The Frontline Club: South Africa Twenty Years after Mandela walked to Freedom

I don’t remember noticing the news reports of Nelson Mandela’s release on this day 20 years ago.  In 1990 I was a 13 year old girl living in a small town in Australia, who was too absorbed in the drama of boys and Point horror plotlines to notice the eminently more dramatic events unfolding outside my bubble.

But four years later, feeling far more worldly as a University* student in the big city (*ahem* Brisbane) I shamefully shed a tear over the front page of The Courier Mail as I walked up Anne Sreet.  Pictured was a line of tired but determined African people, patiently waiting to cast their vote for the ANC and Mandela. 

I now look back on it as a shameful moment, not because I cried openly in public, but because I had made very little effort to actually learn anything about apartheid.  I bought the paper that day solely for the picture; I certainly wasn’t a regular newspaper reader. 

My generic sympathy on that day encompassed all those who had experienced struggle, overcome pain and were looking towards more hopeful futures.  And like most of us continue to be today, I was awed by the powerful, almost god-like figure of Nelson Mandela that even a news-virgin such as myself was in thrall to.     

Last night, along with my friend D, I arrived at the Frontline Club’s South Africa panel discussion only slightly less ignorant than I was 16 years ago.  Having recently seen the superb film adaptation of J. M Coetzee’s ‘Disgrace’, and hearing varying perspectives on the country from those I know who have lived there, I was keen to become a little more enlightened.

The panel shared their personal recollections of Mandela’s release, discussed what had been delivered in South Africa since the ANC was elected, and speculated about the future growth and development of the country.

The speakers found it difficult to commit to whether Mandela was the last of his kind of African leader or the first in a new line, instead positioning him as one of those rare international leaders who transcend their geographic boundaries and national concerns to represent the hope and aspiration of people around the world.  Interestingly, Jacob Zuma (the current South African president who’s in a little hot water at present for his virility) is considered to be truly a man of the African people.  This resonates with what I’ve read in the press about the West’s guarded assessment of his government’s potential.

John Battersby, co-author of Nelson Mandela: A Life in Photographs, believes South Africa’s future can only be understood in the context of its past.  Apartheid deeply affected the psyche of white and black south Africans alike, meaning it could take three generations before reconciliation is achieved and people are lifted out of poverty.

The most touching observation of the evening belonged to the host, BBC news presenter George Alagiah.  A few years ago in South Africa, he asked a group of primary school students if they knew what racism was.  In this predominantly black African school, a young boy pointed to his white classmate and said: “It’s when I look at Devon and call him a whitey”.  

The full discussion can be heard on The Frontline Club’s site.  

*I started University aged 16, not because of any precocious displays of intelligence, but as a consequence  of Queensland’s pliable rules on school starting ages and a secondary schooling that only runs to Year 12.

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