Sunday, 23 March 2014

Nelson Mandela & a Swedish rainbow family

And thus he drew his final breath. The father of the rainbow nation has left us. Perhaps one can say that with him the previous century drew its final breath too; Madiba being the last of the stellar giants of the 20th century.

I was raised in a bona fide rainbow family: white parents from Sweden, brown big sister from Pakistan, and I am black, born in Ethiopia. In the mid-1970's my parents in the north of Sweden adopted us tots from vastly different parts of the world. A few years later, in the early 1980s, it was once again time for a radical climatic relocation as the family moved to Botswana.

Francistown, Botswana. Me, my mum, my
dad, and my sister (friend in background)
RAW SEPARATION. To the south of Botswana was the apartheid state of South Africa where Mandela had been in prison since the early 1960's. During our three years in Botswana we travelled back to Sweden a few times. Since almost all intercontinental traffic in southern Africa passed through South Africa we were short of options but to transit there. Unsurprisingly, my parents made every effort to minimise the transit time in this racist state – no more than a few hours. But the smaller the margins, the greater the potential for mishaps.
    And so it once happened that our flight from Europe to Johannesburg was so late that we missed the transit flight to Botswana. I was seven years old, my sister eight. The next flight was early the following morning. There were no other options but to stay overnight at the airport hotel.
    Question: What happens to a rainbow family in the darkest days of apartheid South Africa? Answer: It is  separated, racially segregated. Me and my sister had to walk off in one corridor, our parents in another. Me and my sister were forced to sleep in a room for nie blankes (non whites) – adorned with steel barred windows – whilst our parents were escorted to a room for net blankes (whites only).

ISOLATION. At this point in time, the regime in Pretoria was becoming increasingly isolated. An international pariah few wanted to touch with a barge pole. So hateful was the climate towards the white regime that Spitting Image could release the song I never met a nice South African, in which a globetrotter mused over having met the unlikeliest of things – flying pigs in wigs, the Loch Ness Monster, unicorns in Burma – but he had yet to meet a nice (white) South African.
    However, one must never forget the many white South Africans who also fought apartheid. Among the intellectuals for instance Nadine Gordimer, André Brink and Breyten Breytenbach.
    Various attempts by Pretoria to placate international opinion by for example legalising mixed marriages (1985) were dismissed. “We’re not primarily fighting for the right to marry white women”, as one black activist put it. Neither was international opinion impressed by Pretoria granting ethnic Chinese the dubious honour of dubbing themselves “honorary whites” (an honour previously bestowed upon Japanese, Koreans and Taiwanese).

TRADE BOYCOTT. 'Tis true that in Sweden the Conservative party dismissed sanctions against South Africa on the basis that it would put “the poor Negroes [...] out of jobs” (a position the party seemed to have repressed when it published a programme 2011 claiming to have consistently fought “for suffrage, against apartheid”; claims which both amounted to historical revisionism on the grandest scale and were subsequently dropped in the 2013 programme).
    Nonetheless, the consensus in Sweden was overwhelming. While Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan advocated the reforming of apartheid, Sweden’s prime minister Olof Palme formulated the Swedish position: “Apartheid cannot be reformed – only eliminated.” In 1987, the Swedish parliament voted for a trade boycott of South Africa (all parties apart from the Conservatives voted in favour). Insignificant in economic terms, perhaps, but humungously significant in moral terms.
    So, there we were. Two terrified children in a ‘racially defined’ room with barred windows. Somewhere else, in another room, two distraught parents who had been forced to separate from their children. After a sleepless night we were reunited in the morning. At breakfast people stared in astonishment – mouths wide ajar – and the black waiter was unsure if he could serve us. We ate the food in haste and proceeded with equal haste to the check-in.

    Me and my sister with our Swedish teacher

CONTEMPTUOUS. It stands out, a rainbow family in an apartheid state. As it hurries across the terminal floor with the bruine/indië daughter and the swarte/bantu son holding the hands of their blanke parents. The reaction of the white passport officer was telling as my father handed over our passports. The officer's countenance went from sincere bewilderment to contemptuous revulsion. “Are these your children?” he asked in bilious disgust. My father found the situation extremely uncomfortable but could smile in his sleeve, certain that it was but a matter of time before the inspector’s rotten system would collapse.
    It was of course an illegal absurdity, the system where a rainbow family was considered an illegal absurdity. Hence, in 1973 the UN General Assembly had declared apartheid a crime against humanity. Such an “extraordinary abominable system”, as Palme once described apartheid, built on the foundations of oppression and animosity cannot stand in the long run. The foundations decompose, doomed to collapse. On top, a governing white ‘master race’, their lives narrow as planks, constantly on guard, the violence always close at hand – all begetting more distrust, more hatred, more decomposition.

INTENSE STRUGGLE. We flew back to Botswana. Relieved, but sad. Over the next few years, the internal and external pressure on the apartheid regime intensified. It was subjected to economical, armaments, political and cultural boycott. Artists United Against Apartheid sang how they “Ain’t gonna play Sun City”, the pain was palpable in Peter Gabriel’s “Biko”, the backbeat reverberated in Eddie Grant’s “Gimme Hope Jo’anna”. From a packed Wembley, on Mandela’s 70th birthday (1988), the star-studded concert “Free Nelson Mandela” was broadcast around the world.

FREEDOM & RECONCILIATION. And finally he was freed. The year was 1990. Surrounded by the world’s media, a lean, grizzled Mandela walked out to freedom. Aged, but with his fighting spirit intact. The right fist clenched in the air, Winnie by his side. An iconic moment, captured and televised globally (BBC interrupted EastEnders, which made a viewer write a letter of complaint lamenting that after 27 years in prison, could Mandela at least not have waited till EastEnders had finished?).
    Rejoicement, yes, but the South Africa Mandela walked out to was on the brink of civil war. The security forces had more or less lost control of the black townships, the fiery situation was exacerbated by separatist movements and significant violence between blacks.
    After Mandela’s nearly three decades in prison, and leading what was after all an armed organisation, there were many whites who were concerned that Mandela would choose the path of revenge and hatred. But Mandela detested all forms of racism. As he had put it in his legendary trial speech (1964): “I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination.” His was a fight for a “democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities “; a struggle for which he was “prepared to die”.
    Over the following four transitional years, Mandela and the last white president FW de Klerk – whose imperative role must be acknowledged – guided South Africa to a majority democracy with peace kept and no secessions'. Mandela’s recipe was based on change through reconciliation, fraternisation before resentment, to forgive without forgetting. The truth and reconciliation commission he appointed, headed by Desmond Tutu, provides a model for dealing with the bitter aftermath of civil conflicts – from Northern Ireland to East Timor, from Liberia to Colombia.  

SYMBOLIC. There are several poignant, symbolic moments during these years. When Mandela and de Klerk received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993. When Mandela was sworn in as South Africa’s first black president in 1994, a ceremony to which he invited his former jailor. The launch of South Africa’s new flag where the ANC and the Boer flags were fused together and the horizontal Y symbolised that two paths had converged. When the Rugby World Cup was staged in South Africa (1995), and the national team Springboks – as loathed by the blacks as loved by the Afrikans – won a spine-chilling final to which Mandela arrived, wearing the Springboks dress, and to the jubilation of the mostly white stadium crowd (about 63 000) handed the World Cup trophy to the Afrikaner captain whose children Mandela later became godfather to.

RAINBOW LEGACY. In 1999 Mandela stepped down as president to become an “unemployed pensioner with a criminal record”, as he later described himself. Although huge problems remained, it was undoubtedly a better South Africa he left behind. A nation on the path of reconciliation, that had chucked the apartheid system into the dustbin of history where it belonged. A nation in which a rainbow family was welcome, why, even emblematic of that nation’s ideal.
    The father of this rainbow nation has now left us. We mourn. But rejoice in the example and legacy he leaves behind. A legacy very much relevant for today’s Europe where the xenophobic winds are gaining strength, sweeping from Hungary to Belgium, from Athens to Sweden.
    The future is not monochrome. It runs in the colours of the rainbow. It runs in the colours of Mandela. ■■