Former South African President Nelson Mandela waves as he left his hotel in London while in the United Kingdom to celebrate his 90th birthday in 2008. (AP photo/Simon Dawson)
Do you remember Nelson Mandela’s visit to Boston?
It was almost 22 years ago, in June 1990, when the famous South African leader traveled here — just a few months after being released from prison on Robbin Island. Mandela had been held in detention for almost 28 years as a “terrorist” for resisting the apartheid system of white minority rule in his country.
The highlight of Mandela’s visit was his joyful appearance on June 23 before a huge crowd at the Hatch Shell on the Esplanade. I was there, pushing my nine-month-old son, Andrew, along in a stroller. My little boy — his middle name is Nelson — had a homemade flag with black, green and gold ribbons, the colors of the African National Congress.
Andrew and I watched Mandela from up close in the so-called “VIP Section” near the stage. This was because, over the previous several years, I had been working for the outlawed African National Congress at its exile headquarters in Lusaka, Zambia. Andrew was born while I was on a visit home from Africa.
After 1990, when apartheid was abolished, my colleagues from Lusaka were able to go home and my work for the ANC ended. I returned to Boston for work and to raise my family.
It’s hard to believe, but Andrew, who was referred to by my co-workers in Lusaka as “Little ANC,” is graduating this spring from university. His sister, Rachel, who was not yet born at the time of Mandela’s visit, is a college junior.
Over the years, I kept in touch with my closest friend from the ANC, who I knew in Zambia as “Wiseman Goldenway.” But this wasn’t his real name. Like most of the anti-apartheid activists in exile, he used an undercover identity to protect himself and his family back home from reprisals by the South African security forces.
In those days, anyone who dared to struggle for a country with one vote for one person, black or white, was considered a “terrorist” by the apartheid regime — and also by successive U.S. administrations. Many of them had done prison time at home and risked assassination abroad at the hands of South African agents. More than a few ANC members in exile were killed or gravely wounded by bomb or bullet.
Today, my friend — whose real name is Jabulani Jali — serves as a colonel in the South African army and lives in Pretoria (near Johannesburg) with his Angolan wife and teenage son. His story is emblematic of many South African young people of his generation.
Jabulani grew up in Soweto Township, outside “white” Johannesburg. In 1976, he joined the student protests against government-mandated instruction in Afrikaans — the language of the Boer colonizers — that sparked a new and militant upsurge of resistance to apartheid.
The world was electrified.
Soon there was a powerful international movement to boycott and isolate the apartheid regime. The Soweto rebellion by high school teenagers marked the beginning of the end for white minority rule in South Africa.
Jabulani, like many others, left to join the ANC outside the country. After military training, he fought alongside Angolans and Cubans to defeat an invasion by South African troops supporting the CIA/Zaire-backed UNITA rebels.
Eventually, when Nelson Mandela was elected president of a new democratic South Africa in 1994, the commander of the once “terrorist” ANC army was appointed his Defense Minister.
For many years, Wiseman/Jabulani has been pressing me to come for a visit to South Africa, which has always been postponed for one reason or another. I was busy with work, raising a family and union activism.
In the meantime, I did manage to make a number of trips to Israel and occupied Palestine — where many South Africans say they recognize a system comparable to the old days of minority rule at home. I thought so too, although I had never experienced the original apartheid first hand.
Those trips to Palestine reminded me that there was no excuse to delay another journey. So, finally, I’m going to South Africa.
Post-apartheid South Africa is wrestling with serious problems: Poverty, government cronyism and the struggle for a more equal distribution of the country’s wealth. But the country has made an enormous stride in achieving equal rights for all its citizens, regardless of color.
I’ll be there with my friend Jabulani to mark the anniversary of the Soweto Uprising on June 16. They call it “Youth Day” now and in Free South Africa it’s celebrated as a national holiday.
Jeff Klein is a retired machinist and local union president active with Dorchester People for Peace.