An extraordinary manifestation of the magnetism of Nelson Mandela began unfolding Tuesday morning in Johannesburg, South Africa. Chiefs of state from across the globe addressed a stadium of South Africans mourning the loss of “Mandiba.”
President Barack Obama correctly compared Mandela to Abraham Lincoln, Mohandas Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr.
But few of us not raised in South Africa can begin to fathom Mandela’s rocky road and his efforts to save a country from what surely would have been a searingly violent civil war.
With discipline and determination forged in the Alcatraz of South Africa on an island just off Cape Town, Mandela kept alive a vision of a one-person/one-vote democracy in a future black majority South Africa. What an impossible dream.
Owing to an accidental day in Cape Town in 1972, I was able to get a brief, first-hand glimpse into white supremacist control of South Africa, with apartheid regulations and practices that made segregation in the U.S. seem soft by comparison.
In 1972, I arrived with my wife Ann in Cape Town aboard a passenger-freighter containing a motley mix of passengers and cargo with the final destination of Mombasa, Kenya.
As we prepared to disembark for a day trip in beautiful Cape Town, we were approached by two fellow passengers, a young English school teacher based in Kenya and his wife, who asked if they could join us to do some sight-seeing. There was one obvious but seemingly surmountable problem: the Englishman’s wife was a lovely, very dark-hued Kenyan lady. But they wanted someone to join them, so I readily concurred without too much trepidation.
From that point, our experience in Cape Town changed dramatically. At the end of the ship’s gangway, we encountered an array of South African passport control officials. Various lanes were designated for “White,” “Colored” and others, pigeon-holing the disembarking passengers by skin color on the spot.
As a mixed group of three whites and one very black, attractive and nicely dressed citizen of Kenya, we instantly came to realize that there was no place in Cape Town that we could go to or enter together.
We couldn’t hail a cab because our colors did not match, so we decided to walk together on public streets where colors did, at least, appear to share the same sidewalks and streets. But even that was no simple challenge.
As we walked together, our mixed group of four was met with hostile glares and mutterings from many of the white pedestrians. Blacks sometimes stepped into the street or crossed to the other side to ensure they wouldn’t inadvertently become entangled with our very unusual situation, whatever it might be.
We solved the challenge of lunch by entering a small grocery to order sandwiches to go. We had no choice but to eat the sandwiches as we walked, as there was no public park or place we could visit together.
After several hours, we gave up and returned to the “real world” of our ship with a sense of unbounded relief — but also with the realization that there was no such relief for people of color in South Africa.
I came away from those few hours in South Africa convinced that one day the lid would blow off that apartheid abomination, and apartheid was going to be very difficult to dislodge from the outside.
Little did we foresee that a decade later, internationally imposed sanctions would begin to seriously erode the white supremacists and their racial classification system.
And, even more importantly, we were quite ignorant that just across the water from Cape Town was the man who would become everybody’s alternative to violent racial warfare for South Africa.
At that point, Mandela would have been only a few years into his time at the Robben Island prison, pounding rocks into gravel within sight of Cape Town’s Table Mountain. But even 27 years of imprisonment did not break the man and his impossible dream of a democratic, black majority government for South Africa.
Perhaps our leaders, past and present, can put together a coalition of ideas and players to take aim at some other almost impossible dreams besetting our country and the international community.
For starters, they should fix a broken Washington by replacing nonstop partisanship with effective partnerships between the houses of Congress, as well as with the White House.
Mandela was able to do his work, against all odds. If our political leaders do not rise to the occasion, perhaps we should prescribe some rock-pounding for those who don’t get the message to fix our government now.
Lionel Rosenblatt, a part-time resident of Maine, is a former U.S. Foreign Service officer and a past president of Refugees International. In 1973-74, he was a reporter at the Bangor Daily News.