06 December 2013

What Nelson Mandela Means to Me

It's hard to know what to say about Nelson Mandela without sounding trite or without repeating what thousands of others are saying.

I was born in South Africa of Lebanese descent.  My parents, also born in South Africa, moved to London in 1961 to escape persecution for their darker skin.

I can't imagine what it must be like to have to leave everything behind because of fear for your freedom and your life.  My mother has had difficulty talking about it all her life, but every now and then I get glimpses of the sheer terror that the Apartheid regime inflicted on millions of people like her.

Nelson Mandela changed all that.  He is a hero to my family just as he is to billions who have not lived in South Africa.

I did a lot of work on  poverty dynamics in South Africa in the 1992-2000 period and I still remember first hand the hope unleashed by his new-found freedom.

But perhaps most important was the hope he gave people when he was not free.  He reminded us that fighting for fundamental rights frequently means being prepared to sacrifice your own.

RIP Mandiba and thank you.


Uma Lele said...

Dear Lawrence: I was touched by your story on South Africa. I used to lead World Bank missions to Lesotho in the mid 1970s to help design and appraise a project in support of agricultural development and used to have to go through South Africa. With a multi-racial team being led by a little brown woman, it used to be a tense experience. While in transit in South Africa we could stay only in designated hotels for international visitors and in Bloemfontein could not spend the night as Asians were legally barred from being present after sunset in the Orange Free State. Gandhi in South Africa, a book written by Robert A. Huttenback Cornell University Press, 1971, a Ph.D. Thesis by a political scientist, used to be my bible for understanding South Africa while meandering through the country on the way to Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland, I might add, as soon as I could get out of South Africa. I learnt from “Gandhi in South Africa” that the Afrikaners did not want “Asians” (Indians who had migrated to South Africa) competing with them in agriculture and the English did not want them to acquire mining rights, so land laws had been passed prohibiting them from land purchases—one reason Gandhi was invited to South Africa to defend the rights of “Asians”. Much to Gandhi’s surprise and disappointment he found that the British who talked about the Empire being different from the colonies did not really mean to give equal rights to Indians and had no intention of defending their rights in South Africa, a discovery which gradually radicalized the young anglophile Gandhi leading him to perfect his protest movement in South Africa.

Visitors were a novelty in South Africa in the 70s and when people encountered a multi-racial team like ours travelling together and having fun used to ask us where we came from, the fact that my white colleagues came mostly from the Bank’s Nairobi office, and I from Washington—used to surprise them and they would frequently ask us what the rest of the world thought of South Africa. After the end of apartheid I discovered that my book the Design of Rural Development: Lessons from Africa, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975 was much in demand in South Africa, and I used to be invited by the South African Development Bank to work in issues of land reform and rural development. A dramatic turn around, thanks to Nelson Mandela.

Noloyiso Tsembeyi said...

Dear Lawrence

As a South African I can not begin to explain the gifts Nelson Mandela afforded all our people with his courage. The free and democratic South Africa we see today is largerly due to him and those who were like-minded. A generation of leaders, who were willing to forgo their freedom for the democratic rights and freedom of others.

Our nation mourns, yet at the same time we reflect on the contribution he has made not only to us, but to the entire world.

I believe the world shares in our sorrow because much like you, he meant something to each of us personally.

I feel it has been a privilege to have witnessed the life of a world icon whose values indicate to us all, that perhaps the world does indeed have universal values to which we can all ascribe.

RIP Tata.
Lala ngoxolo Dib'elihle. Ulufezi ugqatso. ndlela entle Madiba wethu!