Nelson Mandela and the Atlanta-South Africa connection

By Tom Baxter

I have two framed mementos of the weeks I spent covering South Africa’s first multi-racial election in 1994. One of them is my favorite political poster of all time.

Under the legend, “a better life for all,” there’s a picture of Nelson Mandela surrounded by a diverse group of 11 children. The ANC logo and the ballot photo of Mandela with an X beside it — an important detail for people who had never voted before — make up the lower border.

I particularly like this poster because of what it teaches about the different ways racial distinctions are made. An American looking at the photograph would see a group of black and white kids, with a couple of shades of brown mixed in. But as I learned, South Africans, with a much more articulated sense of racial and ethnic difference, saw it very differently. They saw 11 different children, the Afrikaner child distinct from the English child, the Indian from the colored, the Sotho from the Zulu.

One of Mandela’s great gifts was his understanding of his country — the “Rainbow Nation,” as Desmond Tutu later dubbed it — as one of the world’s great junction points, and his determination to forge a truly global society from a tragic history of cultural collision. He spoke Xhosa and English, but he spoke a little Yiddish, too. Like any truly great politician, he understood the fine grain of his electorate.

At the same time, Mandela remained unflinchingly loyal to the African National Congress and all those who stood by it during the dark days of Apartheid. I watched his televised debate with South African President F. W. de Klerk in the living room of an Afrikaner family in Randberg, northwest of Johannesburg in an area that seemed a lot like a South African Cobb County. The Mandela who debated that night was not the reassuring elder statesman we’ll see so many times these next few days, but a freedom fighter who had endured 27 years in prison to have this debate, and was coldly determined to win it.

The Afrikaners were solid de Klerk supporters, and they probably thought it was phony when Mandela grasped de Klerk’s hand at the end after relentlessly attacking him throughout the debate. But I think they also found it somewhat reassuring. They were going through a much faster process of change than the South’s decade’s-long acceptance of integration, and they needed some token of inclusion in the new South Africa which was only weeks away.

The second framed memento is the April 27, 1994 front page of the Sowetan, which for me represents a remarkable web of personal and historical coincidences.

Under the banner headline, “Freedom in Our Lifetime” — the goal Chief Albert Luthuli set in 1956 when he was president of the ANC — was a photo of Julia Luthuli, his widow, casting her first vote. My wife was a friend of Tandi Gcabashe, Luthuli’s daughter, during her years in Atlanta as a representative of the American Friends Service Committee. Improbably enough, Mrs. Luthuli is being assisted in the photograph by the Indian cab driver who ferried me and my colleagues, the pre-MARTA Lyle Harris and photographer W.A. Bridges, around Durban in the days before the vote.

Atlanta and South Africa have a long and fascinating history of such interconnections, reaching back to the 19th Century. A lot of Atlantans went there in 1994 as volunteers and election officials. I remember the Rev. James Orange, that lion, organizing on the mean streets of Durban as he had in Atlanta. There were already a lot of ex-pat South Africans living in Atlanta at that time (these days the South African flag and even I (Heart) Hout Bay bumper stickers seem routine), and they were very generous in making connections we never could have made by ourselves.

No one who was there will ever forget that three-day election, when so many people voted that you couldn’t see the end of the line for one polling place from the beginning of the line at another. An AFL-CIO poll worker from Philadelphia had seen an old man lift his arm in a hospital bed and in his dying moment, place his finger on the picture of Mandela on the ballot held before him. None of those who waited so patiently to vote could be entirely sure there wouldn’t be another terrorist bombing like the one the weekend before in downtown Johannesburg.

In the top-left corner of that Sowetan front page there’s an artist’s conception of the suspect in that bombing, with a plug to a story inside. The picture fit precisely with the description given by a drunk street thug who had persuaded me a couple of nights before to accompany him to a police station — at 2 a.m., after the official ceremony changing the South African flag and the long street celebration which followed — to report his story of seeing a man running from the explosion.

It’s one of the miracles of that special time that the suspect and the potential chaos he represented was only an inside story on that day, when Nelson Mandela’s election was Page One.

There was a measure of good luck in the way power was ultimately transferred, and there is a measure of disappointment, looking back, that despite many successes, Mandela’s lofty goals for the new South Africa haven’t been realized. But these are the things one might say of any truly great world leader. Nelson Mandela’s passing will be honored here today, as it will be in the country he led so admirably.

Postscript: By a mournful coincidence, Mandela’s death was followed by the news that the Congolese singer Tabu Ley Rochereau died the previous weekend in Brussels. The African continent lost its greatest voice within days of its greatest leader.
An obit today called him the African Elvis Presley, but that’s entirely off key. He was the African Frank Sinatra. More urbane and Westernized than his great rival, Franco  Luambo Makiadi, Rochereau, the “Voice of Light” sang the kind of sentimental songs that inspired a deep nostalgia in an older generation of African expatriates. (Wonderful examples at the beginning of this clip.) Here again, there’s an Atlanta connection.
Several years ago, Rochereau and his band played the Midtown Music Festival, decked out in the kind of Africanesque garb that a mostly white audience might have expected. At the end a band member announced in broken English that they’d be playing later at a club called Catfish, on Ponce de Leon.
When Lili and I got there shortly after midnight, Rochereau had changed into a sharp-looking Italian suit and was playing before a much different audience: people from countries all over Africa who had learned about his appearance largely by word of mouth.
They played until after 4 a.m., and the crowd danced the Congolese rumba, a dance which is almost the definition of cool: stately and mannered as a minuet, yet driven by an irresistible groove. Rochereau told them he would play the old songs as long as they wanted him to.
“You can’t be homesick tonight,” he said. “This is your home tonight.”

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.

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