Local South Africans can't imagine life without Mandela

Published: Friday, June 28, 2013 at 6:53 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, June 28, 2013 at 6:53 p.m.

It has been a tense, emotionally trying week for people from South Africa living in Gainesville as they watched and listened for news of former President Nelson Mandela’s health.

“We pray to God for Nelson Mandela,” said Buyiswa Mini, a teaching assistant working on her doctorate in education at the University of Florida. “We pray for God to work his miracles.”

Mandela remained in critical condition in a hospital in Pretoria on Friday.

It is hard to conceive of a South Africa without Mandela, who has been called the “father of the nation” and the “father of Democracy,” said Bongani Mbatha, a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison teaching Zulu at UF for the summer.

“My friends, we don’t imagine a time the country will be without Mandela,” Mbatha said. “We don’t have that conversation.”

Local experts say Mandela’s legacy will live on no matter what — in the abolishment of apartheid, the creation of a constitution that attempted to end discrimination and unite all the people, national reconciliation, and the effort to find a cure for HIV/AIDS.

“No question there will be a great sadness throughout the country by all the races, not just in South Africa but throughout Africa,” Winston Nagan, a law professor at the UF College of Law, said of Mandela’s eventual passing. “He was a leader in Africa for Africa.

“He showed what African leadership is capable of, not just for Africa but maybe the world,” Nagan said, comparing Mandela to George Washington. “Like Washington, he didn’t want to hang onto power forever. He did one thing, to get things going and then step aside.”

More than that, Nagan said, Mandela united the races.

“He believed in the unity of humanity,” Nagan said.

Nagan was born in the same Eastern Cape province as were Mandela, Stephe Biko and other political leaders who fought for equality. Nagan joined the African National Congress while a student at the University of Fort Hope, the first university that Mandela had attended two decades earlier.

As a leader of the ANC, Mandela led the drive to end apartheid, ultimately winding up in jail for decades before his release in 1990.

“He was a towering presence, and he, I think, was largely responsible for moving the ANC to a more activist form of resistance against apartheid,” said Nagan, who has been back in South Africa several times since moving to Gainesville in 1975.

Nagan was a university student during the Rivonia Trials from 1963-64. Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Denis Goldberg and four other leaders of the ANC were convicted of sabotage for acts committed to end apartheid and sentenced to life in prison.

For those in the resistance, it was a devastating blow. But Mandela’s defiant speech declaring he would die for human rights kept them going, Nagan said.

“He stood up in the face of an overwhelmingly repressive state of the time, while his life was on the line,” Nagan said. “ His speech gave hope.”

His speech also kindled the resistance that continued to push for equality while Mandela and his colleagues were imprisoned in Robben Island, where Mandela contracted the lung infection that has plagued him through much of his later life.

“There were years in the 1960s when they enacted more intense, repressive legislation, like the terrorism act that could keep you in prison indefinitely, and the use of torture,” Nagan said. “Hardly anyone went into the clutches of the police or Special Branch who hadn’t experienced torture.”

Mandela would live to give hope to other generations of South Africans. After he was freed in 1990, he and the ANC worked with the South African government to write a constitution, and in 1994 Mandela became the first black president of the country that had been ruled by a white minority for decades.

Nagan was back in South Africa, teaching in Cape Town in 1993, at the time all these changes in his native land were occurring.

“To me, it was almost unbelievable,” Nagan said. “I had goose bumps.”

For the first time in its history, South Africa held a free, multiracial two-day election in 1994. It was the first time Buyiswa Mini could vote in a national election.

“I remember I was very ill the first day the elections were held. I was in bed and had no energy the first day,” said Mini, who teaches Xhosa at UF.

Xhosa is one of the official languages of South Africa primarily spoken among the people of the Eastern Cape, where she is from. Mandela and Bishop Desmond Tutu are Xhosa people as well.

By the second day, she said she felt good enough to vote. A friend told her the lines were much shorter and that there was a place around the corner from where she lived, so she hurried there.

“It felt like we were dreaming,” Mini said.

She marveled that it has been almost 20 years since that day.

“For me, it happened yesterday,” she said. “It is still fresh in my mind what a fulfilling and satisfying experience that was.”

The election was significant to Mini and other black South Africans because Mandela “didn’t die in Robben Island while we were praying for him. He got out to do this service for the people of South Africa.”

The period of national reconciliation that followed was an amazing time for Mini and her friends, she said, because the races were coming together on every level. “Where I lived, you could see everybody making an effort to meet everyone else halfway.”

That is what Mandela was fighting for, she said. During his famous Rivonia speech, Mini said, Mandela told his white jailers that he was fighting for their liberation as well as his, because as an oppressor, you cannot be free.

“He forgave everyone,” she said.

That sense of reconciliation came from a devout Christian faith, she said.

It is why Mandela asked Bishop Tutu to be involved, Nagan said. “Forgiveness was written into the process,” he said. “Truth was the Great Liberator, because when the truth came out, people felt satisfied.”

Whether those things could have been achieved without Mandela, Nagan could not say. “But he set the tone for all these things to follow. The court itself exhibited the same high-mindedness he showed.

“The man likes people of all races, and he believes in the unity of humanity,” Nagan said. “This guy managed so whites weren’t threatened, blacks weren’t threatened — and everyone saw the benefit of working together.”

Though militants and extremists criticized Mandela for his peacemaking, most South Africans saw the wisdom in it, Mini said.

“The majority are very grateful for his life,” she said. “Our country could have experienced a backlash.”

Bongani Mbatha said he was 10 years old when Mandela became president. He recalls growing up under a state of emergency, but from the time Mandela was freed in 1990, there was an aura of hope, he said.

Even as a young boy who would not have recognized Mandela if he had run into him on the street, Mbatha said he was aware of what Mandela meant to his people.

“We knew he meant hope. He was a peacemaker,” Mbatha said. “We were all tired of fighting. He came as a messiah.”

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