Reflections on South Africa
Anti-Apartheid – nelson Mandela – Archbishop Tutu
Sometimes an experience can change your life. For me my trips to South Africa and the people I met opened my heart and sent my career and peacemaking in a new direction. While standing in a ballot counting station in a former homeland in South Africa, I struck up a conversation with an African poll worker about the differences between Americans and South Africans. With the votes ringing out for “ANC” around us, she told me about her experience of being ‘lost in the woods” for a year of schooling in Chicago. She saw it as simple. “In America”, she said, “you are given something and you take it, sometimes, look it over and hand it back or let it go.” But then she smiled, ”In South Africa when someone gives you something,” and she held her clipboard tightly to her chest, “we hold onto it forever.” It was with this fervor and heart that I too have held onto my South African experiences.
For me, South Africa began with anti-apartheid work in the U.S. – divestiture and marches. In 1987 I wrote briefs to the NM State Investment council laying out a legal basis to divest state investments. In 1991, on my first trip to South Africa it was filled with working on creative constitution making with the ANC, and dancing with former political prisoners and their families at braais on the day of their release from Robben Island. A quiet hopefulness while meeting with Mbeki, Sisulu and Slovo, or the smiling and hopeful faces of young Soweto children. The depth of their long struggle seem to manifest in the depth of their connection to our small group of progressive US lawyers from the National Lawyers Guild and the National Conference of Black lawyers.
In 1994 I was working as an International Election observer traveling with mediators who were helping people set aside long-standing conflict to create an atmosphere for a free and fair election. I watched people who’d walked for miles to vote for the first time and put their X next to “Mandela.” At midnight in the plaza we danced for hours when the old flags of the homeland and South Africa came down and the new unified flag of South Africa was raised.
In 1996 we gathered to hear President Mandela tell us about the importance of justice and reconciliation, and later I will never forget watching him turn on the water tap to celebrate water, life and the memory of Chris Hani high atop a hillside in the Transkei. People came across the wind swept fields to celebrate Hani’s life. Hani would have likely been Vice-President and then President of South Africa if an assassin’s bullet had not taken his life one year before the historic elections.
Truth and Reconciliation Commission
Soon after we launched at the request of our South African comrades, an international monitoring project of Archbishop Tutu’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission and I took on the task as co-chair. More than 100 law students, legal workers, and lawyers from the US went to hearings over two years, listening to victims and perpetrators tell their stories, watching as difficult issues of amnesty and healing were balanced with the goal to create a New South Africa. To us, we were contributing in a small way to the process, but more importantly, what we got was a lesson in peacemaking and conflict resolution, and we returned with a greater appreciation of the value of forgiveness, truth, and reconciliation.