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“Freedom”, “Reconciliation”, “Viva!”, “Comrade”, “Robben Island”…

10 December 2013

Carl Söderbergh, MRG’s Director of Policy and Communications, who was in South Africa when Nelson Mandela passed away last week, reflects on the tremendous changes in the country under the inspirational leader, and the challenges the nation continues to face in order to achieve equality for all.

On Friday morning, Guess, one of the participants at a workshop in Pretoria, asked the others to say words or phrases which they associated with Nelson Mandela. An hour or so before, we heard that Mandela had passed away. Many of us joined staff at the hotel where we were staying, as they gathered in front of the television sets scattered around the dining room and lobby.

The workshop was on strategies to increase the inclusion of marginalised groups. It had been arranged by International IDEA, the Stockholm-based democracy and electoral assistance organisation. Participants had come from the various southern African countries. Guess was meant to sum up the preceding day’s activities, and Amanda, our facilitator, had asked him to begin by allowing some time for the participants to absorb the day’s news.

The workshop had ranged widely, covering topics such as UN advocacy, drama, photography and film. As always, informal conversations were as thought-provoking and meaningful as the structured sessions. The seriousness of the situation facing the participants was brought home to me when I sat with a lesbian activist in the garden during one of the coffee breaks, and she described how she had been a victim of so-called “corrective rape” when she had been a teen-ager.  The conversation stayed with me, as I reflected on the participant’s courage as she had gone on to dedicate her life to campaigning for LGBT rights.

IMG-20131206-00011After the workshop ended on Friday afternoon, I decided to walk down to the Union Buildings, seat of the South African parliament. I did not know what I would find there, but I was hoping that I could pay my respects and mark Mandela’s passing in some way. The last time I had visited the Union Buildings had been under very different circumstances in 1986, when the country was under a state of emergency. I was in South Africa on a grant from my law school and working with Navi Pillay at her law firm in Durban. Navi has of course since gone on to become the current UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

As I walked, a jumble of memories from that time came back to me. The political geography of apartheid dominated my recollections. Visiting African townships to follow up child detention cases involved negotiating often rude and aggressive white security personnel. One sensed that behind those police barricades, violent police crack-downs were taking place with little outside monitoring and no accountability. And in Cape Town that summer, tens of thousands were left homeless in and around Crossroads squatters’ camp, as the notorious witdoeke gangs attacked residents. The witdoeke were actively supported by the police and got their name from the strips of white cloth worn around their arms and necks.

As I approached the Union Buildings, a man passed me, draped in the South African flag. He said how proud he felt today to be South African. Meanwhile, another memory came back to me. I recalled how every day, while staying with Navi and her family, I experienced the pettiness of segregation. Coming back after work, there were separate bus stops for Africans, Asians and whites. Since my hosts lived in an area designated for those of South Asian descent, I would wait at the Asian bus stop; this attracted suspicious stares from whites at theirs and puzzled glances from the people around me. Invariably, the buses for the whites were more comfortable and came regularly, whereas those designated for African and Asian passengers were shabbier, overcrowded and came less often. For me, as a visiting Swedish national, it was all just a temporary inconvenience. But for those who had to wait daily for their transport home, it was one further aspect of the humiliating system of inequalities put into place by the Group Areas Act and the other building blocks of apartheid.

All this feels so very long ago. It was unimagineable that Mandela would be released less than four years later. At the time apartheid felt like an immoveable weight pressing down on the country. But change, when it came, happened very quickly.

By now, I had walked through a park, climbed several flights of stairs and arrived at the entrance to the Union Buildings. A small crowd had gathered. People were leaving flowers and lighting candles; some children were pasting drawings of Mandela on the walls. Condolence books had been laid open on tables, and a queue had formed. I joined the line, noting the mixture of ages and ethnic backgrounds. The man in front of me was draped in the black, green and yellow African National Congress colours.  Another standing behind me wore a Robben Island souvenir T-shirt.

IMG-20131206-00014The atmosphere was subdued rather than sad. Some children danced in a ring while they waited for their parents to sign the condolence book. Teenagers sat on the steps, chatting, taking photos and texting with their smart phones. I reflected on the fact that this scene, one of black and white South Africans coming together on the steps of the Union Buildings, would have been unthinkable when I had stood on the same spot 27 years ago. And for them to gather in order to pay their respects to the memory of Mandela would have been equally unimaginable.

During these past days, while international media have rightly recorded Mandela’s remarkable achievements, commentators have pointed out that much remains to be done in South Africa, not least in order to address profound economic and social inequalities. And the participants at the workshop I attended would add that the discrimination of marginalised groups, including LGBT persons, remains severe. But the simple fact that black children can dance on the steps of the Parliament shows how far the country has come in a very short space of time, very much due to the messages of forgiveness and reconciliation that Mandela conveyed after he was released from prison and during his presidency.

After having signed the condolence book myself and as I headed out to the airport, the image of the children dancing in a circle stayed with me, supplanting those memories from 1986.

This article reflects the opinion of its author only and does not engage MRG’s responsibility.