Under the Branches of a Mighty Tree: A Baobab among the Redwoods
Nelson Mandela, Revered Ancestor (1918-2013)
By Daphne Muse
His path from Mvezo, a village near Mthatha in the Transkei on the Eastern Cape, to speaking to an absolutely thunderous and amazed assembly of more than 58,000 people in Oakland, California in 1990 was a Long Walk to Freedom*. It is a remarkable story made even more so in that Rolihlahla Nelson Dalibunga Mandela was inaugurated as President of a democratic South Africa on May 10, 1994 and served until 1999. Mandela was given the name Rolihlahla on his first day of school; it is a Xhosa term that means "pulling the branch of the tree.”
The day he was released from the Victor Verster Correctional Center in Paarl where he was transferred to in 1989, my brother Vincent Muse was in Capetown engineering the feed for journalist Renee Montagne who was covering this historical moment for NPR. He called me from Capetown breathless, excited beyond belief and fighting back waves of tears that mixed with the sweat pouring from his body. He so wanted to dance with the hundreds of thousands gathered on the plaza. Vince told me it felt like the energy in that moment could have fueled the nation for decades to come. But faced with an endless series of technical challenges (rescued by duct tape), he had to do everything possible to ensure the feed made it across the pond and on the air. His stories of engineering the feed while listening to Mandela speak in Capetown’s public square on February 11, 1990 and being invited to Bishop Tutu’s home charged my own excitement about Mandela speaking and being honored in Oakland.
Aware of the roles that many Bay Area activists played in unshackling the chains of apartheid, mandating divestment and securing his freedom, Deputy President of the African National Congress (ANC) Nelson Mandela accepted the invitation to speak in Oakland, California. On June 30, 1990 he spoke at the Oakland Coliseum to an audience 58,000 people. Among them were longshoremen, union organizers, elected officials, diplomats, cultural icons and school children to witness one of the most amazing moments in the city’s history: Nelson Mandela, free and standing with his then wife Winnie Mandela. Not since August 6, 1977 with the visit of Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere to San Francisco had an African leader been honored in the Bay Area.
Comprised of liberation movements, foundations, faith-based organizations, cultural groups, those living in exile and members of anti-apartheid initiatives throughout the Bay Area, the Northern California Mandela Reception Coalition produced and coordinated the celebration. Among those present and instrumental in getting him to speak were long-time activist and architect Ken Simmons. Simmons also was instrumental in leading the faculty divestment movement at UC Berkeley. Mandela and his wife were greeted by a host of Bay Area leaders including Maudelle Shirek, the godmother of East Bay progressive politics and California Democrat and Representative Ronald V. Dellums. For years, Dellums pushed legislation for sanctions against the South African Government. Like Berkeley and San Francisco, Oakland had an ordinance calling for the divestment of stocks in American companies doing business in South Africa and longshoremen throughout the region refused to unload South African goods. Mandela noted that he personally wanted to thank the hundreds of thousands representing liberation movements, unions and South Africans in exile in the Bay Area who were instrumental in helping to secure his freedom.
The thousands gathered stood in the power of the victory of this tree of a man who never bent, standing just as tall and majestically as many of the historic Redwoods surrounding backyards, parks and forests in Oakland. Under a sea of green, black, red, yellow and blue banners representing the colors of the ANC, we gathered together in his name and growing South Africa into a “one person, one vote, and democratic, non-racial, nonsexist society.” Like millions of people in South Africa, Cuba, France, Tanzania, Canada and Sweden, we joined in raising our voices and funds to impose sanctions and develop other strategic organizing tools to end the fetid stench and brutal rule of apartheid. Although the movement was global, it also took place at kitchen tables in East Oakland, board rooms at the Port of Oakland, classrooms across the city and in the streets of East, West and North Oakland.
So many of us were struck by how his vision always went far beyond his own people and at the Coliseum he apologized to the First Nation people’s for a logistical mix up that made it impossible for them to publically present him with ceremonial robes. It really was a moment that the audience and world should have witnessed. He also was so unequivocally disciplined, a bold visionary and a man with some of the same kind of human frailties we all carry. He made it crystal clear that apartheid had no future. The steady flow of my tears and non-stop quaking of my body let me know how much it meant to be sharing this surreal moment with thousands of others from my community. That night, the stars cast a an even brighter glow across the skies of Oakland and the evening air reverberated from the powerful performances by Nigerian master percussionist Babatunde Olatunji, who opened the tribute, Harry Belafonte, Bonnie Raitt and John Lee Hooker, John Santos and the Machete Ensemble, Vukani Mawethu Choir and Oakland activist Lakiba Pittman.
Mandela’s trajectory from his village of Mvezo to one of the most revered visionaries and leaders of the 20th century is such a lesson in the power of liberation and building a nation. In order to avoid arranged marriages, Mandela and his cousin Justice ran away to Johannesburg, where he initially worked as a mine policeman before being introduced to Walter Sisulu in 1941. Sisulu, son of a black domestic worker and white public servant who never acknowledged him, was one of the primary architects and master strategists of the Anti-Apartheid Movement. In 1944, together with Sisulu and Oliver Tambo, he founded the African National Congress (ANC) Youth League setting the trajectory of his life on an irreversible course.
In 1919, the year after his birth, a delegation of the South African Native National Conference attended the Versailles Peace Conference to put the voices and grievances of the African people of South Africa on the table. He went on to become a lawyer and strategic visionary for the ANC. Arrested repeatedly and charged with sedition, in 1962 he was arrested for the third time and convicted of sabotage, and conspiracy to overthrow the government. Sentenced of life imprisonment, for twenty-seven years, Mandela navigated his life beyond the brutality of being imprisoned on Robben Island. His sanity was grounded in gardening on the prison grounds, writing and corresponding with the family and comrades for whom he was their very heartbeat. His hard won release from prison in 1990 precipitated political changes that would bring blacks and coloreds to the ballot box, uproot a ruthless government and uplift a people who had been under the spiked boot of white rule for more than three centuries. In 2008, Congresswoman Barbara Lee co-sponsored H.R. 5690 legislation to remove Nelson Mandela and other current and former ANC members from US travel and terrorism watch lists.
In 2009, I got to see the results of this revered statesman’s leadership and the relentless fight against Apartheid. At museums, shopping malls, clubs, community centers and in townships, the new South Africa was reflected politically, socially and culturally. Its citizens were some of the fiercest people I’ve ever met. From Graça Machel (his current wife) and groups of grandmothers with whom I met to early members of the ANC to folks I spoke with on airplanes and busses, and children who sang to us in Soweto, it is crystal clear that this is a nation forged by fires that burn deeply in the bellies, hearts and souls of its people. Machel was trained as freedom fighter who went on to become an advocate for children and the only woman to have served as first lady of two African nations: She is the widow of Mozambican President Samora Machel. In 2012, she was appointed President of the SOAS Institute at the University of London.
On my visit to Robben Island where he spent eighteen years of his incarceration, I also got to retrace the steps from his cell, with a man who was imprisoned with him, out onto the grounds where he gardened, dreamed up and strategized about freedom(s) beyond his own. In the “time of Mandela,” leaves of vision, justice and wisdom tumbled from the branches of this tree of a man and were woven into crowns of liberation. The winds of change also blew some of the leaves across the landscape of Oakland into the hearts and minds of generations coming up the ranks. We must continue to share the stories of resistance with our children and grandchildren. Holding men like Mandela in our hearts, minds and daily practice means the difference between returning to living under Tsunami’s of oppression or swimming upstream in seas of freedom.
History has proven that more and more people refuse to allow the boots of oppression to rest on our necks. His own words “… to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others” embedded a kind of strength in me that encourages me to make decisions that turn the world on the “Axis of Affirmation.” Mandela never met racism with racism, hate with hate or wavered in his devotion to democracy, equality and unbridled possibilities for the future. The legacy of Mandela can never be destroyed, because truth blooms through concrete and is deeply encoded in the cultural and historical DNA of millions of the citizens of SA and people all over the world. His life was also strengthened by bold, fierce and visionary women who stood with him including Winnie Mandela his second wife, Graça Machel his current wife and millions of South African blacks, coloreds and whites who stood with him in historical solidarity.
I remain eternally grateful to have been born at a time that allowed me to witness and engage in this transformational nexus in history. As a beacon of civility, compassion and honor, Mandela was the “Godfather” for many an activist. This Nobel Peace Prize award-winner also got to experience the awe and magic of life, attending concerts in his honor, holding his grandchildren on his lap and witnessing a new generation of young black and colored South Africans become scholars, tech pioneers, cutting-edge researchers and future leaders.
I thank his family for sharing him with the world, for I know that came at a great cost to them personally. But so many of us got to create inheritances from his vision, legacy and practices to our children, grandchildren, students and young people we mentor. While some of these “twigs” will grow into sturdy branches and even trees themselves, they can cling to this tree of a man who turned dreams of liberation into historical realities and taught millions how to climb, along the way. May the verdant landscape of his smile, and depth of his soul, continue to shine an eternal light on the mounting injustices attempting to eviscerate our humanity.
*Mandela’s Autobiography published by Little Brown and Company (1994).
Daphne Muse is a writer, poet and social commentator. Her work has appeared in the Atlantic, Washington Post and aired on NPR.
©Daphne Muse Oakland, CA 2013
Links to Mandela speaking in Oaklandhttp://www.daytrotter.com/#!/video/nelson-mandela/10643-5033/1008527