On Donald Trump, Nelson Mandela, Racism and Making Friends with Your Enemies by Charlene Smith, Biographer of President Nelson Mandela
(Featured Photo Credit: Dana Gluckstein)
By Charlene Smith
I’m the sort of immigrant Donald Trump finds acceptable, blonde, attractive, accomplished, and with a British accent.
On the last point, come to think of it, most Americans would let me in.
This is where it gets difficult; I am South African-born. I’ve lived under neo-Nazis. Some apartheid presidents were jailed during the Second World War for active Nazi support, and the biggest spy ring ever uncovered in the U.S. was led by a South African Nazi. My parents were racist, and my father, a bully. I was a kind child and when about eight-years-old, my siblings and I were playing in a park. I saw three black children holding the diamond links of the fence, watching us.
“Come and play with us,” I said.
“Our mother said we can’t,” the boy closest in age to me said.
“Oh come, it will be fine,” I urged, and they, tempted by the colorful merry-go-round, the swings and slides, ran into the park. There we played until we heard sirens and saw police vehicles skid to a stop outside the park. Something terrible must have happened. We stood transfixed. The police ran toward us. We were confused, we hadn’t seen any baddies.
They grabbed the three black children, who screamed and cried, as they were hauled off to police vans. A black woman, a maid, came out of one of the houses and fell to her knees pleading with the police officers who ignored her.
She wailed as the police vehicles sped off.
I had done this. I brought harm to this mother and my friends. Even now I feel shame.
Children are wise, they understand injustice, and no matter what their parents say or do, they know.
I was a clever child who won academic and good fellowship awards at school, I was never promiscuous, nor used drugs or alcohol, but arguments at home intensified. I felt apartheid was unjust. At the age of sixteen, a month after I graduated high school, I was labelled a ‘traitor’ by my parents, and a ‘kaffir boetie’ (the equivalent of ‘nigger lover’) and banished from home. I had no money and scant education but a journalism cadet program at the largest newspaper group accepted this shy child. I became the youngest cadet reporter ever and the first woman crime reporter in South African journalism. It was 1976 and black students protested inferior education. I saw the first dead bodies of my life as children my age and younger were gunned down by police. More than 600 died and that radicalized me. Five years later I was active in the underground of the African National Congress, the outlawed liberation group that Mandela belonged to.
There were three levels of commitment – were you prepared to be arrested?
To prepare we read St. Augustine’s Just War theory. I became a disciple of Gandhi and satyagraha, non-violent resistance. He counselled that we should not respond to haters in like manner – or as Michelle Obama put it, “when they go low, we go high.” Gandhi also wrote in his 1928 book, Satyagraha in South Africa, “you shall not bend your knee before an oppressor.” Stand tall, be dignified, never cower.
The next decision was, if I get arrested and am interrogated and tortured, will I speak, or remain silent, or give them a little but not that which is most important? Do I shame the oppressor by carrying the harm in my own body, as Gandhi suggested? The apartheid government loved torture as much as Trump.
The last personal assessment was, am I prepared to die? Nelson Mandela said in his statement from the dock:
We, of the ANC, always stood for a non-racial democracy. We shrank from any action which might drive the races further apart …Fifty years of non-violence brought the African people nothing but more and more repressive legislation, and fewer and fewer rights … Our complaint is not that we are poor by comparison with people in other countries, but that we are poor by comparison with white people in our own country. … I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realized. But, My Lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.
He was influenced by “Letter to a German Friend, July 1943,” in Resistance, Rebellion and Death, by Albert Camus, which was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1963. (I have the copy Mandela used.) These were letters the French Resistance dropped over German lines. Camus ends with words we need to start with:
This country is worthy of the difficult and demanding love that is mine. And I believe she is decidedly worth fighting for since she is worthy of a higher love… Your nation … received… only the love it deserved, which was blind. A nation is not justified by such love. That will be your undoing. And you who were already conquered in your greatest victories, what will you be in the approaching defeat?
The U.S.A. is not worthy of blind love. I love it with my eyes open. I hear the fear of the white working class who have lost work, forfeited homes, status, and struggle to pay excessive interest rates on student loans. Hate is a product of fear. Always.
I am disturbed by the militarization of the police. The notion of service is being surrendered to police force, and this enables the shooting of too many black men.
I didn’t want my children to live in a society that discriminated against anyone for any reason. I didn’t want them to ask when they grew up, “what did you do mommy?” And to have no answer.
My road led to Nelson Mandela.
We left South Africa for a time because my American husband feared that he would be deported and I would be jailed. In 1989, I returned after the assassination of a close friend. Four months later, Archbishop Desmond Tutu asked if I would begin the first investigations into government death squads. God blessed us, because within two weeks a death squad assassin escaped the noose in Pretoria by giving us an affidavit of some of his crimes. Liberal lawyers brought a stay of execution. It was my task to prove or disprove his claims before making them public. We did not know if this was security police disinformation. It included claims of police officials torturing a man then putting him on a spit to burn to death, while they barbecued nearby. They locked the doors of minivans with students inside and firebombed them. They used waterboarding, the helicopter, electric shock torture – all devices that the U.S.A. employs and we’ve mostly turned our faces because it was to others. It never could happen to us. Could it?
Pastor Niemoller, interned at Auschwitz wrote:
“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”
On February 10, 1990, I visited a friend recovering from pneumonia, Cyril Ramaphosa, now deputy president of South Africa. He was reading Barbara Tuchman’s, The March of Folly, and said, “every politician must read this.” In it, Barbara Tuchman writes:
Folly is a child of power… The overall responsibility of power is to …keep mind and judgement open and to resist the insidious spell of wooden-headedness. If the mind is open enough to perceive that a given policy is harming rather than serving self-interest, and self-confident enough to acknowledge it, and wise enough to reverse it, that is a summit in the art of government.
On February 11, 1990, Nelson Mandela, aged 71, walked free. Cyril held the microphone for him at his first public address in Cape Town. Two days later I was the second journalist to interview him in Soweto. He had such grace. Before I began he said, “Ms. Smith, I have read your works, I want to know about you.” He quoted verbatim things I’d written years before, and asked me to describe persons or events.
Nelson Mandela was always interested. He cared. If he met you once, he would remind you, when next you met, of what you discussed six months or a year before.
The world loved Nelson Mandela because he loved us, all of us. He came out of prison and told South Africa’s deeply divided people to ‘make friends of your enemies’ – when at that time there were government death squads, the right-wing were planting bombs at taxi ranks, and internecine violence saw hundreds of people die a week.
His approach caused anger among some ANC leaders. He listened to them patiently, and then asked, “What will it cost to negotiate?” They had no answer. We had lost so much peace was the most radical action of all.
No one was invisible to him. Our Madiba would arrive at an event and first greet the cooks, the cleaners, the security detail, the waiters; the rich and famous could wait. Everyone was important to him. Everyone is important.
He went to the white-only homeland of Orania to visit Betsy Verwoerd, the widow of the architect of apartheid and the man that sought Mandela’s execution. When they emerged, his hand gently on her old shoulder, she looked at him with pleasure. It flabbergasted a nation of haters.
If a woman or child was gravely harmed, he would travel across the country to comfort them. He was our president, our best friend and trusted ally, regardless of our political persuasion. We called him Tata (father).
He wasn’t perfect, he made mistakes, but he would admit when he was wrong, and change course. He was as flawed as we, he simply tried harder to be better.
I knew Nelson Mandela for 23 years. In July 2013, my father died and I did not mourn.
In 2015 I wrote a ‘letter’ ending with these words:
“I kept thinking about my absence of feeling. A few months after your death, Mandela died and I mourned deeply. I still do. At Christmas 2013, I thought of how sad your life was, how narrow, and how blessed I am to love many, and be loved by many. Sorrow for your sad life is what I now have, and so dad, my father, the architect of the person I am today, I want to thank you. I hope you have at last found peace.”
In America today, we fear. People are angry. Friendships have splintered. People whisper behind closed doors. They have panic attacks or insomnia. As apartheid became more vicious I developed a stress-related heart condition that saw me in the I.C.U. a few times a year. Since moving to the U.S.A. I have never been hospitalized. Don’t give bullies power over your mind and body.
I believe Mandela might say, “You know American people are very clever, they have achieved much. Along the way, they became lost, they were so busy telling others what to do that they ignored the cries of those at home. We are not ungrateful for their meddling, because sanctions – first called for by Martin Luther King in 1961 and finally defying a presidential veto from President Ronald Reagan in 1986 – saw me walk free less than four years later. As my good friend, the Archbishop Tutu might say, ‘There is a time for everything, this is America’s time, to build, to heal, to mend, to speak, to heal.’”
The word courage comes from the French word, coeur, it means heart. Courage comes from the heart. It is an act of love.
Open eyes are the fuel Lady Liberty needs. Pain leads to new awakenings, a fresh appreciation of what we are and all we can be. Listen with an open mind. Courage demands we make friends of our enemies and denounce persecutors. And always, as Mandela did, make time to dance.
Freedom challenges us. Justice Jackson ruled in 1941 in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette (who refused to salute the flag), “Freedom to differ is not limited to things that do not matter much. That would be a mere shadow of freedom. The test of its substance is the right to differ as to things that touch the heart of the existing order.”
After receiving a Congressional Gold Medal on October 6, 1994 (14 years before being removed from the Terrorism Watchlist), President Nelson Mandela said: “At the end, goodwill prevailed. At the end, the overwhelming majority, both black and white, decided to invest in peace.” This is my prayer for the land that has given hope to so many. In years to come may you look back at the courage you found, and the enhanced love you have for our United States of America.