Josna Rege

235. December 5th, 2013

In 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, 2010s, history, Inter/Transnational, Music, people, Politics, Stories on December 6, 2013 at 4:38 pm


December 5th, 2013: Nelson Mandela has died, at the age of ninety-five.

Nelson Mandela is dead. The news was to be expected, of course, at his age and after his long illness, but it was nonetheless so hard to grasp and accept the loss of this beloved statesman, harder still to let him go. In the outpouring of grief and praise for one whose life, work, and example changed and inspired the whole world, comes a rush of personal memories that might not have been made at all, and that certainly would not have been the same, had it not been for this one remarkable man.

The very first bumper sticker that Andrew made, years before we even started Whetstone Press, was in solidarity with the South African people’s struggle against apartheid, in memory of the Soweto Uprising the year before, when police had shot an estimated 200 schoolchildren among the thousands protesting for a better education. It read, Remember Soweto—June 16, 1976, and was a linoleum cut that he carved himself and printed in black ink on orange pressure-sensitive paper. It was never sold, just given away to whoever would display it on their car. We supported and identified with all the anti-colonial national liberation struggles in Africa, in Angola and Mozambique and in Rhodesia (not yet Zimbabwe), but none more so than in apartheid South Africa.

I don’t quite know why I have always felt such a personal connection with South Africa, never having been there and not having any family or close friends based there. And yet somehow its political struggles, people, and history and culture, particularly its literature, have become as dear to my heart as if I were actually from there. Perhaps it is because the country’s history and make-up is a mirror of my own, in its internal diversity, in its populations of both English and Indian heritage, in being the place where Mahatma Gandhi first developed his theory and tactic of non-violent civil disobedience, in continuing to grapple with problems of inequality, social stratification, and traumatic collective memory, in having given birth to some of the greatest writers of our time, foremost among them the novelist Nadine Gordimer, who was one of the first people Nelson Mandela asked to see in January 1990 after his release from prison.  I credit my love of South African literature and culture to my graduate-school professors Ketu Katrak and Stephen Clingman, who also introduced me to the works of Bessie Head, Alex La Guma, Peter Abrahams, Sipho Sepamla, Njabulo Ndebele, Mongane Serote, and Miriam Tlali, whom I had the opportunity to meet. Also thanks to Stephen Clingman, we had the thrill of attending the first U.S. lecture given by Gordimer after the announcement of her Nobel Prize in Literature in 1991, the year after Nelson Mandela’s release from prison. She spoke then, as her country was moving toward the dismantling of apartheid, not as an individual, but as a representative of the African National Congress (ANC), of which she was a staunch supporter.

Later, after the fall of apartheid and the birth of the New South Africa, I was to discover and teach the work of still more South African writers: Olive Schreiner, Athol Fugard, Ellen Kuzwayo, Sindiwa Magone, Dennis Brutus, who donated his papers to the university where I now teach, and J. M. Coetzee, whom I had the honor of introducing when he visited the college where I was teaching at the time.

But throughout the clampdown of the bleak 1980s and the State of Emergency in the second half of the decade, the popular resistance continued to grow, not only at home, where thousands of people were incarcerated, tortured, and killed, but throughout the world, where opponents of apartheid pressured their governments to impose sanctions on the South African regime. On February 11, 1990, following long behind-the-scenes negotiations, the regime was finally forced to announce ANC leader Nelson Mandela’s unconditional release from prison after 27 years, and the whole world rejoiced.

Living then in the small rural-Massachusetts town of Winchendon, we too rejoiced. As members of the a cappella Noonday Singers, we had been singing South African freedom songs throughout the period of the State of Emergency: “Senzenina, Shosholoza, We Shall Not Give Up the Fight, Siyahamba, Freedom is Coming. We had sung them in churches, at political demonstrations, conferences, fundraising events, even in a prison. But oh, what a feeling, when Nelson Mandela won his freedom at last, to be able to retire Bamthatha (He’s Locked Up): there was no further need for it!

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the global music of the African diaspora had also provided the anthems of freedom that fuelled and sustained a spirit of joyful resistance, not merely fighting against oppression, but fighting for a vision of freedom and justice for all. There was the Jamaican-born Reggae music of Bob Marley and the Wailers (Get Up, Stand Up, War, Zimbabwe), Peter Tosh (Equal Rights, Fight On, Rumors of War), Third World, Burning Spear, and many others; and in Britain, the anti-racist 2 Tone ska bands such as The Beat, The Selecter, and The Specials. In 1984, after the band had officially disbanded, The Special AKA released Nelson Mandela: another song that we no longer had to sing after February 11th, 1990 (except in celebration, as in this 90th birthday concert in London’s Hyde Park).

Just four months after his release, in June 1990, Nelson Mandela came to Boston, accompanied by his wife Winnie, and spoke at a joyful celebration on the Esplanade, where the Noonday Singers were invited to join the Amandla Chorus as one of the groups welcoming him in song. Watching the video on Youtube alone last night, with the news of his death flooding the airwaves, my tears joined those of millions in South Africa and around the world. That red-letter day had also happened to be my birthday, something I had completely forgotten until I noticed the date on one of the banners.

On the eve of the election of April 27th, 1994, South Africa’s first democratic election, the Noonday Singers helped to mark that hope-filled moment in history with a concert in which we opened for and were joined in song by the legendary civil-rights-era folksinger Odetta. The moment was both joyful and solemn, in view of all the sacrifice and loss that had led to this day, the countless lives ruined in prison, the incarceration and killing of activists like Stephen Biko, and most recently, the assassination of Chris Hani, who had come to my university while I was a graduate student, and whom, with many others, I had joined in singing Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrica, the anthem of the African National Congress during the apartheid era and now part of the new, hybrid anthem of the Republic of South Africa.

Hearing the news crackling over the radio on my drive home from work yesterday evening, at first it failed to register. It had been pending for many months, and now it had come at last; I continued to drive, my mind tuning the words out. A message came in on my cell phone, but there wasn’t enough reception on that lonely stretch of road to listen to it. As soon as I got into cell phone contact again I went to my voicemail. It was Andrew:

—Hi Jo, I just heard on the news that . . . Nelson Mandela has died.
I thought I’d just let you know.

His voice faltered as he signed off; and then the memories began flooding in, starting with Andrew lovingly carving that block of linoleum all those years ago, when Nelson Mandela was only halfway through those 27 years in prison and already the same age as I am now.

Throughout his long struggle, this man, Nelson Mandela, had kept the faith, held his vision clearly in his mind’s eye, steadfastly held on to his own humanity, and affirmed the humanity of others. The victory was not his, he always maintained, but that of the South African people who had given their lives for it, and of the people the world over who had stood in solidarity with them. But the failures to achieve the vision, as millions of black South Africans remained in poverty, he claimed responsibility for those, and he continued to struggle to achieve them as long as he lived.

May we continue to hold fast to his vision, his humanity, and our own. May his example live on in our troubled world and in his beloved country.

Mayibuye iAfrika!
(Africa—may it return!)

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

  1. Thanks again Josna, for sharing your feelings on what Mandela meant to you. Frankly my own response to the announcement was not one of sadness, I had reconciled myself to his loss quite a while ago, but I felt more a sense of gratitude that he was finally relieved of the incredible burden he carried most of his life.A burden he took upon himself of expectations and responsibility for his own people, then the people of Africa and developing nations who look to him as one of the few modern sincere,moral and enlightened leaders of the age.

    I had the great privilege of meeting Mr Mandela personally at the ANC office in Johannesburg in September 1994 about 6 months after he became President.The meeting was a follow up after his personal visit to Indonesia where he had expressed interest in developing trade with Asian markets.The overwhelming impression of the meeting was the humility and personal charm of Mr Mandela who put us at ease immediately. I had requested him to please sign a photograph of my children as a souvenir.He responded that he prefers to personalize his autographs and asked for the names of my children and signed his own picture for them individually. The other two people with me also made the same request for their children and he did the same for them cheerfully. We opened a representative office in Johannesburg but did not really accomplish our objectives. The bureaucracy which the inherited from the previous regime resisted all initiatives that we proposed and the project made only marginal progress.

    While I was there many people were saying that they needed Mandela to stay for at least 10 years but he gave them 20 more. I was saddened how much time he had to give because all projects needed his personal support, the media people were constantly after him, and every leader and celebrity wanted to get their photo op with him.. In spite of his age and infirmity he tried to meet the demands and I used to get upset because he had given enough and should have been allowed to get some time for himself.
    My prayer for him is that he is received in his new abode with the salutation As Salaam Alai Kum Nelson Mandela. Peace be upon you Nelson Mandela

    • Echoing your prayer, Asghar, and thanking you for your gentle admonition that we not wish for more than this man has already given, many times over. It was time, high time, for him to lay his burden down. He knew the unique position into which the times has thrust him, and he strove to fulfill it until the end. Even as he was dying back in June, it seemed that the country and the world needed him to stay a little bit longer; and he did.
      What a privilege and a pleasure for you to be able to be a part of the new South Africa’s recovery program, and to meet President Mandela in that capacity! Yours are some lucky children indeed to have a personalized autographed photograph from him–as story for you to tell their grandchildren, too, Grandfather!
      Thank you, as always, for your comment. I already feel less sadness and more gratitude, but perhaps also a greater weight, a reminder that we all need to shoulder part of the responsibility that he and others like him carried, and not leave it to the leaders and the statesmen.

  2. Josna, This is a wonderful review of Mandela’s significance in your life. I didn’t know that you had never been to SA. I hope that you get the chance. I was so fortunate to be able to spend 3 weeks there doing research & attending a conference. Stephen arranged for me to stay with his mother which provided me with a look into everyday life. My visit to Mandela’s home in Soweto, just to stand outside, was moving. I also feel lucky to have studied not only with Stephen, Ketu, and Radha, but also with you and our small group of post colonial scholars. Mandela’s death reminds me of all of you and the strong sense I felt we shared that bringing SA and other PC literature to students was an important mission.

    • Thank you for your comment, Maureen, and forgive my delay in responding (for some unaccountable reason it was put in the spam folder). I hadn’t quite remembered that you’d been to South Africa–for three weeks! Was that while you were doing research on Bessie Head? Yes, some day I hope that I will manage to make a pilgrimage there. I too treasure our cohort and the sense of purpose that we felt. All these years later, I dare bet we still do. Happy end-of-semester and grading… x J

  3. Beautiful post Josna. Some of the events you refer to bring back many memories, very painful and and yet also joyous. Thank you for this tribute. He was everything you describe and we shall miss him immensely, but his legacy stands and always will.

    • Thank you, Don. It means a lot to me to hear from a South African like you, who has lived through this era and been committed to your country’s social transformation. Just as people the world over supported your people’s struggle against apartheid, so people the world over have a stake in your ongoing progress toward realizing the promise of your constitution. Take care and be well.

  4. Josna, THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU! I cannot convey what this reflection brought to me, from the bumper sticker to our singing!

    I too wonder about the intensity of my feeling of connection with Nelson Mandela, and South Africa…and I have NOTHING of the history you do. Yet most recently (a few years ago now) I was in Johannesburg when visiting Silas before his deportation from Zimbabwe. I was so aware of the momentous events of the last 20+ years as I roamed those streets. Madiba was there as were the forces that would sabotage everything he stands for…more than a disconcerting experience. Yet, to be with Silas’s friends there was more than enough to balance that out. Take care.

    • Dear Bill, I meant to send this to you and the others this as I had written it, but hadn’t got round to it yet. Thank you so much for your heartfelt response. I will always be grateful for the Noonday Singers through those years in Winchendon when our children were little. You, Lisa, and the rest of our friends have played such an important part in both my life and Nikhil’s. You are too modest when you say that you have nothing of the history with South Africa, when not only did you share in the singing and much more through the projects of Noonday Farm, but you have consistently worked to uphold that vision in all the work you have been doing since. And Silas has continued that work into the next generation. I had forgotten that, of course, you were actually in Johannesburg, and at such a difficult time. Thank goodness for the visionaries of a new generation, who, as you say, counterbalance efforts to roll back all the hard-won progress and remind us that the struggle continues. “We have only started!” Much love, J

  5. I too felt a sigh of relief that he could finally rest. Your piece was very moving. I don’t have memories of personal marches or anything against apartheid. I do remember in the 1970s when I worked at the Institute of the Black World in Atlanta and several South Africans came through to talk to the staff about their struggle and it struck me how similar their struggle and ours was.

    • I agree that the struggle for racial equality and civil rights here in the U.S. has been very similar to the struggle in S.A.. Jim Crow was apartheid by another name. And now, too, the struggles are comparable as the racialized gulf between rich and poor continues to grow wider. I think that similarity is why Nelson Mandela and the South African people’s struggle struck such a chord here. Ignorant question, but does the Institute of the Black World still exist? I will have to look it up.

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