South Africa is a good place to go to remember the long road to racial reconciliation still traveled on its continent, and on our own. Some Americans remember when Birmingham resembled a war zone, when Detroit and other cities burned and seethed. In South Africa, everyone remembers. The apartheid system that separated blacks from whites and denied blacks and "coloureds" basic human rights did not end until 1991. A democratically elected government that included blacks, who make up the majority of South Africans, was not in place until 1994.
"They were not hard times for me," said Pearl, who runs the gift shop at the South African Jewish Museum in Cape Town, "because I am white. They were hard times for blacks. Yet they came through with more joy and resilience than is imaginable. We thought we would have civil war, and we did not."
"You cannot go back to where you were," said Basil, a greeter at St. Mark's Anglican Church in District Six. "But by God's grace you can start over, and build a new life." Basil and his family received overnight eviction notices from District Six, a vibrant mixed community in the 1960s until authorities declared it "white only." He and his family were among 60,000 forced out to townships with no housing or infrastructure, but today he lives in a mixed suburb and attends St. Mark's-"as I have for 70 years"-along with a resurging, believing congregation of blacks, whites, and those of Indian, Malaysian, and mixed descent.
You can go back to Robben Island, four miles off the Cape Town coast, the isle of banishment under the apartheid regime. Much of the maximum-security facility has been preserved, and tourists come as if on pilgrimage from all over the world to walk down the hall past Nelson Mandela's cell and visit the lime quarry where he labored for 13 years.
My guide on a sunny Saturday afternoon was Ntando, who was imprisoned there from 1979 to 1991 for his political activities-like Mandela (who was jailed for 27 years, 18 on Robben Island); Jacob Zuma (jailed on the island 10 years and the current president); and others who led the anti-apartheid movements. Ntando lived in a cell that contained 39 inmates, often sleeping on its cement floor.
Mandela offers a new glimpse of this life in a memoir released in October, Conversations with Myself. It's a rough array of letters written from prison, notes Mandela made to himself (one that's insightful is a handwritten itemization of topics to discuss with President George W. Bush during a White House meeting on Nov. 12, 2001), and audio recordings for his autobiography.
The book is a ragged place to start to learn about Mandela, but revealing about the way he crafted a philosophy of reconciliation-in prison, no less-that blacks and whites say in many ways healed the nation. Watching then-President Mandela compile a list of old prison officials to invite to a barbecue casts shameful light on U.S. political rancor and White House needling. Contrast it with President Obama verbally throttling the Pentagon brass as if they had imprisoned him in Bob Woodward's latest exposé, Obama's Wars.
In office Mandela also learned to embrace those he saw in his Marxist-leaning days as enemies. Among them: businessmen. "I realized, as never before, that if we want investments . . . we had to remove the fear of business that their assets will be nationalized."
South Africa has problems and a long way to go. Racial reconciliation is work, and white folks like me have more of it to do in our churches, schools, and businesses. Our own president (who, incidentally, wrote the foreword to Mandela's new book) has reconciling to do too at the midpoint of his term. Will he continue to incite class warfare by pitting Wall Street against Main Street? Or call for bipartisanship while opting for closed-door agenda setting? The stakes are high for the first African-American president: When he leaves office-whether it is in 2013 or 2017-in ways at once practical and symbolic he will have advanced racial reconciliation, or squandered the opportunity to. And that is a hard-won prize too valuable to misuse.
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