Talkin’ about a Revolution


South Africa was part of my everyday life in university. I have never been to South Africa. I have never met Mr. Mandela. And yet for much of my university career South Africa loomed large. And now, I find myself looking back, as many are doing, and thinking about what Mr. Mandela meant to the world and to them personally. Some, like a few US politicians and commentators with no understanding of history or substance, want to use him to proselytize their immediate goals (don’t get me started). Some, including politicians I find fairly distasteful and dictatorial, are suddenly talking about the great son of humanity while their people and freedoms continue to suffer.

I have never met Mr. Mandela. Yet, I am sad he is not part of this world. I am incredibly glad that he was part of this world. I have no need to expound on what he did, or what he didn’t do, just do a Google search (oh and Google, I suggest a Google doodle for Mandela this coming Saturday). I can only tell you what the idea of Mr. Mandela meant to me. I can only tell you this in the context of our amazing modern world’s ability to create a certain mass hysteria around a specific person, event, topic.

South Africa fascinated and continues to fascinate me. A country ruled as a colony even after the colonial masters left. A country that evolved to create a system which controlled a racial majority using a complex system of pass laws and skin-colour-based subjugation to fuel economic might. A completely anachronistic system that seemed to be “supported” by so many countries and so many politicians and yet reviled by anyone with any sense if it were applied to them, their people or their cultures.

Apartheid led me to study and earn my Masters in South African History under my mentor Dr. Christopher Youe. In that period, I learned about Mr. Mandela, the Sharpeville massacre, the accidents that lead to revolution, to grass-roots uprisings and the eventual usual end of most of these struggles. When I entered university, Mr. Mandela had just achieved freedom. When I started my studies on South Africa, Mr. Mandela had achieved what had been thought impossible. He had just became the leader of a South Africa that had previously imprisoned him. By the time I had left university, he had turned down what seemed like immense power as a leader and suddenly found himself wielding even greater power around the world.

And my fascination with South Africa wasn’t that Apartheid ended. Do not get me wrong. Wherever there is true systematic intolerant subjugation of a people in this world, they will rise. People will revolt, violently. Their masters will always pay the price of discrimination and dictatorship. If you deny people access to economic fundamentals and force them to live a life not worth living, understand that you will one day be looking at the situation from the opposite end.

Nay, my fascination was with how it ended. Throughout history the most common result of the rising of a disaffected majority against a controlling minority leads in the short term to an amazing amount of violence as the new world order is founded and put into practice. Even India under the guidance of Gandhi could not achieve his fervent dream of a unified India and Pakistan. South Africa, due to the brutality that they experienced, and the amazing amount of mistrust on both sides, was meant to go down a path of civil war.

Mr. Mandela forestalled that. It is personally hard for me to place so much on any one person’s shoulders. Individuals lead, but at the end of the day, great leaders have amazing teams behind them. It is therefore even more fascinating to me that Mr. Mandela managed to take an amazing amount hatred and spin it into peace on his individual shoulders. I do not know who in my living memory, as a world leader, has done that. This is the man, who, with gentle dignity, took to the stage for his coming out party on the grounds of the country whose leader had been the lone hold out on sanctions against Apartheid in the Commonwealth.

South Africa is not free just yet. Many more generations will be needed to undo centuries of inequality. And Mr. Mandela knew that. I hope I can learn a tiny bit of the peace with which he brought peace.

To that end, I also fully realize that in a very small way, had Mr. Mandela not walked out of prison with a fist afloat, I would never have studied what I did and who knows how much of my life would be different now. So thank you Mr. Mandela, you inspired me and I know that the idea of you will inspire me for my entire life.

This isn’t about Mandela, it was performed in 1988 by Tracy Chapman while Mandela was still in prison.

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12 thoughts on “Talkin’ about a Revolution

  1. Apartheid was a major focus during my years in University as well. It was a major achievement for the student body when my school, TCU, finally gave into social pressure and divested. Nelson Mandela was and always will be an important part of my life. My opinions on discrimination never have stopped at race, religion or gender. They also include, occupation, level of education, generation, economic level and status level.

    When I read an article that says Millennials need to learn more manners at work, I think two things. One, I know a lot of people in other generations who need to learn manners at work and two if the word millennial was replaced for any race, religion or gender the article would never be printed.

    I hope that with the loss of Nelson Mandela, we understand, even more deeply, that it is our job as individuals to stand up to all forms of discrimination and tyranny. Any action that is meant to make another person feel small based on who they are (not their actions or their choices but on who they are) is an act of cruelty and must not be tolerated.

    It’s completely on our shoulders every day we wake up and choose to be a part of the world around us.

    • Mary-Margaret, thanks for the comments, I find it fascinating how we absolutely want to categorize, discriminate, label and otherwise carve everyone we see. It’s something we do without thinking. “Oh he’s wealthy, he runs a company”, “Oh she doesn’t have authority, she’s just a secretary”, “He’s not very smart, he collects the trash”. Our perceptions of what is important, what is intelligence, what is happiness drive this need to categorize, otherize and then discriminate. One of the stories that I loved hearing about Mr. Mandela was that he would get visiting dignitaries to shake the hand of the person who brought in the tea and chat with her. You cannot know who someone is until you talk to them, until you see them in the eye and ask them why they are who they are. I often get angry at corporations but then realize (especially now being on the other side) that I actually have no idea why people make the decisions they do, I suppose, I supposition and I judge without actually taking the time to find out.

      If one thing that Mr. Mandela can teach us (and while he was better than most, I am sure he would admit, and has admitted he was no saint): Do not look at others and hate, instead talk, understand and have empathy. Find out why the person who pesters you on the street is homeless, don’t assume s/he is a bum on welfare etc. It’s much harder unfortunately than it sounds.

  2. Dups, I find it fascinating to learn you attained a Master’s degree in S. African history. It makes the journey from academic world to the entrepreneurial/tech world all the most interesting.

    Nelson Mandela is among a handful of people whom, many decades from now, people will proudly say they lived in his lifetime. Often I think people do great things but aren’t recognized at the time of their actions. Fortunately, I believe the world appreciates the impact his life has had on the present, and will continue to have on the future.

    • Terri! You are very much correct, in todays global world, I am very happy we celebrate a life worth celebrating. To those who think this is now overblown, oversaturated, I would rather this than 24 hour news on a sporting event in a country known for human rights violations (Olympics in Russia) or hours on end about a crack-smoking mayor of Toronto.

  3. Excellent post, Dups. I think you are right that Mandela was extraordinarily remarkable for the way he was able to not only end Apartheid, but bring about reconciliation. In most countries where there has been oppression, once the oppressed gain power they seek retribution and the cycle continues.

    One thing I would disagree with is…

    >>Wherever there is true systematic intolerant subjugation of a people in this world, they will rise. People will revolt, violently. Their masters will always pay the price of discrimination and dictatorship

    We continue to see oppression and lack of freedom in countries like North Korea, Cuba, Iran, China and more. Revolution and freedom is not guaranteed, so let’s make sure we give Mandela due praise for the accomplishment of ending Apartheid as well.

    • Thanks so much for reading Paul! Actually we don’t disagree that much Paul, the timing of revolution and freedom is not guaranteed, but the outcome given all things equal is that some redressing will happen, just like, unfortunately, our democratic countries will see more suppression and liberation over time. I fundamentally believe in economic forces and our need for economic security driving such change, both good and bad. I absolutely give Mr. Mandela full praise, as well as Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo, Steven Biko and so many others as well as FW De Klerk and those who came to the table with Mr. Mandela. There are very few true giants that humanity can call beacons of light in a sea of darkness, Mr. Mandela was undoubtedly one.

  4. I forgot to say Thanks at the end Dups and I mean it. I like this discussion….. you talk about giants but they were all around me growing up. My parents moved into an older neighborhood in Fort Worth on the GI Bill – buying a house much nicer than they could have afforded under normal circumstances – but it wasn’t a scheme like the recent loan debacles. They paid if off years and years ago. My neighbors were old enough to be my grandparents, many of them very wealthy from cattle and oil living in a very nice middle class neighborhood. They loved to take me to their Churches in the summer and for Vacation Bible School. My neighbors were mostly white, christian and only varied in flavors of Christianity. I was Catholic. But in the middle of the Bible Belt they exemplified true Christianity, love for their neighbors, charity and philanthropy. At Halloween when kids from less fortunate neighborhoods came to our neighborhood to trick or treat because my neighbors had nice treats and our streets were safe they were adored and squealed over with the fondness you would expect from any adult wanting to please a child. In return, their parents were thankful for the warm reception. The eyes that met across the heads of the children didn’t care about socio-economic status. They cared about a safe and fun halloween. It was just Halloween. But as I lost my neighbors and new families moved in the kids were no longer welcome. Somehow they were taking something that didn’t belong to them. My Dad and a beautiful young woman, Ben Ann, at the end of our block created a neighborhood association and the neighborhood turned over again and with it the culture changed back. My Dad and Ben Ann are gone now but the neighborhood association is still strong and their values are intact.

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