Monday, December 16, 2013

Rest in Peace, Madiba

"When a man has done what he considers to be his duty to his people and his country, he can rest in peace." ~ Rolihlahla "Nelson" Mandela, 1918-2013

The first time I heard about apartheid in a way that really registered was in 1982. I was dancing ballet and that year, my school introduced a visiting ballet teacher from South Africa. We spent months learning our parts in preparation for a tour through Scotland and England, culminating in a performance for an international dance festival in Aberdeen, Scotland. Our visiting teacher brought two dancers from Johannesburg along with her. I was immediately enthralled by their accents and asked them millions of questions about their home; luckily, they were very nice and patient with me, and we became friends. We joked nonstop about the differences between our upbringings and countries and cultures, but there was one thing that they shared that stayed with me throughout the years:

In their country, they were afraid all the time. 

They were taught to fear places, people, times of day and certain celebrations. When I
My Afrikaner ballet friends
asked more about these fears, they explained to me that, because of the color of their skin and their upper class status, they were likely targets for the militant black people in their country. They were not allowed to go anywhere without one of the many people who worked in their homes, most of whom were black. They had nannies who drove them to school, ballet, or social functions. This was such a strange life to 13-year-old me, who took several busses to get to my ballet classes - alone. I don't remember expressing it, but I do remember feeling pity for them, because all that privilege seemed too close to restriction for my tastes.

It was several years later that I heard The Specials song, "Free Nelson Mandela". I was in high school at the time, and much more interested in world politics. I was still confused about my ballet friends' fears, and wanted to know more. I started reading some of Mandela's words and so much of it resonated with me. I didn't know yet that anything could be done, I just knew that this world had to change. I channelled the unique outrage and ambition of the teen rebel, and apartheid was the perfect target for my outrage. It bothered me that people were afraid because of the color of their skin. I saw this fear on both sides of the issue, and watched as it escalated the problems in South Africa.

I had no direction for this emotion, so I wrote. I composed essays, poems, letters (never sent) and protest chants (never demonstrated) about the injustice of apartheid. In 1990, when Mandela was released, I wept. I didn't realize that the hard work of tolerance, forgiveness and evolution were just beginning.

Mandela must have been witness to countless acts of violence as well as love to understand these human traits as he did, because suffering affords us an opportunity to witness kindness. Some of the most atrocious acts of violence and miraculous acts of forgiveness were recorded during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which Mandela helped establish. This commission helped to calm my young adult heart, and inspired me to see people in a different light - not as predators and victims, but as people.

Mandela was a unique person, but he was not alone. Who he became was a product of the suffering and compassion that he witnessed around him. He wrote,

"No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite."

Some have called Mandela a saint. I choose to think of him as a man who was born to extraordinarily difficult times, and decided to do more than just think about injustice. With his passing, his legacy falls to us now. I am renewed in my passion to bring about justice where I can. When I think about what I want to make happen in the coming year, my heart skips a beat, but I know it's what I need to do, so that one day I, too, can rest in peace.

Thank you for your service, Madiba.