African Postman: The Mandela Connection and our Children

Good things happened around the world last week in the name of Mr. Nelson Mandela, former President of the Republic of South Africa, who reached his 94th birthday on July 18, 2012. Born in Mvezo in the Transkei region, his Xhosa given name was Rolihlahla, meaning “stirring up trouble.” Very appropriate. His English teacher named him Nelson (I wonder why), and he was afterwards known by several names: Madiba, his clan name, which is quite an honorific one; Tata, meaning “father,” an affectionate name used by many South Africans; Khulu, or “Great One,” which is also a shortened version of the Xhosa word for “grandfather”; and Dalibhunga, a name given to Xhosa youth after their initiation into manhood at age sixteen,which actually means “creator or founder of the council” or “convenor of the dialogue.” Some mighty names, befitting his stature. But his grandchildren probably just call him “Grandpa.”

Nelson Mandela
Nelson Mandela in tribal dress

There are a couple of reasons why Mr. Mandela really moves my heart and mind in a personal way. When I was a student at Oxford University, the apartheid system in South Africa was in full sway. Mr. Mandela had already been in prison for more than ten years on Robben Island, and was to serve many more years. The anti-apartheid movement in the UK, the United States and many other countries was getting up some steam; in the U.S., Congressman Charles C. Diggs, Jr. formed the National African Liberation Support Committee, a coalition between the Congressional Black Caucus and community-based black activist groups. There were regular anti-apartheid marches in London and other towns in the UK, and in Oxford we were also quite militant, staging many protests. In London, I was influenced by Mr. Peter Hain, a white South African whose family were living in self-imposed exile. As head of the Young Liberals, Mr. Hain was an enthusiastic and outspoken opponent of the apartheid system, and I recall intense meetings in his parents’ sprawling living room. Mr. Hain is now Member of Parliament for Neath in South Wales, and I guess maybe he has lost his accent. According to his website, he is an avid fan of Chelsea Football Club; which is most disappointing to me (a die-hard Arsenal fan, in case you didn’t know). And Mr. Hain describes himself on his website as a “libertarian socialist.”

So, when Mr. Mandela was released from prison on February 11, 1990, I thought of Peter and his family. In a birthday message last week, he said, “Nelson Mandela seems to encompass all that is best about us on our best day. He represents democracy, tolerance, humanity, courage, leadership. We would all like to live up to those standards in our everyday life. Very few of us manage to.”  Very well put.

Nelson Mandela at Robben Island
South African political activist and prisoner Nelson Mandela sits and sews prison clothes in the yard of Robben Island Prison, located off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa, circa 1966. Mandela was charged with sabotage and sentenced to a life sentence in the 1964 Rivonia Trial. (Photo by Express Newspapers/Getty Images)

Secondly, I recall, with mixed emotions, Mr. Mandela’s visit to Jamaica with his then wife Winnie, just one year after his release. This was a time when he was negotiating with then President F.W. de Klerk for South Africa’s very first inclusive and multi-racial elections (which eventually took place four years later). We all went down to the National Stadium for a rally in the Mandelas’ honor, waiting for many hours for their arrival. This was exactly twenty-one years ago – the visit was July 24-25, 1991. I remember the atmosphere of barely-controlled, chaotic celebration, with members of the crowd continually jumping over the barriers to reach the open-topped car which slowly circulated the stadium. I remember feeling nervous for the Mandelas – and then for the crowd. The hot, still evening – just like this evening – was full of drama and pathos, but also an extraordinary, almost theatrical kind of joy. It was a historic moment, and the weight of it nearly crushed us all. I wish I had photos, but cannot find any.

So, last Wednesday, Jamaica celebrated Nelson Mandela Day, which was inaugurated a few years ago on his birthday. The aim of the day is to inspire individuals to take action to help change the world for the better, and in doing so build a global movement for good. Ultimately it seeks to empower communities everywhere.” The emphasis is on service to our fellow human beings – one way to create the more just society that Mr. Mandela fought for all his life.

The Jamaica National Building Society (JNBS) Foundation partnered on the day with the YMCA in Kingston and the non-governmental organization Children First in Spanish Town to provide a health and culture day for at-risk youth. At the YMCA, it was hectic, hot and the children were energetic and engaged. YMCA director Sarah Newland Martin had to be very stern with them, but eventually got them together for devotions, to start the day on the right note. We all got busy after that… Please see a few photos I took with my android phone (the glorious Samsung Galaxy, no less!) – my first real effort to take photos via this medium, and they didn’t come out too badly – though I say so myself.

South African flag colors
One color missing from the South African flag colors here… white.
YMCA Mandela Day event
Getting busy at the YMCA Mandela Day event.
YMCA Mandela Day boy
This young man at Kingston YMCA’s Mandela Day event returned several times to make his mark on the “Happy Birthday” banner.

In the afternoon, I visited the Trench Town Reading Centre, where the summer school was still in full swing. I told the children about Mr. Mandela; he was already President by the time they were born, and unfortunately most had not heard of him. We looked at two or three books about Nelson Mandela in the Centre’s excellent library, and we perused several of these. The children liked the photo above best – of Madiba, in tribal dress.

Reading Mandela book at Trench Town Reading Centre
These boys at Trench Town Reading Centre discussed every photograph in this book on Nelson Mandela’s life. Every picture tells a story…

In the evening, the human rights group Jamaicans for Justice celebrated Nelson Mandela Day in a remarkable and unique way. Again, the focus was on children, and children’s rights – a topic I have addressed several times before in this blog. This was a unique, awareness-raising event. JFJ described its vision for the evening thus: “On Nelson Mandela Day, July 18, you are invited to a 67 minute call to action forum at St. Margaret’s Church Hall commencing at 6pm. Jamaicans for Justice will honour this day by raising awareness about challenges our children in state care face. It is a call for Jamaicans to unite, as we did for Nelson Mandela, and insist that our children be removed from adult prisons and police lockups. In 2009, Nelson Mandela’s birthday was declared by the United Nations as an international day devoted to Nelson Mandela’s life work. On this day, individuals are asked to donate 67 minutes of their time, one minute for every year of Mandela’s service to humanity. The day is a global call to action to inspire individuals to change the world for the better. Mandela Day provides us with the opportunity to allow Jamaicans to do something for our country, in line with Mandela’s vision for a just society. In this the 50th year of our independence, it seems appropriate to use this day to reflect on our children, the future of Jamaica as, in the words of Nelson Mandela, ‘there can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children’.”   It is very hard to pick two or three photographs from their extraordinary exhibition of photographs of Jamaicans of all ages holding up messages reflecting this theme…but you can find them all on the Jamaicans for Justice Facebook page – “Free our Children” – Nelson Mandela Day photo collection in their photo albums. Support JFJ in their fight for the rights of ALL Jamaicans, in the spirit of Mr. Mandela…!

I am going to close with a quote from Mr. Mandela which so closely relates to the lives of too many of our precious Jamaican children: “Safety and security don’t just happen, they are the result of collective consensus and public investment. We owe our children, the most vulnerable citizens in our society, a life free of violence and fear.”

Jamaican leaders, Jamaican citizens all, are you listening?

Jamaicans for Justice Mandela Day message
The importance of family…

Jamaicans for Justice Mandela Day photo

Jamaicans for Justice Mandela Day photo
How long, indeed…
Jamaicans for Justice Mandela Day message
This is one of my favorite Mandela quotes. From Jamaicans for Justice’s photo album.
Jamaicans for Justice Nelson Mandela Day flyer
Jamaicans for Justice Nelson Mandela Day flyer
Nelson Mandela in his old prison cell
Nelson Mandela revisits his old prison cell and somehow smiles.
Nelson Mandela Day 2012
Nelson Mandela Day 2012
Anti-apartheid activist Peter Hain
Peter Hain Peter Hain, protesting outside Barclays Bank in 1977; and now, as Member of Parliament for Neath in South Wales.  The Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory  Peter Hain, M.P.  (JNBS Foundation: Nelson Mandela Day) (JNBS Foundation Flickr photostream: Resolution Project) (Jamaica to commemorate Nelson Mandela Day by giving to children – Jamaica Information Service)  (Message from Jamaican Minister of Foreign Affairs to commemorate Nelson Mandela Day – Jamaica Information Service) (Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister’s message on Nelson Mandela Day – Jamaica Information Service)

9 thoughts on “African Postman: The Mandela Connection and our Children

  1. Excellent refresher of Mandela story and tribute. Love your personal reflections as a student in Britain — I remember well the great Peter Hain, a white man who was not afraid to speak out in Britain against apartheid.
    It’s sad that the children today don’t know of this great man and what was achieved the day he walked out of prison. However, I think that people are now looking at what has been built in South Africa since then and are a bit disappointed that there has been no real economic change in the balance of power. People wonder if the ‘Mandela deal’ was enough, or whether it was too much of a compromise. So some of the shine has rubbed off from Mandela’s crown at this time, and perhaps will take another decade or two to be replaced. The ignoring of the role of Winnie Mandela in literally keeping the revolution alive while he was in prison for 27 years, does not sit well with those of us whom SHE inspired to keep fighting and supporting.
    So we have to consider everything deeply, more than just looking at the heroic symbol.
    Another good, thought-proving article, as usual Emma. Thanks.


    1. Yes, I think there has been some disappointment in the way things are going in South Africa. I wonder how strong the political opposition is – there does not seem to be much diversity in the political landscape in terms of different views contending etc. and the ANC seems to have become complacent and somewhat corrupt, with too firm a grip on power. There was a rather disturbing report about some new national security law that has just been passed, which worried me a bit. Of course the Mandela deal was a compromise but that is often necessary in politics – and especially in light of the urgent need for national unity post-apartheid. He brought order and reason and cooled a potentially explosive situation in which revenge and hatred would have played a huge part. We have seen that happen in other countries. I think his achievement was extraordinary in that sense. I don’t think any shine has rubbed off – he is not responsible for the leaders like Zuma (whom I have my doubts about) who came after him. I don’t see Mandela as a heroic symbol at all – he was/is not perfect; but symbols serve a purpose sometimes. As for Winnie – I felt sympathy for her bravely carrying on the struggle all those years without him. But she went off the rails. The Stompie episode was pretty horrendous and her speech about “necklaces.” She admitted herself that things went wrong. Winnie is a complex person and I don’t condemn or applaud her particularly. And what goes on between a married couple – especially in such a highly-charged environment – is really their own business. I will give them both the benefit of the doubt.


    1. This is very true. People only pay lip service. That is why I was happy that a number of things took place last week – action, rather than just saying, “Oh, Mandela is a great man,” etc…


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