By MIKE MURASE
Rest in Peace, Madiba!
As far as I am concerned, Nelson Mandela was the most significant world leader of the 20th century. He had a profound impact on millions of people across the globe.
In the 1980s and into the ’90s, I was the coordinator of the Los Angeles Free South Africa Movement — a local grassroots activist group rooted in the African American community, calling for an end to apartheid in South Africa. In that capacity, I learned a lot about the man, and about the struggle he led.
The task of FSAM (as we called it) was mainly to raise consciousness and build a broad-based international support movement to help dismantle apartheid. For years, we met weekly at Ward AME Church on 25th Street and studied the history and current events in South Africa, then strategized on how we could best support their struggle for freedom and independence.
We marched on Crenshaw, sometimes 4,000 strong, we picketed the South African Consulate in Beverly Hills, and we blockaded Kruggerand and diamond dealers. We also held weekly boycotts at the Shell gas station on Crenshaw and Exposition (and other locations), spoke at city halls and legislatures, and advocated for divestment of investments in companies doing business with apartheid South Africa.
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Decades have passed since those heady and impassioned days of fighting for a great cause. The death of Nelson Mandela gave us — and people around the world — a moment to consider what he meant to each of us. So we look back.
On Feb. 11, 1990, about 40 or 50 of us had gathered at the Allen House, across from First AME Church, in an overnight vigil to wait for the news of Nelson Mandela’s release after 27 years in a prison on Robben Island. The word came to us in the early morning hours, maybe a little after 5 a.m., that Mandela had finally been set free.
We huddled together around a small TV set and watched him walk out triumphantly, with a big smile, square shoulders, back unbowed, and a clenched fist at the end of his outstretched arm. People in the room whooped and yelled in unison and some began dancing. Then, all of us snaked-danced out into the neighborhood streets, doing the traditional African toyi-toyi stomping and stepping as the morning sun came up to signal a new day. “Amandla!!” “Awethu!” “Long live Mandela!”
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A few months later, in June 1990, we were excited to learn that Nelson and Winnie Mandela would be on a multi-city U.S. tour. In Los Angeles, FSAM members, under the leadership of then-Assemblywoman Maxine Waters, organized a series of welcome events culminating in a gathering of 90,000 people at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum — a six-hour concert and rally — with elected officials and Hollywood stars, but mostly ordinary people who wanted a glimpse of a heroic man who provided inspiration to their lives. Mothers and fathers, particularly African American parents, brought children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews, for them to witness greatness with their own eyes.
As the logistics/mobilization coordinator for that event, I remember “meeting” Mandela for the first time at the peristyle end of the Coliseum that had been cordoned off from the public. There were only five or six of us, plus the Secret Service agents who encircled us at a distance. That “meeting” amounted to no more than a self-introduction and me saying something like, “This way, sir.” Then he headed toward the stage to greet the people who had been waiting all afternoon.
“We could not have left the United States without visiting the city which daily nourished the dreams of millions of people the world over,” Mandela told the cheering crowd, referring to the power of movies and media. “We who have suffered and continue to suffer the pain of oppression know that underneath that face of Los Angeles lies the great and noble spirit of the citizenry. We who fight for human rights know the depths of the human spirit running through the hills and valleys of the state of California.”
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A year later, I met Nelson Mandela (for the second time) in a hotel lobby in Durban, South Africa. At the invitation of the African National Congress (ANC), I was attending its first national meeting since Mandela’s release, the return of the exiled, and the “unbanning” of the ANC, which had operated clandestinely underground inside South Africa.
It was a surreal, once-in-a-lifetime experience, to be face-to-face with a man who had committed his life to the cause of liberation and democracy, the man who stood at the Rivonia Trial in 1963-64, facing a judge who would eventually sentence him to life in prison, to say:
“During my lifetime I have dedicated my life to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realized. But, My Lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
In our brief encounter in the hotel, I was only able to blurt out how much he had inspired me and how I was a part of an activist group in Los Angeles who tried to contribute to the international support movement. He simply thanked me. (HE thanked ME!) Then, with a broad smile on his face, he graciously turned his attention to others in the lobby.
As brief as it was, the encounter was much more than a mere brush with fame. That moment left an indelible impression on me about the man — Nelson Mandela, as well as the organization and the movement he led. I still look back in disbelief. Did I really stay in the same hotel with Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo and other ANC leaders for a week?
I was invited by the ANC to the opening session of the historic conference the next day. Huge, bright hand-painted banners billowed down from the rafters of the cavernous sports complex at the University of Durban Westville. To thunderous applause, outgoing president Oliver Tambo addressed the ANC delegates: “You have come here propelled by the burning desire to make this conference the last one we shall have to hold under minority rule…”
Then, Deputy President Nelson Mandela took the podium and proclaimed, “As a result of the struggle we waged for decades, the balance of forces has changed… The ruling National Party, which thought it could maintain the system of white minority rule forever, can no longer sustain the apartheid system…” The delegates roared joyously.
Although I was exhausted from the 32-hour flight over three continents (North America, Europe and Africa), the exhilaration of the conference more than compensated for the physical fatigue. In fact, I felt alive as I had not felt for a long time, just to be an eyewitness to history in the making.
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Fast forward to July 18 of this year, Madiba’s 95th birthday. We knew he had been ill for quite some time. We thought the inevitable was not far away, so Congresswoman Maxine Waters and FSAM decided to organize several local events “to celebrate the life, legacy and values of Nelson Mandela.” Even as he lay in a Pretoria hospital bed, our rag-tag activist group reconvened after many years to plan celebrations and church services in Leimert Park, West Adams, Inglewood and Watts. Mandela was fittingly celebrated as a son of Africa, a freedom fighter, apartheid’s prisoner, democratically elected president of his people, and a revered world leader. South African boot dancers, spoken-word artists and singers took the stage, sandwiched by speechmakers who reflected on Mandela’s influence on their lives.
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On the passing of Nelson Mandela last Thursday, an opportunity had arisen for me to return to South Africa to attend some memorial events. Some of my friends were more excited for me than I was myself, and looked into an air travel schedule for me, and offered to contribute or raise money for me, but I determined that this was not the time.
In lieu, “you have to write an article about your experiences and your lessons learned,” my friends urged.
Over the past few days, I’ve heard stodgy old men in fortified seats-of-power pontificate and revise history; I’ve heard slick and glossy pundits shove square pegs into round holes, reporting whatever headline and sound-bite that seemed most palatable; and as well, I heard the man-on-the-street interviews from who-knows-what street corner. They provide so much fodder for a bawdy, foul-mouthed polemic, but now is not the time.
What I will take with me is the genuine outpouring of grief/jubilation about Mandela among so many people in this country and around the world. No one can deny or take away the immensity of the positive impact and enduring imprint Mandela is leaving behind. I thought how wonderful it was that a man who was “prepared to die” for an ideal 49 years ago, lived such an impactful 95 years. And about how much he was loved and looked up to.
I had the chance to think about, and reflect upon, the road that he traveled:
“I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can only rest for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not ended.”
Yes, the struggle must continue. But for me, it also seems like an end of an era. With Mandela’s passing, along with the deaths or retirement of Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Oliver Tambo, Chris Hani, Joe Slovo, Ahmed Kathrada, Denis Goldberg and others, the old ANC leadership I looked up to in the ’80s and ’90s is gone. The ANC of the old days taught me so much, but now and from afar, I have become disappointed and disillusioned by their present-day leadership. Yet and still, I still have hopes for brighter days ahead for the people of South Africa.
To be continued.
Mike Murase is a long-time activist in many movements and communities. He has been a lecturer in Asian American studies at UCLA, USC and CSU Long Beach; the campaign manager of a presidential campaign and in local elections; a legal aid attorney; president of the L.A. Building and Safety Commission; district director for a local congresswoman; and is currently the director of service programs at Little Tokyo Service Center. The views expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.