Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Nelson Mandela's Connections to AVC

Thoughts on the Passing of a Hero

South Africa might seem a long way from the Antelope Valley, but the recent passing of political leader and role model Nelson Mandela reminds us all about the ways that great people touch many lives.

It is easy when something is on every CNN web page or TV broadcast to think of it as "news" (that is, something like the situation in Syria --- "over there" and "important," but not really relevant to us locally). Mandela's passing is worthy though of being taken out of the "Syria" side of the equation and put more locally, more directly, into the "this matters" side of the equal sign.

His life and work touched more lives on campus than some people might guess. I was talking about this the other day with Dr. Charlotte Forte-Parnell, Dean of Language Arts, Instructional Resources, and about a million other sub-chores and ancillary responsibilities. Here she is, sharing with me her "from the era" Free Nelson Mandela t-shirt.

We were talking about his release from a life sentence in prison --- more on that in a moment --- and how people in America felt. She was excited, even ecstatic to hear the news, as were many of us. At the UC system, first as a student and later as faculty, I had joined others in protests that tried to get (and were successful in getting) the University of California Board of Regents to sell off their investments in firms that supported the Apartheid regime. As Dr. Forte-Parnell says, looking back to Mandela's rise to international status, "He was part of larger movements for social change, change that I was involved in too. You had Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, there were breaking points like the Watts Riots, and there were the great leaders, Nelson Mandela included. He is another unifying piece of that crucial era."

I first learned about apartheid in high school, back in the long-ago 1970s. Here I am, third from the left, seated, wearing aviator glasses and having my picture taken with the Sci-Fi Club that I started.

I probably knew about the laws of robotics than I did about social justice, but luckily I had some wise and patient teachers, including a pastor at my church. But I also met a boy called Ian, who was assigned to be my handball partner in PE. He was a white exchange student from South Africa, and had only been allowed an exit visa on the understanding that he would promote and support apartheid as a concept. He was to be the repressive Boer government's ambassador abroad.

On the face of it, he did that, appearing in multiple civics classes to explain how "separate but equal" kept things stable, and how it helped the "lesser" classes function more efficiently. You could tell, though, that he knew even then how unfair it was, and through body language and quiet deviations in the narrative, he managed to tell two stories at once: the government's, but also the resistance's.

Put bluntly, the white-minority government in South Africa kept control by reducing anybody of non-white status to near-enslavement. Non-whites could only live in certain, specified ghettos, and they had almost no civil rights. They could not vote, could not work, could not do anything outside of the most restricted options. If they gathered to protest, they were savagely beaten or were arrested on false charges. In essence, they had no rights, including to rights to a fair trial.

Some tried to speak out, even so. Here is a pre-prison Nelson Mandela, burning his passbook. This was a race-based identity card that one was required to carry at all times. It gave you permission to exist if you were one race, and, in contrast, restricted you if you were a different race. Mandela spoke out against many things, and here is shown in a very serious act of defiance, burning his passbook. It is a provocative act --- sort of like burning a Confederate flag outside a Klan rally. Yet in his defiance, he became the voice of an oppressed nation.

After hiding out inside South Africa and traveling abroad, ultimately he was arrested and convicted of treason and, basically, also of being a terrorist. (The CIA may have helped hand him over to the South African government, though this has not been proven.)

Mandela was sent to prison for a life term.

South African prisons were not as brutal as Soviet-era gulags or Hitler's extermination camps, but then, they were not much better than that, either. Here is a rare photograph of Mandela in prison, where the men are in an exposed yard, seated on fragments of granite stone as they use heavy hammers to break blocks of stone into gravel for construction projects. Needless to say, they did not get work gloves, shade, or anything other than beatings and abuse. Mandela went into prison in 1964.

He was taken to Robben Island, a former leper colony in the ocean near Cape Town, where this photograph above was taken. (It was reprinted in the Time publication shown at the head of the blog.)

I have been there, and found it to be a troubling and surreal journey. South Africa happens to be an exquisitely beautiful country, and Cape Town is amazing. Here are wild penguins on a beach, in an area as close to the main civic center as Santa Monica is to downtown L.A.

It is hard to reconcile the beauty of the land with the ugliness of the historical record. Nearby, at a nature preserve, one can see wild ostriches foraging in sight of tide pools and kelp forests. To go to Robben Island, which is now a historical site and open for visits, you leave from a thriving and hip commercial district, which is a waterfront like you will find in Monterey's Cannery Row district, or the Fisherman Wharf part of San Francisco. Then you cross a gorgeous bay, watching for seabirds and dolphins. Then you arrive. There are more penguins here, and nice views of the mountains. It is a very disturbing juxtaposition.

When you go to Robben Island, the tour guides are former inmates, including people who as young men served along side Nelson Mandela. I took many pictures, so that I could share their stories with my students back at AVC. I was still shooting slide film then, which means the finished products are not digital files, but physical slides. That word means one thing now in PowerPoint lingo, but before PowerPoint, one took the processed, mounted, hard copy slides, flipped them around, dropped them into a circular plastic tray called a carousel, and then projected them on a screen in a darkened room.

You load the slides upside-down and rotated, so if you look at this shot of my prison slides in their plastic storage sleeve, you can see some red dots in the lower left corner of the plastic mounts. Those help one orient the slides when loading the carousel; properly set up, one would see a row of red dots along the right-hand edge of the slots of the plastic tray.

To include these pictures here, I had to scan the slides inside a machine connected to my AVC computer, in order to convert them to digital format. Society changes and so does technology.

Here is my tour guide, George, taking us on a tour of the cells.

Mandela's prospects were grim, even bleak. How he kept his spirits up, I do not know. He had no hope when he went in that his side ultimately would win. All aspects of thought and behavior were restricted. While researching animals once, I came across this book, and it has in it a sad, brave quote about Mandel's life. Here is the book.

Here is what happened, in Mandela's own words. "One day at the quarry, we resumed our discussion of whether or not the tiger was native to Africa. Masondo, who had been a lecturer at Fort Hare, was vehement in his assertions that no tigers had ever been found in Africa. The argument was going back and forth and the men had put down their picks and shovels in the heat of the argument. This attracted the attention of the warders, and they shouted at us to get back to work. But we were so absorbed in the argument that we ignored them. [ ... ] We were charged with malingering and insubordination, so were handcuffed and taken to isolation."

In the days before Wikipedia, how you knew things was to look them up in a hard copy encyclopedia, but these men had no libraries, no access to phones --- nothing but their own memories and imaginations. If they tried to use those memories and imaginations, they were beaten and sent to the hole.

It's hard now to conceive of how widespread and normal racial discrimination has been. Everybody knows about Hitler's "final solution," but look at something as innocent as a food menu. This once again is one of my scanned slides, taken from a display on Robben Island. I hope you can read this:

What this delineates is how much food prisoners from each race received. In South African English, "Coloured" meant mixed-race or Asian ancestry; "Bantu" meant black. If you can make out the menu you will see that those of the fullest African heritage --- the "most black," if you will --- were given less food overall and less "human" food, including no jam for their bread. It was based on whacko eugenics that said that some systems were more primitive and hence could not digest human food. I knew about this kind of racism in the abstract, but to see it enacted really shocked me.

Here's something that sounds like a joke, but the dogs had better kennels than the human prisoners had cells. This shot shows the guard dogs' enclosures. Each dog's kennel is larger than a prisoner's cell, and I would not be surprised if the dogs were fed better too.

Here is another example of the deeply brutal conditions on Robben Island. The cells had no toilets: to go "number 1" or "number 2," each prisoner had a plastic bucket beside his bunk. Those they were allowed to rinse out once a day. Yet to bathe, they had to use the same bucket: each day, after they cleaned their waste bucket, that then was what the prisoners had to use to wash their bodies. Once a week they were allowed to wash their clothes, also using this same toilet bucket.

How one group of humans can treat other humans this way simply astounds me.

Mandela was in prison from 1964 until 1990 ---- 27 years. Think of all of the everyday pleasures of normal life he missed out on, separate from being cut off from his children and his wife. From the Beatles to Pearl Jam, from Sputnik to the walk on the moon to the space shuttle. He missed it all.

Yet in time, outside pressure and steady progress within caused the apartheid regime to fall. Mandela was allowed to go free. It was a moment of worldwide joy. We talked about it on campus, too --- I was teaching here then. This photo from the Time magazine commemorative book (the same one shown at the head of this blog) captures the spirit of hope and renewal his release symbolized.

He became the first national leader of a fully democratic election in the history of South Africa. Like George Washington (and mindful of the poor examples of greedy neighbors like Zimbabwe's leader, Mugabe), Mandela served only one term, then stepped down. He did not want to become a perpetual president, since that too easily turns into a type of dictatorship itself, no matter how well-intentioned.

His later life included guiding South Africa through the truth and reconciliation process, as they tried to find ways of forgiving the oppressors without ignoring the harsh realities endured by the oppressed. In 1993 he received the Nobel Peace Prize. As years passed, his world-wide status continued to grow, and so now, with his death, we can truly say it is not just Africa, but the whole world which has lost a father figure. One name for him in Africa is "madiba," sort of like "very respected elder father."

In America, there have been many reactions to his passing. Just to mention one, public-supported radio station KCRW has put together a special musical response, available on the Internet for free. Here is the link:

That takes you to this site (here's my screen shot):

A White House blog on Mandela is available at this link.

Mandela's journey offers all of us hope. He saw a problem and dedicated his life to solving it, and the example he provides will be cited for years to come. As Dr. Forte-Parnell said about his time in jail, when she and others attended rallies to pressure the South African government to change, "If you were paying attention to the world, then this all fit into a larger picture."

That picture includes us, at AVC --- we are a racially diverse campus that tries to make sure that even the most disadvantaged and excluded can find an access to education and a better life.

In my travels in South Africa, I asked people what they thought the future would be. Jill, a marine biologist pictured below, told me she is very optimistic. The primary "white" language in South Africa for several hundred years has been Afrikaans, a mix of 18th century Dutch and local tribal languages. It's still widely spoken. Jill told me she is raising her children to be tri-lingual: they are learning English, since that is a world-wide language now, and South Africa has a strong British colonial history as well. They are learning Afrikaans, since that is still a dominant part of cultural history. But she is making sure that her children learn Xhosa, one of the most widespread of the indigenous African languages in South Africa. She said to me, "I always want to make sure that my kids growing up feel connected to --- and responsible for --- their neighbors, no matter what their race. I never want them to be isolated in a white-only world."

I asked her if she herself knew any of the black tribal languages. She said no, but that alongside her kids, she was doing her best to learn. She wants to be part of the new future as well.

I would like to end with a quotation from President Mandela, made just as he was starting his prison term.

He said, "During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."

He said that in April, 1964. These will be like the words of Abraham Lincoln, I think --- concepts to live by for hundreds of years to come.

<<< This post has been up a while, but Hood is back, with an update: Nelson Mandela's prison copy of Shakespeare is at the Huntington, here in California, which I did not know when I put the blog post up.  Here is a link, including notes in his handwriting:  >>>


The AVC Blog is curated by Charles Hood, Language Arts, and he can be reached at The blog does not represent any official positions of the Trustees or the District, though these thoughts on Mandela are shared by many others on campus.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you Mr. Hood, I truly enjoyed reading this and found it very informative and interesting. It looks as though you had a wonderful and moving experience in Africa. I hope myself to go there soon. As an AVC student, I thank you again for bringing Mandela even closer to my heart than he already was.