Saturday, December 14, 2013

Kerry talks to toads about Mandiba

'Finally we managed to see and hear the father of a nation that had yet to be born'
Richard Ramsden, about Nelson Mandela’s
release from prison on February 11, 1990
Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela
10 May 1994–14 June 1999

The woman behind the online writers' group Imaginary Garden with Real Toads is Kerry, a South African poet, teacher and mother who has taught us many things about writing poetry, and has gently mothered many of us through our growth as poets.
When Nelson Mandela died earlier this month, Kerry was working long, hard hours marking official exams, along with many other teachers. We, her far-flung group of toadlings, were unable to communicate with her until today. It was a strange, even eerie, feeling for me and, I'm sure, for other Real Toads worldwide, to be unable to reach out to Kerry at such a time.
However, she and all the other people working at the marking centre "came together in respect and communal sorrow to offer up prayers in 6 languages, representing 4 religions...the people of a land so long torn apart by unnatural divisions...(and) that we were there, joined in brotherly love, is a direct consequence of Nelson Mandela's life."
Today, Kerry has asked us to write, if we care to, about Nelson Mandela, familiarly known to South Africans as "Mandiba" (his clan name) or "Tata" (father) or "Tata Mandiba".
 I was only a year and a half old when the system of apartheid became law in South Africa. I'm sure no one in Canada spoke to me about it at that time, but I'm equally sure my parents must have spoken about it when they thought they were alone.
I was a very inquisitive child, even then, and listened carefully to everything I heard.
I was also sensitive to moods and, I'm sure, to opinions. I certainly grew up with a deep antipathy toward apartheid, toward segregation of any kind, and even, I realized when I first met the people who were to become my brother's in-laws, toward the Dutch...perhaps unreasonable of me to blame the Netherlands for what happened in their former colony.
Although I dropped my negativity toward my sister-in-law's family, I maintained a hard line regarding segregation, and carried, almost unbeknownst to myself, a bitterness toward white South Africans, even after Nelson Mandela's release from prison in 1990.
As it happened, I was living in a very small town in south-central British Columbia in the early 1990s. I was on a disability pension and visited the local medical clinic quite regularly. I had a nice Irish-born doctor who, for reasons I've now forgotten, moved away, and I was transferred to the new doctor, a white South African.
"No," I declared. I was at my most charming, obviously. "I won't. I don't believe in white South Africans."
(Apologies, at this juncture in 2013, to my South African friends: Kerry, Jo, Jo's husband Grant, and Jo's brother Phillip.)
Fortunately, for the good of my soul and my digestion, I had long since learned to forgive some of the white people from some of the southern US states, because progress had earlier been made with regard to American segregation policies, and only once had I thrown someone out my door for calling Martin Luther King "that nigger"!
Back to the small-town medical clinic in the 1990s...
"What," said the nurse, "do you mean? How can you not believe in white South Africans?" in a tone of voice suggesting I had lost most, if not all, of my marbles.
So I saw the new doctor, and let him see me. He was wonderful. He was young, kind, considerate, gentle, friendly, and asked my advice about writing because he enjoyed writing and wanted to try it in English, which wasn't his first language. He listened to my opinions, and took my chronic pain seriously. I absolutely adored him until he moved to New York to become a radiologist, because they enjoy regular working hours.
Meanwhile, far, far from that small BC town, Nelson Mandela had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize together with F.W. de Klerk, for bringing about the end of apartheid.
Mandela also received the Order of Canada and was the first living person to be granted honorary Canadian citizenship.
Awards and honors from many other countries were bestowed upon him, and it was becoming obvious, even to that little girl who still resided deep in my heart, that Nelson Mandela, Tata Mandiba of South Africa, no longer needed my help.


Kay said...

Beautiful post, Kay. I was so oblivious to so much of this when I was growing up in Hawaii. I didn't even know about the Internment of Japanese Americans and how their properties were often taken and their livelihoods confiscated as they were imprisoned by armed guards behind barbed wires during the war. I guess our elders didn't want to talk about that shame or horror. It wasn't until college that I truly learned about racial segregation. What a shock! I marvel at the courage and determination of men like Mandela and King who persevered through such horrible times.

magiceye said...

Beautiful tribute

Sherry Blue Sky said...

I loved this, Kay. I had to smile at "I dont believe in white South Africans". Glad the wonderful doctor came your way. Life has a way of doing that! Civil rights in the US was a huge issue for me through the years and, when I became aware of apartheid, I felt even more strongly. The movie Cry Freedom blew my doors off when I first saw it. This was a good read! I will try tomorrow, has been a long day.

Oman said...

I have only nice words about mandela. thanks for sharing this tribute :)

Kerry O'Connor said...

I am so glad you shared your story, Kay. Believe me, I also harboured antipathy against White Afrikaners for many years. It was especially difficult for me in the late 80s because the town of Ladysmith, where I live and work was predominantly Afrikaans and the school was managed along strict National Party lines. What many people failed to realize is that White people, especially the English, were also suffering under the oppressive regime: no freedom of speech, no freedom of association, no right to choose to marry a person of colour. We were systematically brain-washed from the education policy to the pulpit, my hatred for the system of which I was necessarily a part created much internal conflict and I also lost complete faith in Christianity. One of the reasons why SA survived a peaceful transition is because the majority of the white population welcomed and readily embraced the changes. Personally, I felt a weight of guilt slide off my shoulders when my classes included children of all races. I have dedicated my career to the upliftment of all South African children, and taught tolerance and dignity along with Shakespeare and poetry.

As for your statement that you did not believe in White South Africans, I thank you for it. Undoubtedly, the world's antipathy towards the Apartheid system had a direct impact on its demise. On the world stage, it was from the ranks of other aberrations of 20th century governance, along with European Communism, British rule of Ireland and the USA's policy of segregation. The world may not be perfect today, but it is a lot more healthy without oppression through legislation.
I have learnt to believe in people, and their ability to change, forgive and progress both emotionally and intellectually. I have seen it happen.

Jo said...

Well said, Kay and a wonderful tribute to a great man. Apartheid was four years old when I was born, and like yours, our parents didn't talk politics in front of the children. Only when I in high school in the mid-sixties did I realize that there was a terrible inequality in South Africa. Although I grew up in a Nationalist (the ruling Afrikaner dominated party) and Calvinistic home, our home language was English so we were quite watered-down as it were! The Afrikaans Broederbond (Afrikaans Brotherhood) was - to us - synonymous with the Klu Klux Klan. How wonderful that the dear Afrikaner doctor changed your mind about white South Africans. And I'm thrilled to see that Kerry is a South African. I'll pop over and visit her blog. (((Hugs))) Jo

Grace said...

I so enjoyed reading your personal story and Kerry's response ~ Fascinating to know that the white population also suffered from discrimination ~

Kay, our country is really blessed to have many cultures but still a lot of work has to be done ~ Wishing you happy weekend ~

hedgewitch said...

Your piece here strongly evokes for me how not just the world, but we ourselves must change for change to happen--that is what seemed to be going on in the middle of the last century, a moral process that, as MLK said, is long but 'bends towards justice.' Events in my country of late have made me doubt how consistent that arc is, as it seems some battles must be fought again and again, and that we can never assume them safely won. Thanks for your thoughtful post, Kay--I also learned much from Kerry's equally thoughtful response.

Sumana Roy said...

thanks for the beautiful post........

Gillena Cox said...

what profound caring words; have a nice Sunday

much love...

Sam Edge said...

Thanks for sharing this Kay. Amazing.

Susan said...

Thank you, Kay, for this entire story! I don't think I became aware of the systematic racism until I became a teacher and learned about English speakers everywhere as part of teaching English. Then I read the plays of Athol Fugard, a white South African whose "Master Harold and the Boys" blew my socks off. That's when I started marching anti-apartheid and began to learn more. Your story is inspiring. And Kerry's response shows just how we pick up our ministries in life. Change starts at home. You have started a conversation here that must continue.

Susie Clevenger said...

Kay, thank you for sharing your story. You have shown how someone can change their heart of hate to embrace what they once despised. I grew up during the civil right struggle in the United States. I had my first experience with racial hate when I was only six years old. I questioned why some kids had to sit in the back of the bus and was punished by the bus driver and assigned a high school girl to sit with me and pinch me if I even tried to speak. We have so much work yet to do. I pray I will do my part.

Ella said...

Thank you Kay for sharing your story and opening our eyes! Well done