Even when he was released from prison, he reluctantly conceded to the dominance of the world’s capitalist market, persuading South Africans to work creatively within this reality. Similarly, his willingness to break his silence on the AIDS epidemic in South Africa, declaring it a national health crisis, took some doing. These were not small steps in a man’s life. He didn’t set out to be a hero, just a foot soldier in life’s struggles.
Mandela’s original name, “Rolihlahla,” translates “troublemaker” in the Xhosa language, fitting considering the transformative power of his life. Last year, I had the privilege of spending a morning with the once notorious Adriann Vlok, Minister of Law and Order (1986-1991) on whose watch death squads, bombings and assassinations of anti-apartheid activists had been carried out. In 1999, Vlok was the sole cabinet minister who admitted to crimes before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and was granted amnesty. He has since undergone a religious conversion and spends his days exiled in South Africa, working for forgiveness and reconciliation. He spoke tearfully of how Mandela had liberated him on his journey.
That journey, that greater struggle continues. I think of my less well-known friends in the Cape Flats townships sitting around the paraffin stove on which they cooked and huddled in winters, their fates irrevocably intertwined with these others. When I was with them, the question inevitably arose: How could this have been? And now, how could our connections to others guide our ordinary days into revolution?
Ivy George is a professor of sociology at Gordon College in Wenham who has taught international seminars in South Africa for the past two decades. She and her family live in Beverly.