As I watched tears stream down my mothers face, I could not imagine what she saw as her eyes misted and stared blankly at the television screen, “President Nelson Mandela, dies at 95” the television screen read. I could feel the lump, deep in my throat. I shook my head, tried to clear my throat and still the tears surged forward.
We all knew President Mandela’s health had declined, and as the outpouring of love and grief illustrated upon his death, no one was really ready to say goodbye to Madiba. Few of us had even met the man, and yet his death resonated like the loss of a grandparent. Someone who had always wished the best for us, looked out for us from afar, and whose smiling face could always bring a smile to our own. This was the man who had taught us all to strive for better in ourselves, to befriend our enemies and he befriended his jailers. As I watched my mother return to the present moment, I wondered what Mandela’s death meant to her. My parents grew up in Southern Rhodesia during the 1960s, or as it was then known, Rhodesia. The country’s white minority government had an apartheid-like system that separated blacks from whites, keeping the native Ndebele and Shona people in the more arid black areas, while fewer than 5,000 farmers controlled 70 percent of the fertile land.
As many people did back in the 1960s, my parents first encountered white people as missionaries in their churches and schools. They tell similar stories of their childhoods and young adulthood spent in Rhodesia (they would meet years later in university while studying in England). My parents understood from a young age that blacks and whites lived separately, but their youth limited their world to black suburbs where the division and inequality were not so sharp. Both of my parents recalled an awareness of inequality, knowing that the whites lived in larger houses with large plots, swimming pools and tennis courts only three to four family members, where as black families struggled in three room homes with 10 to 12 family members.
My mother grew up in the rural areas outside of Bulawayo and attended high school in the city, which is where she first became aware of the racial divide. While living in the rural areas had presented a black world, life in the city saw a diverse (although segregated) society of blacks, whites, and Indians. In boarding school she had her first direct interactions with white people as church clergy and teachers, and even observed her uncle (a teacher at the school) maintain a romantic relationship with a white colleague for years. As she tells it, her positive experience with white American teachers balanced her tense observations of white Rhodesian police arresting suspected political activists and rebel-group members from her village.
While my mother’s upbringing was the relatively quiet life of church, home and eventually boarding school, the war for liberation more impacted my father’s upbringing and young adult life. Similar to my mother’s experience, my father grew up with limited interaction with white people until school. His first experience with direct discrimination came at the University of Rhodesia. “There were blacks, whites, and Indians all taking the same class. Of course, we were seated in separate areas in the lecture hall and the professor directed most of his questions to the white students. If the professor asked a question and none of the white students raised their hands, even with a black student’s hand raised – ready to provide the answer – the professor would give the answer anyway.” As calls to join the Rhodesian army went up and the political situation became more unstable, my father evaded the forced call up to join the Rhodesian Army. He didn’t consider joining the Rhodesian army or the Zimbabwe African People’s Revolutionary Army (so called rebel forces), for his father was already engaged in neighboring Zambia fighting with ZAPU and the African National Congress and he had lost his younger brother and several cousins in the liberation war. He quit the University of Rhodesia as he had already secured a scholarship to study at university in England.
When I asked my parents their thoughts on Mandela, I could see that it was an emotional subject. They both said that there were somethings that could not be explained, and this was one of them. My father learned of Mandela from his father (whose brother was an ANC treasurer), while my mother heard about Mandela from rumors in school, but really learned about Mandela through social organizations in university. “He was a symbol of freedom. He wasn’t going to change the system [while in jail], but he gave people a hope of ruling themselves, of being their own bosses.” Looking at the gross disparities in wealth, “ we would ask ourselves why, in our land, should we be poor?” And so they both got involved. My mother joined anti-apartheid groups, protesting day in and day out. In graduate school in Ireland in the mid-1980s, my father participated in the anti-apartheid protests of the British Lions rugby team playing against the Springboks – the widely known symbol of white South Africa (now widely known as Mandela’s olive branch to white South Africans). As a graduate student senator at university in Canada, my father had protested heavily against the apartheid government and the university’s investment in South African Companies. As a result of his protests, the university reinvested the money from those companies into full scholarships for several black South African students.
Hearing all these stories, I could not help but contemplate about how my own interactions with race had been so different from my parents. In the 1990s my parents moved to the United States and over the years, I dealt with my own instances of racism, and discrimination, but nothing like the oppressive system my parents grew up knowing. As a child I made Filipino, Jamaican and Indian friends. It was the early 1990s in New Jersey and everyone was a first-generation American; even the white kids, whose parents emigrated from various parts of the former Soviet Union. We all knew we were different, but I like to think we thought it was mostly because we all spoke different languages at home, rather than an awareness of race. Although we weren’t in South Africa, our little community, where parents shuffled kids from bar mitzvahs to quinceaneras, embodied the hopes of peace and harmony between different races that Mandela had espoused.
I reflected on my own experiences with racism, prejudice and discrimination, when the interactions were clearly issues of race. For instance, I knew it was about race the first time someone called me the n-word as I ate lunch in the high school cafeteria. And I knew it was about race the first time the empty cab drove past me and picked up the white couple less than 50 feet away. I also knew it was about race the first time a salesperson followed me around a high-end boutique. But those were instances, I told myself. They didn’t begin to compare to the systematic oppression my parents and grandparents had faced in Southern Rhodesia and South Africa where blacks had to be out of white areas by a certain time of day, where people who had emigrated from Europe controlled more land than people who had lived there for generations (or South Africa where passbooks determined where and when you could move through your own country). I couldn’t help but think about how my experience with race and discrimination differed from my parents; and I always wondered if my parents felt some kind of way about white people. I knew I struggled with it after each of those instances – how could they not? I also knew I was privileged to have only instances to wrangle over, rather than systems designed to oppress and minimize success. These instances didn’t and couldn’t overshadow the fulfilling and valuable relationships I had with my white friends.
I processed all of this and more as I hugged my mother tightly, listening to the news anchor repeat the news of Mandela’s death. I knew that the pain we felt at the loss of Mandela was deeply different, but that that the difference in our experiences with race relations as two generations in one house were what Mandela and countless others had fought for all those years.