’ is well suited. It is the most beautiful place, although in places not as safe as it might be, which is sad after all of the struggle to gain freedom from apartheid. 

Train Journey

We could not have travelled together, 

Sitting side by side,

Watching the beautiful countryside sail by;

My love’s eyes could not have met mine,

To do so would have been considered a crime.

No possibility of us able to eat at the same table, 

Never mind share the same room;

We could not have danced, our bodies closely pressed, 

Moving to the rhythms of music and love

Without warranting arrest.

We could not have travelled together, 

Sitting side by side,

Listening to the rhythmic clickety-clack of the track,

Forever moving forward, only sorrow looking back;

Gazing at leaping antelopes in the passing land,

Skins of different hues, hand holding hand,

Our fingers visibly intertwined for all to see; 

During Apartheid 

We would never have been allowed to be, 

Living as a couple, this free.

                                    ©Lis McDermott 2020

 “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” 
Nelson Mandela