Whenever I think of South Africa, I think of my father who was a staunch anti-apartheid activist and one of the most intelligent and well-read people I have ever known. His library included the works of Baraka, Lenin, Marx and Stalin. He had street credibility because he could run numbers with the best of them, he would smoke a pack of menthol cigarettes daily, and pull women like he was picking apples off of a tree. He would talk with everyone about what was going on in South Africa on the street or in the classroom. His intelligence was unmatched, and he could debate for hours about any topic without making you feel like a complete idiot although you knew you had no business trying to oppose him intellectually.
In my family, we often call our fathers and uncles “Baba" which is a Swahili word denoting our ancestral relationship to them and a term of respect. I still remember Baba’s red, black and green hat that said “Free Mandela" and his use of the word “Amandla". I would sometimes laugh at him with my teenage arrogance and ask him why his latest “soap box" issue should garner any of my attention. And with sadness in his voice, he would tell me that until Nelson Mandela was freed the world just wouldn’t seem right to him. For some reason, I understood that this wasn’t one of his typical radical arguments. This personal quest to see Nelson Mandela free represented something much more deep and painful. It seemed almost too painful for him to discuss with the same fervor and passion that he argued about money, politics and religion. He wanted to go to South Africa to fight firsthand alongside those that he viewed as his brothers and sisters in the freedom movement. He told me about the oppressive Bantu education, and the violent uprisings of students who refused to continue to be taught subservience.
Recently, I was able to study abroad in South Africa as part of a doctoral program focusing on educational policy. We traveled there to study the educational system, and the country’s efforts to overhaul the damage that years of oppression had on their educational institutions. Our greatest challenge as students was trying to conceptualize what this meant for the millions of South Africans who wanted to pursue higher education. We constantly talked about the roles colonialism, hegemony and racism played in the Apartheid structure, but I don’t believe that any of us could fully grasp how this impacted the lives of people living this experience on a daily basis.
Our South Africa study abroad provided us with a snapshot of what it must mean to work within a system that has historically prevented all students from receiving access to the best education possible. We attended lectures at the University of Pretoria, the University of Witwatersrand, and Tshwane North College for FET. At these lectures, there were administrators, professors and students. Each of these people provided us with a lens by which to view the transformation of the higher education system of South Africa in a post-apartheid system. I saw the influence that the apartheid regime had on the socio-economic status of many Black South Africans. The stratification that existed as part of apartheid was evident although the system of apartheid had ended over a decade before.
When I took pictures of young children in Soweto who were begging for Rand (South African money), I felt more emotional about the bridge that many of the educators were trying to build for those who had historically been disadvantaged in their country. I wondered aloud how these educators could attain their goal of achieving integration at schools that were historically categorized by the four races in South Africa: Whites, Indians, Coloreds and Blacks. I didn’t understand their racial categories, their monuments to Dutch colonists (Voortrekker), or how and why whites still maintained control of many of the businesses and real estate in the country.
I visited the former home of Nelson Mandela which stands in a small area in Soweto not far from the Hector Pieterson Museum. Mandela’s former home has become a museum where a person can walk through the house of the man who was imprisoned for 27 years on Robbin Island. In this Mandela Family Museum, the tour guide took us to the kitchen and told us how, for the time that they lived there, the Mandela’s (both Nelson and Winnie) often had a lock on the refrigerator because they had been told that their food would be poisoned. The tour guide took us through the tiny house and explained that Mandela attempted to move back to this house after his release from prison but was only able to stay there for eleven days because reporters from around the world camped outside of the house.
Later on the same day, I visited the Hector Pieterson Museum. I saw pictures of the students (many of them children) who protested during the Soweto student uprising, some of whom lost their lives as police shot at them. The Hector Pieterson Museum is surrounded by vendors that tell you their stories in their deeds and words. Some are relatives of the deceased children, and they will tell you which one was theirs and how they were related to them. These relatives wanted to see if we appreciated what took place at this historic site when Hector Pieterson and many others gave their lives in the name of freedom. Hecter Pieterson is the dead 12-year old student that is featured in the famous photo of two children in school uniforms carrying his bloody body after the police shot him down. During the uprising the Soweto students shouted “Amandla" which means power to signify their solidarity with the imprisoned Nelson Mandela and the activist organization, the African National Congress.
A few days into my trip we visited a place called God’s Window in Mpumalamanga and I was struck by the beauty and hope that still remained in a place governed for so many years by fear, hatred and pain. While standing at God’s Window, I no longer focused on the hegemonic practices of European countries that colonized third world countries around the world. Instead, I thought of my father and I remembered his energy and spirit.
I was eighteen years old when Paul Nakawa Sanders passed away in August of 1988. Amiri Baraka eulogized my Baba in his book, entitled Eulogies and he noted that Nakawa transitioned from the Black Nationalism of the 1960s to a better understanding of the need for global activism or internationalism in his latter years. My father never lived to see the man that he admired, who was unjustly imprisoned for twenty-seven years, become President Nelson Mandela. His “Abolish Apartheid" t-shirts were faded and torn by the time apartheid was actually abolished. But I saw all of these things for him. I stood on the mountaintop at God’s Window and I saw that the beauty of South Africa is that it still exists. It stands in all its glory as a symbol of all that can happen when people- simple citizens, some children, some adults, some former revolutionaries, and even their skeptical daughters- believe enough to ignore those that would oppress them and continue on in their quest for Black liberation.
Kijua Sanders-Mcmurtry is a doctoral candidate at Georgia State University in Atlanta, GA. She is also the fruit of the black power movement.
This article was originally published in http://www.natcreole.com/ , an online global urban culture magazine. Visit the site weekly for updated news, reviews, profiles, playlists, essays, travel journals, and upcoming events.