Nelson Mandela: What South Africans couldn't tell their kids about him (+video)
Nelson Mandela was a silent icon to a generation of South African parents too frightened to tell their kids about him. That he seized the imagination of youth and inspired them to rise up against apartheid is one of the great ironies of South African history.
As parents, we transmit the qualities – and myths – of our leaders through the stories we tell our children. Think George Washington and his cherry tree, Abraham Lincoln and his Gettysburg Address, Martin Luther King and his “I Have A Dream” speech, delivered at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial.Skip to next paragraph
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But what if we not only did not pass on those tales to the next generation, but actively worked to suppress them? Surprisingly, that is what happened in the case of Nelson Mandela, the anti-apartheid revolutionary and former president of South Africa, who died Dec. 5. That he was nonetheless able to seize the imagination of hundreds of thousands of young South Africans and inspire them to rise up against apartheid’s unspeakable oppression is yet another tribute to what was his last-of-a-kind leadership.
The details of Mr. Mandela's imprisonment are well known. In July 1963, South African police raided the secret headquarters of the armed wing of the African National Congress at a farm outside of Johannesburg, arresting most of its leaders. Eight of them, including Nelson Mandela, were sentenced to life in prison on Robben Island, a desolate stretch of rock off the coast of Cape Town. The raid effectively stilled black opposition for a decade. What remained of the ANC was forced to regroup outside the country, far from South Africa’s borders. An entire generation of black activists was imprisoned, banned, or exiled. To deter resurgence of political movements, the police assumed unbridled powers of arrest and detention and recruited an army of black informers; the government imposed harsh restrictions on the press.
The measures left blacks utterly intimidated. People shunned political discussions; to speak of such matters was to invite repression. The ANC’s protest campaigns of the 1950s, the creation of its Freedom Charter, the stories of its leaders – all slipped into obscurity, suppressed by parents too frightened to tell their children. Newspapers could not even print Mr. Mandela’s photograph.
A young man recounted to me a remarkable example of this parental attempt to protect their children when I was working as The Christian Science Monitor's South Africa correspondent in the late 1980s. One day when he was a little boy, he asked his father about graffiti he had seen spray-painted on an electrical sub-station on his way home from school in the sprawling black township of Soweto. “Who is Mandela?” he inquired. His father instantly slapped him across the face; in a choked voice, he ordered his son never to utter the name again and stalked out of the room.