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Mandela, Obama and a message to my grandchildren, not yet born

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By Dr. Garrey Michael Dennie 14.NOV.08

On February 2, 1990, I stood at a television screen in Johannesburg and witnessed Mandela’s release from a South African prison after a 27 year confinement. Four years later, in 1994, he became South Africa’s first black president. On November 4, 2008, I stood at a television screen in St. Mary’s County, Maryland, and witnessed Obama’s election to the presidency of the United States of America. On January 20, 2009, he will be inaugurated as the 44th American president and its first black president.{{more}}

Sometimes, chance affords some of us the opportunity to witness the birth of a new and more glorious dawn in human history. I was so privileged. For in October 1989, I arrived in South Africa to conduct research on political funerals. Certainly, I was implacably opposed to South Africa’s system of racial privilege – apartheid. It explained my choice of research subjects. But I also arrived in South Africa at a time when the African National Congress (ANC) had succeeded in convincing the racist regime that the peace and the prosperity of all South Africans could only be guaranteed if the government actively engaged in negotiating the end of apartheid and the construction of a new non-racial democracy. Hence, the ANC called for the release of all political prisoners, including Mr. Nelson Mandela.

Before arriving in South Africa, I never imagined that I would be linked to Mandela, the most revered figure in the anti-apartheid struggle. But within days of my arrival, I became a speech writer for Mr. Walter Sisulu – a companion of Mandela and a leader of the African National Congress who had been imprisoned for 25 years. I owed this to my South African house mate, Carolyn Hamilton, who would be tasked with writing Sisulu’s speeches. Only then did she reveal to me that she was an underground member of the ANC. I was shocked that a young white South African woman would risk her life and embrace the anti-apartheid struggle. But I was also profoundly moved by the fact that she recognized in me a kindred spirit who would embrace the opportunity to use the pen as a sword in the struggle to end apartheid. And use it I would. Because in February 1990 as I watched Mandela being released from prison, I did so with the intoxicating knowledge that Carolyn and I would also be writing Mandela’s speeches.

The day itself was one of incandescent joy. I remember leaving my house and joining a massive crowd that began running, dancing, and singing through the streets of Johannesburg even as the police, apartheid’s enforcers, directed traffic to facilitate the celebrations of what we recognized as a defining moment in South Africa’s history. Mandela’s release triggered the hope in millions of South Africa and billions around the world that it was possible to overcome the scourge of racism and to dream of the infinite possibilities of a new chapter in human history where one’s skin color neither hindered nor promoted one’s right to participate and share fully and equally in the burdens, responsibilities, and privileges of citizenship. In that moment of supreme exhilaration, I could not have imagined, and indeed for eighteen years since, I dared not believe that it would be possible once again to scale the heights of Mt. Pisgah and gaze into the promised land of racial reconciliation. But on November 4, 2008, the American electorate literally and figuratively stretched forth its hand, and destroyed in an instant the flawed logic of its racial history, captured the yearnings of a new generation that embraced the ideals of the equality of all persons, and elected Barack Obama to be its first African American president.

My part here was a small one. Like other donors, I sent Obama several hundred dollars to help fund his campaign. I also carried a bumper sticker on my car – and did indeed feel a sense that I was participating in the effort to make history. But above all, I voted. And so did my wife and my daughter. Early on November 4, we left our house, went to the polling station, and voted for Obama. And that night, we sat around the television and waited.

The announcement of Obama’s victory sent my household into paroxysms of joy evocative of Mandela’s release from prison some 18 years ago. As a rule, I drink alcohol on exceptionally rare occasions. But with Obama’s victory, my friends and I savored the moment with shots of Guinness mixed with Jamaican rum cream. And my wife Debbie, who is even less a drinker than I am, she took a shot, too. Our children also joined in the celebration, drinking non-alcoholic champagne in honor of this moment. Our purpose was simple: to protect this moment of history in the reservoirs of memory so that it would forever be remembered as the night when the last citadel of racial power fell, and the demon of race was exorcised.

In a very real sense, the Obama moment represented a more thorough exorcism of racism than Mandela’s ever did – or could. For in South Africa, a minority White population fought to the bitter end against the logic and power of racial equality, and reluctantly transferred power only in the certain knowledge that five percent of the population could not forever stand against the force of ninety five percent of the population. In the USA, however, a majority white population handed the keys to the kingdom to an African American. Mandela’s triumph signaled the defeat of South Africa’s racial power structure but racism remained alive. Obama’s ascendancy, however, drove a stake through the heart of the beast. It may linger at death’s door for a while; but it will never recover the life it once possessed.

As a witness to and a participant in these momentous events, to my grandchildren not yet born, I say quite simply: “I was there.”

Dr. Dennie is a Vincentian and the Director of the African and African Diaspora Studies Program at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. His publications include: “Flames of Race, Ashes of Death: Cremating the Dead in South Africa,”; “One King Two Burials: The re-burial of King Dalindyebo.”; “ Race, Death, and Indigence in South Africa”.

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