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.
(Africa—may it return!)