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South Africa: Pressing for Black Liberation
Whenever I think of South Africa, I think of my father who hated apartheid and was one of the most intelligent and well-read people I have ever known. His library contained the works of Baraka, Lenin, Marx and Stalin. He was reliable on the street because he could run the numbers with the best of them, he smoked a pack of menthol cigarettes every day, and attracted women like he was plucking apples from a tree. He talked to everyone about what was happening in South Africa on the street or in the classroom. His intelligence was unmatched, and he could argue for hours on any topic without making you feel like an idiot even though you knew you had no business trying to challenge him intelligently.
In our family, we often call our fathers and uncles “Atate” which is a Swahili word that shows our parental relationship with them and a word of respect. I still remember Baba’s red, black and green hat that said “Free Mandela” and how he used the word “Amandla”. Sometimes I laughed at him for my youthful arrogance and asked him why his new “soap” story should catch my attention. And with sadness in his voice, he tells me that until Nelson Mandela is released the world will not look good for him. For some reason, I understood that this was not one of his regular arguments. This human desire to see Nelson Mandela free represents something deep and painful. It seemed painful to him to discuss with the same zeal and passion with which he criticized money, politics and religion. He wanted to go to South Africa to fight alongside people he considered his brothers and sisters in the movement for human rights. He told me about repressive Bantu education, and the violent riots of students who refused to continue being taught to submit.
Recently, I was able to study abroad in South Africa as part of a doctoral program focusing on educational policy. We went there to learn about education, and the country’s efforts to repair the damage that years of pressure had caused to their educational institutions. Our biggest challenge as students was trying to imagine what this meant for the millions of South Africans who wanted to pursue higher education. We used to talk about colonialism, colonial rule and apartheid that was happening during the apartheid regime.
Our South African study abroad experience gave us a glimpse of what it must mean to work within a system that has denied all students access to a quality education. We joined courses at the University of Pretoria, University of Witwatersrand, and Tshwane North College for FET. In these meetings there were administrators, professors and students. Each of these individuals provided us with a lens through which to view the evolution of higher education in South Africa in the post-apartheid system. I saw the impact that apartheid had on the culture of black South Africans. The tension that existed as part of apartheid was evident even though the apartheid system had ended a decade earlier.
When I took pictures of little children in Soweto who were begging Randi (South African money), I felt very sorry for the bridge that many teachers were trying to build for people who were once poor in their country. I wondered aloud how these teachers would be able to achieve their goal of inclusion in schools that historically belonged to the four ethnic groups of South Africa: White, Indian, Black and Black. I didn’t understand their ethnic groups, their monuments to the Dutch colonialists (Voortrekkers), or how and why whites maintained control of most of the country’s businesses and settlements.
I have arrived at Nelson Mandela’s old house which is located in Soweto which is next to the Hector Pieterson Museum. Mandela’s old house has become a museum where one can walk through the house of the man who was imprisoned for 27 years on Robbin Island. In the Mandela Family Museum, the tour guide took us into the kitchen and told us how, during their time there, the Mandelas (both Nelson and Winnie) often kept a lock on the fridge because they were told where their food was. they would have been poisoned. The tour guide took us to the small house and explained that Mandela tried to return to this house after he was released from prison but he was only able to stay there for eleven days because journalists from all over the world camped outside the house.
Later that day, I went to the Hector Pieterson Museum. I saw pictures of students (many of them children) who protested during the student riots in Soweto, some of whom lost their lives when the police shot them. The Hector Pieterson museum is surrounded by vendors who tell their stories through their actions and words. Some are relatives of the deceased children, and they will tell you who they were and how their relatives were. These relatives wanted to see if we appreciated what happened at this remarkable place where Hector Pieterson and many others gave their lives in the name of freedom. Hecter Pieterson is the dead 12-year-old student pictured in the now-famous photo of two children in school uniform carrying his bloodied body after police shot him. During the riots the students of Soweto chanted “Amandla” which means power to show their solidarity with the imprisoned Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress.
A few days into my trip we visited a place called God’s window In Mpumalamanga I was struck by the beauty and hope that still exists in a place ruled by fear, hatred and pain for many years. When I stood on God’s screen, I didn’t pay much attention to the behavior of the European countries that ruled the third world countries. Instead, I thought about my father and remembered his strength and spirit.
I was eighteen years old when Paul Nakawa Sanders died in August 1988. Amiri Baraka praised my father in his book, titled Eulogies and noted that Nakawa had shifted from Black Nationalism in the 1960s to a greater understanding of the importance of national or international affairs in his later years. My father never lived to see the man he admired, who was unjustly imprisoned for twenty-seven years, become President Nelson Mandela. His “Abolish Apartheid” t-shirts were faded and torn by the time apartheid was abolished. But I saw all these things. I stood on top of the mountain at the Window of God and saw that the beauty of South Africa is still there. It stands in all its glory as a symbol of all that can happen when people—citizens, some children, some adults, some former rebels, and even their skeptical daughters—believe enough to ignore those who would oppress them and move on with their lives. the pursuit of Black freedom.
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