Twenty years ago when Nelson Mandela was released from 27 years of incarceration for fighting for his right to fight for the right to be a free man, I was too young to know what was happening. I knew that whatever it was that was happening was a significant event. Why it was I was not sure. What I knew of Mandela was what I’d heard from my cousin in the rural village just outside the no-horse town of Mount Ayliff, Dutyini, in the then “free” homeland Transkei. I believed the legendary MacGyver-esque stories they told me about this Mandela.
One of the stories that stick out in my mind is the one about how Mandela was able to make a bomb using a mere spoon at his disposal. He was so dangerous and heroic that they never gave him metal spoons in prison to eat with. Since they knew what he was capable of they gave him wooden spoons and he was locked in solitary confinement. This is all I knew about him. I knew he was in prison and that he had to come out because white people were scared of him, why I didn’t know. His name was constantly on the lips of adults. We were never allowed to listen to adults engaged in conversations. It was bad manners in our culture. I so trained myself not listen that I never really heard anything unless I was spoken to.
When my older cousins spoke of him it was always in secret, when there were no grown-ups in the area. It was from 1989 that I started hearing word that he would be released. It would not be until the following year that he would be released. I was in boarding school, aged 11, the year he walked out of prison. The previous year, 1989, my mother had made me read a number of works by Alan Paton — (Sponono) short stories. I remember they were about oppression. Since I hadn’t really encountered many white people in my life at the village I never really understood what it all meant really.
Although I remember when I was a little younger, home for the holidays from boarding school, I’d be looking after my grandfather’s cattle by the side of the road and always see white people driving to the coast, caravans trailing behind their nice cars, fishing rods sticking out the windows, happy white kids waving. Every now and then they would stop and take pictures of these black boys dressed in clothes that were several sizes too big, carrying sticks, a little dirty. I remember that particular year wondering why it was that it was always white people who seemed to have all the nice things. It never made any sense to me. Years later I would come to know why.
The boarding school I went to is in Qumbu, it was certainly one of the best schools in the Transkei at the time. It was a Catholic school, Little Flower Junior Secondary School, LFJSS. Since my mother had started forcing me to read, I started developing a habit for newspapers too. So, on February 12 when the Daily Dispatch arrived the day after Mandela’s release from prison, I remember reading the paper. As I read about this momentous occasion, the headmistress of the school, an imperious 73-year-old Austrian nun who went by the name of Sister Daniel read the paper with me and said: “What’s the point? He’s old anyway, he’s going to die soon anyway. Why did they wait so long to let him go?” I was puzzled because she was a year older than him and she was also the same age as my grandfather. I said nothing because, really, I didn’t know much about the events of the previous day, nor their future impact. Interestingly enough, she has since passed away and Madiba is still alive.
Another memorable quote I remember is by my mother. She had come to pick me up for the Easter holidays. There were roadblocks all over the Transkei as was customary at the time. She was talking about what a great thing it was that Mandela was free and then said: “I pray that God would be kind and give him at least another 15 years of freedom.” Well, God has been even kinder by another five years and counting.
It would not be until the following year that I’d benefit from Mandela’s freedom. In 1991 schools in East London voted to allow black children to go to their schools. I would be one of the first blacks at mine. I was the first black child in my class, in a school of more than 900 children there would be no more than 15 black children in the school.
The idea of black children going to a white school was such a novelty in those days that when we walked to catch taxis home or to school we’d be stopped by older inquisitive black people who were shocked at the sight of a black child wearing a “white child’s school uniform”. “Do you play with the white kids? What do they say to you? Say something to me in English!” Then they’d call their friends and you’d be surrounded by people who were marvelling at this little Mandela miracle. A black child going to a white school.
One day, during physical education, we were playing soccer and as is usually the case, two boys were selected to choose who would play for their teams. As the only black boy, naturally, I was the first one picked because the assumption was that I would be good at it. No one ever made that mistake again.
A year later, in 1992, I would go to high school. A white school. This time the high school had no more than 25 black kids. I decided to enter a speech contest at the school. I went before a sea of red blazers and white faces and white only teachers to deliver my speech. In my speech I said that Mandela had freed white people more than he had freed black people because now they could go anywhere in the world without being ashamed of saying they are from South Africa. Back then most lied and said they were from Zimbabwe when travelling the world — not a mistake they would make nowadays. There was another miracle the release of Mandela gave me, the right to express my opinion without fear or favour. Interestingly, at the end of my speech I had some of the black kids come up to me and ask me if I was trying to get the black kids expelled.