Rest in Peace, Madiba

Nelson MandelaThe world turned dark today.

Nelson Mandela flew away. To a better place than this world.

My memories take me back to when I was a child in India, to class IV current events class, where I first learned about the cruelty and viscousness of apartheid. And then to my days at Florida State University, where I protested apartheid and urged divestment. The demonstrations over investments in South Africa matured me in so many ways. To February 11, 1990, when Mandela was released from prison. I could not take my eyes away from CNN, tears streaming down my face. It was as all the world had been freed. To the day in 2010 when I finally visited South Africa. Soweto and Robben Island were my two top destinations.

I stood in Mandela’s cell. Tried to imagine…

What a tower of a man he was. His name was synonymous with words that describe the very best of mankind. Courage. Virtue. Goodness. Strength. Love. Dedication. Honesty. Conviction. Fortitude. Brilliance. Soulful.

In the next few hours, days, weeks, I am sure I will read countless pieces on Mandela. But really, there are no words to describe the loss to the world.

Goodbye, Madiba.


Hector Pieterson was only 12 when he was gunned down — a hail of bullets cutting short the life of a young black boy and triggering what came to be known as the Soweto Uprising against South Africa’s brutal system of apartheid.

On this gloriously beautiful spring day, I stood at a plaza named after him. A stark monument, a museum, a photograph. All around, life goes on in Soweto, still a world away from Johannesburg, just like it was when Hector was a school boy.

I was a little older than Hector when he was killed. I only learned about him when I entered college, protested apartheid, marched for divestment. Read about Nelson Mandela and Steve Biko.

On June 16, 1975, students were protesting the use of Afrikaans, the language of their oppressors, as the medium of instruction in schools. When police opened fire, Hector fell on the corner of Moema and Vilakazi streets. Sam Nzima captured a black and white photograph of Pieterson’s limp and bloodied body being carried by a fellow student.

I stood now in that very spot with Nathaniel Mudau, a driver who works for CNN in Johannesburg. He insisted we have a photo taken in front of the memorial. So we did. A teenage boy named Karabo snapped the photo and printed it out on a battery operated printer.

Nathaniel showed me around Soweto, where he grew up, where his family still lives. We stopped for lunch at Ethel Maria’s. She grills chicken and beef in her front yard and serves them with salads, rice and porridge mostly to local policemen, teachers and nurses.

Ethel Maria has lived in her two-room shack in Soweto since 1965. She still doesn’t have running water inside the house. Life is still a struggle for her, 16 years after a black-majority government finally took power in South Africa. At 51, Ethel Maria does not harbor hope in her heart anymore.

Maybe it will be different for her children but freedom has meant very little life changes for her. Freedom did not give her a bigger place, respite from work seven days a week

On top of a makeshift grill, she made the best chicken I tasted in South Africa. After the meal, everyone at the table shared a wet towel to wipe our hands and paid her $4 for the meal.

Then Nathaniel took me around Soweto. I’ve posted photos here of the murals painted at a power plant and the shanties that still dot the landscape.

In the days of apartheid, black people were forced to live here. Many awoke at the crack of dawn and spent a fortune on a rickety old bus that took them into Johannesburg for work. Now, downtown Johannesburg is apocalyptic. Abandoned by whites, the wealth has been sucked dry and the one-posh apartment buildings and skyscrapers have stood still in time.

Nathaniel made me put up the windows to the car in neighborhoods like Hillbrow — the crime there makes the most violent parts of Atlanta look like paradise.

Life is much calmer in Soweto. But hard still for most of the residents.

“This is the way my house was then,” said Ethel Maria. But back then, she did not have her Nelson Mandela apron, the one she proudly wears every day when she cooks in her front yard.

Seeing through the colour lens

Driving through picturesque Cape Town and its environs in the Western Cape, I was truly awed. If you have ever driven down the Pacific Coast Highway, especially from San Francisco to Carmel, you will have good idea of how incredibly beautiful the scenery is here.

Rugged mountains heaving upward to the sky from humble beginnings where Atlantic waves crash violently on jagged shores. Pablo Neruda’s ocean green clashing with azure skies and the lime green of Fynbos, Afrikaans for Fine Bush, the native vegetation of succulents and shrubs.

Snaking highways take you through paradise at Chapman’s Peak, Hout Bay, Camp’s Bay — idyllic fishing towns where fish and chips shops serve up freshly caught Hake. And vineyards that offer tastings of the best Pinotage, Merlot and Chardonnay.

The houses dot the hillsides, graceful and full of splendour. You think: Yes, I could live here. Spend every day in this lush, luxe setting.

But you need a non-white person with you to tell you the real story of the Western Cape.

Even now, 16 years after South Africa established democracy and passed the strongest constitution in the world, perhaps, that bars any sort of discrimination, the vestiges of apartheid are not lost on a person of color.

Yes, you can go to South Africa and go on safaris and see its National Geographic beauty, but you cannot ever forget what was here. And if you look closely, behind the hills, far away from the tourist signs, you will still see apartheid.

At Hout Bay, you can see the flats built for coloreds when you get high up on the hill. There it is. In all its ugliness.

Or what about Ocean View?

“Look there,” said my guide Gillian Schroeder, a coloured woman who grew up in the Cape Flats (pictured with me at Chapman’s Peak). “How ironic. There’s no view.”

Just rows and rows of horrific housing built inland to house coloreds evicted from Simon’s Town, a place where tourists now venture to look at African penguins and shop for antiques.

And what about the blacks? You can’t even see their townships from the main roads and highways. They are tucked away like the poor in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas.

Only here, I cannot forget that they were forced from their homes and put in segregated communities when apartheid was enforced in 1948. The Group Areas Act mandated separate communities and non-whites were plucked from the homes and throw into horrid shanties without any surrounding trees, without electricity, without anything save gray dust and misery.

My drive to the Cape of Good Hope (pictured above) was marred by conversation with Gillian of the past and present. Even though everyone is equal now in South Africa, there still is apartheid. Blacks still live in the townships. They still do the manual labor. the most menial tasks. Coloreds live in the flats. The richest neighborhoods, the nicest places are still all white.

In the United States, laws were changed but racism has taken many years to subside. It still manifests itself now, more than 40 years after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

In South Africa, it was different. There was brutal white rule and then a black majority democracy. But centuries of oppression don’t just go away, especially when the ruling class is still here. In my native India, the colonizers left. Here, they stayed.

How do you live side by side after all that hatred, all those tears, all that cruelty. A Truth and Reconciliation Commission can help, but it cannot erase the emotions swirling in millions of hearts.

I have to say that it is truly amazing to me how blacks, coloureds, Indians and whites live side by side now. Those who were oppressed have amazingly forgiven.

But as my friend, Stephen Moagi of Capetown said, it is hard to forget.

His name tag at work reads: Stephens. Like a last name. None of his white employers have bothered to correct it. Small, but telling, I thought.

Eunice, a black waitress at Bertha’s restaurant on the ocean in Simon’s Town (pictured, top, left), gives her name as Thabiso. That’s her name in Xhosa. That’s what she prefers. Except no one ever bothered to ask.

You don’t have to look hard to notice. Just take your eyes off the guide books and tours. And you will know the real South Africa.

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