The passing of Nelson Mandela, the greatest African ever, brought memories way back to my boarding school years in the fifties in Holland. During those years, South Africa became a news item in our School Paper as a potential spark for World War III between communism and the “free world”. As schoolboys, we did not realize in those days what “apartheid” really meant. In Holland, everybody was “white” and the few “colored” people, among which boys from Indonesia and the Dutch Caribbean, were our best friends. But the South African struggle between African natives and white descendants from Holland (“the Boers”) and Great Britain became a subject of hot discussion. The Dutch Boers and British settlers fought two bitter wars well before African natives from surrounding nations started moving into South Africa to find jobs in a growing economy. They fought the local Zulus as well, but after the colonists settled in South Africa from the 17th century onwards, the Boers did not consider themselves “invaders” but “Afrikaners”.
Nelson Mandela when I was just one year old (1937, credit to Wikipedia)
The young Mandela became a prominent figure in the papers during the fifties as his political importance rose in the African National Congress (ANC) party and he was arrested in 1956 for “communist”activity. I still remember friends contributing articles to the School Paper on the “apartheid”struggle at that time. We did not think it was right.
Nelson Mandela in the fifties (credit Bing Images)
Many years later, on consultancy for the World Bank, I traveled to Lesotho (a country situated in the middle of South Africa) and South Africa, when Nelson Mandela miraculously had become President in 1994, without the huge bloodshed we expected when I was at school. An achievement only a visionary person with a unique capacity for sound leadership, moral strength and smart persuasion could accomplish.
But, having traveled to many countries on the African continent before, I did not feel “safe” in Johannesburg. During a visit to a luxurious Shopping Mall to buy Christmas presents for the folks at home, shots rang close by me and several miscreants stormed out of a bank office tugging large bags behind them, probably filled with cash. Everybody bent down on the floor hearing bullets hissing and ricocheting against the walls, but I fled back to my nearby hotel as fast as I could. Shortly thereafter, I heard police cars screaming into the parking lots and saw armed squads storming into the Mall. Courageous me stayed inside the rest of the day. Press reports later spoke of one death policeman, three thieves apprehended and one still at large, who would soon be captured as well. But the papers also said that they would not stay in prison for very long as they would make a deal with the police and share the booty with them. This showed that Mandela’s South Africa still had teething problems.
Nelson Mandela wins Nobel Prize for Peace (together with De Klerk – Credit Corbis). What I like about this photograph are the white faces among the African natives, visibly at “ease”.
But crime apart, South Africa was a fast developing country, quite different from the rest of Africa. What if Nelson Mandela and his ANC had chosen wrath instead of reconciliation? What if he had followed the path of Mugabe in Zimbabwe that destroyed the country?
Again, a few years later, in 2002, I was asked to travel to Cape Town for a conference. Admittedly a “more pleasant”environment than “Joburg”. Cosmopolitan, beautiful vineyards, excellent wines, a heavenly climate. I felt a close relationship with the Dutch Jan van Riebeeck who established a colony of the Dutch East India Company there in 1652, to re-provision Dutch ships on the way to the Far East. With that, many “Afrikaners” considered him the founder of South Africa. Till Nelson Mandela became President. He can rightly claim to be the Founder, not perhaps from a chronological point of view, but as the visionary man who saved a blooming country from terrible bloodshed and destruction, as many other African countries are still suffering from, and set it on a path to prosperity.