The passing of Nelson Mandela refreshes the spiritual bond I’ve had with South Africa for 25 years. I’ve seen it during and after apartheid. In my home hangs a painting of jacaranda trees in full purple boom. It was a gift from a South African painter and reminds me so much of the beautiful Johannesburg neighborhood where Mandela last lived.
I fell in love with the land and the literature and teach it in senior English classes. Slides 1, 2, 3: A family in a covered wagon, a wagon train on the prairie, wagons circled around a campfire. “Where is this?” I ask. “Nebraska? Iowa?” students reply. Slide 4: Africans working the land. “Oh, the South!” they guess. Slide 5: Gold mines. “California!” I was looking for those answers, but I’d respond, “No. You recognize the story; it’s like ours, but the setting is far away, and the ending is unpredictable.”
The first time I visited South Africa in the eighties, I had to get a second passport. No country would let me re-enter if I had a stamp from this pariah nation. I found that sad. South Africa offers as much nature and beauty as the US, but the ugly side, the indigenous population hidden away in homelands (reminiscent of our 19th century reservations), made the world turn its back on Africa’s southernmost country. Once Mandela was released, the country reopened for business, and I highly recommend at least once visit.
Cape Town reminds me of San Francisco with its cool West Coast climate. It’s a sophisticated city surrounded by mountains and vineyards. You can drive south to Cape Point to the tip of Africa where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans crash into each other, creating a huge geyser-like spray. On the way, you can see penguins.
Off shore you can visit the prison island, like Alcatraz, where Nelson Mandela spent many of his 27 years in detention and befriended the jailer who spoke at his memorial service last week.
Durban today is a sunny beach vacation center. With its flowers and red-tiled roofs, it looks a lot like San Diego. Here is a large population of Indians, whose shops will mix you any concoction (mesala) of exotic spices. As a young lawyer, Gandhi tried to set up a practice in Durban, but was treated as a second-class citizen. Instead he began his passive resistance movement to expose the inhumanity of apartheid’s pass system.
South Africa also has a grand canyon and beautiful mountain ranges to hike, as well as Kruger Park and Sun City for safaris. It’s is an amazing country.
But the best part of the story is when Mandela brought closure to the inhumane past with reconciliation. Yes, the transition raised issues—but not war.
In 1990 my husband went to Namibia to help organize a meeting between Mandela and Secretary of State James Baker. Mandela was out of prison for only one month, and he was already a statesman, recognized by his countrymen, black and white, and by the world. South African diplomats experienced a huge shake-up in their Foreign Ministry. One year Blacks were invisible, the next they were ambassadors. But the white diplomats I knew graciously welcomed the change. How does that happen? It’s The Power of One.
This is why I teach South Africa’s stories in my classroom. They provide a model of the healing power of forgiveness that we all should see.