Fired with idealism and passion, I had chanted Free Mandela, Nelson Mandela along with hundreds of other students. The Rev Jesse Jackson was leading the protest at the American university where I was then studying. We sang We shall overcome. Because, of course, we knew we would.
We are young — at an age that believed in possibility. On February 11, 1990, when Mandela walked free, after spending 9,377 days in jail, that belief was vindicated.
By some karmic quirk, I am in Cape Town nearly 27 years to that historic date. To not visit Robben Island where he spent 18 of those 27 incarcerated years seems like sacrilege. “A triumph of the human spirit over adversity,” you are reminded as you step off the ferry onto the island that once housed lepers, the insane and, later, political prisoners fighting apartheid; some now serve as guides to visitors.
Its most famous prisoner’s cell is locked. Through the bars, you see a sleeping mat, a blanket and a red tin bucket — same as in the other cells. There is no photograph or plaque to indicate the presence of prisoner 466/64. Apparently, the cell was opened for Barack Obama who, during a 2005 visit, stepped inside to take a photograph. Would there have been an Obama if there hadn’t been a Mandela? Hard to say, but Obama did make his first public speech at a 1979 anti-apartheid rally and would later say that Mandela’s release gave him a “sense of what human beings could do when they’re guided by their hopes and not by their fears”.
Apartheid ended in 1994. But I am struck by the fact that the customers at every restaurant and every hotel I visit are nearly all white while those who serve and clean are nearly all black. “There is no racism,” an independent art consultant I meet at the Cape Town Art Fair tells me. “But the economic disparities are huge.” My taxi driver, Sean tells me that college education was beyond his family’s means, and so now he drives.
To my first-time visitor eyes it seems that the black population still fuels the labour requirements of a white-controlled economy. I am surprised that such pervasive visual evidence of it seems to cause no discernible discomfort.
Blacks make up 79.2% of this country’s 51.8 million people but earn one-sixth of what white households earn, found South Africa’s 2011 census.
Mandela’s African National Congress is, today, in a shambles. Mired in corruption, it lost most the country’s biggest cities in elections in July. Within the party, there are calls for President Jacob Zuma to step down. Student agitation, which began in 2015 with the removal of a statue of British coloniser Cecil John Rhodes from the Cape Town university campus, continues with a demand for free higher education. Some see the #FeesMustFall movement as a precursor to an inevitable social revolution the country will face unless it fixes its social inequality problem.
This angry rise in black identity politics follows global trends of political binary extremism, us versus them, writes Suntosh Pillary in Mail & Guardian. “Mandela’s politics of hope is now firmly replaced with a politics of radical dissent and anger.”
Does Mandela remain relevant to a changed South Africa, and a changed world?
Like Mahatma Gandhi, Mandela represented the best version of who we are as human beings: People who could be imprisoned but never diminished. People who never allowed themselves to become caricatures of how they were viewed by their oppressors. People who retained dignity despite systemic attempts to belittle them. But, perhaps, most important, unifiers who could bring their country’s diverse and fractious groups together.
Standing on Robben Island near the limestone quarry where Mandela did hard labour, I realise why this pilgrimage is significant. It is, in a sense, homage not just to youth gone by but also to a world gone by, to leaders who stood like giants but are no more to be found.
Namita Bhandare is gender editor, Mint
The views expressed are personal