The speeches at Oakland City Hall last week were punctuated by drums. Vukani Mawethu, a group specializing in anti-apartheid songs, performed. Deputy Mayor Sandré Swanson recalled that unforgettable day when Nelson Mandela visited Oakland to thank the city for its efforts to end apartheid. Cyril Ndaba, the South African consul general, reiterated Mandela's appreciation. "Through you ordinary citizens along with your leaders, you changed the world," he said.
I wish more of Oakland and the Bay Area had been at the tribute to the late Mandela. I wish more high school and middle school students had been there.
Since Mandela passed earlier this month, Oakland has been basking in the recognition of its significant role in the anti-apartheid movement. And rightly so. The movement was strong.
Many of the activists have died; those still with us have less hair, white hair and more pounds. A good number are still involved with work for social change.
Interviewing those players about the Bay Area's special connection to Mandela was like a walk down memory lane. I talked to people I hadn't spoken with in decades. Everyone marveled that so much time had passed. The passage of time, however, had not dimmed the glow of such a profound victory -- contributing to the dismantling of the racist, immoral and incredibly brutal South African government. It was the highlight of many people's political lives.
Typically, the media coverage of Mandela's death and the world's reaction has portrayed him as a superman who single-handedly changed the world. Maybe it's an inherent flaw of the media; it's certainly a disservice to Mandela himself.
Probably more than anyone, he understood that he could not have accomplished what he did without the millions of people in South Africa and across the world who organized, sacrificed, risked their lives and died to end apartheid. The world wouldn't even have known about him -- he would have died in that barren prison on Robben Island -- if his colleagues in the African National Congress had not gotten the word out and organized support for him and his cause -- the end of apartheid.
The anti-apartheid movement in South Africa was stalled when the Soweto Uprising in 1976 reignited it. More than 700 black South Africans, most of them young -- including Steve Biko -- were killed by police and military forces. The brutal suppression of that movement showed the world apartheid could no longer be tolerated or ignored.
A decade later, black South Africans and the labor movement there intensified their resistance in protest of an election that would have allowed "coloreds" and Indians to vote but would have continued to disenfranchise 73 percent of the population. Thinking about it now, it seems absolutely insane the South African government would have proposed such a political system.
President Ronald Reagan played a part in the government's bold intransigence. He lifted part of the arms embargo, allowing U.S. corporations to sell military equipment to the South African police, equipment used against the unarmed protesters.
One of the strategies to end apartheid was the divestment movement. Universities, cities and counties voted to withdraw their funds from banks and corporations that did business in South Africa. Opponents argued that U.S. corporations could help the black South Africans more by staying in the country even though they had no history of supporting reform. It was called constructive engagement.
The anti-apartheid activists in the U.S. helped discredit that approach. The South African government also did its part, becoming more brutal and repressive. It arrested 1,000 labor leaders, forcibly relocated more than 3 million people on "homelands," raided townships and killed scores of people. Political experts have said the economic isolation of the South African government forced it to change.
The point is it took sustained organization. Even in Oakland, the City Council initially resisted passing a strong divestment ordinance, expressing concerns that withdrawing funds from the corporations would compromise their fiduciary responsibility. After pressure and protests, the council eventually passed one of the country's strongest divestment ordinances.
As one of the Bay Area activists mentioned, 14 years after Soweto, Mandela was freed. Eighteen years later he was the first president elected by the majority of South Africans. It was a remarkable demonstration of what people can achieve, particularly through international organization.
A woman at a public forum asked if people thought the media was sanitizing Mandela, making him into "a kind of Santa Claus." I have to agree with the observation. There has been much discussion of his role as conciliator -- an important role, to be sure -- and hardly any focus on what he spent his life fighting. We live in an ahistorical society, even as we pretend to commemorate historic events. Without understanding the history of the struggle against injustice, how can we hope to comprehend the victory?