Friday, December 6, 2013

South Africa

I well remember what first drew my attention to South Africa's existence - and its problems.

Her name was Zola Budd. She was one of the fastest female runners of all time, and notorious for training and racing barefoot.

She was a white South African who became a British citizen in order to compete in the Olympics. (Highly controversial at the time, these days athletes often country hop).

She could not compete as a South African because of the sanctions. Eventually she did, but she had lost her edge by that point.

I remember her because she made me realize South Africa existed. And she made me learn the word "Apartheid." I remember my father explaining it to me.

I remember the horror. Of my father's two closest friends at the time one, Ray Marx, was my de facto godfather (my official godfather moved away and lost touch). Ray Marx was one of the few true gentlemen I have ever known, by every definition of the world. I loved him almost as much as my real family. Ray Marx was a black man. Racism did not exist in my family - Ray was not the only black man to cross our threshold and be welcomed. My father had other prejudices; skin color was never one of them.

The idea of treating black people any differently was alien to me. And horrific.

It was only much later that the name "Mandela" truly entered into my consciousness - this was in the days before we all had the internet. Then he entered my awareness as a South African activist who got locked up for making too much trouble. Only on his release did I really grasp that this guy was more than just some random activist.

He walked out of prison and all but straight into negotiations with then president de Klerk. And he won. Plain and simple, he won. Only four years after his release, in 1994, he was the first black President of South Africa. He retired after a single five year term.

Not that he stopped - he spent the rest of his active life devoted to charitable causes.

His own people called him "Tata". Father. Now the world mourns him as the father of modern South Africa - a country which still has a long way to go, but which has moved past its institutionalized racism into the modern world.

For me? I simply respect the fact that after 27 years in prison, much of it spent in solitary confinement and working hard labor, and five years as President of his country, he made it to 95 and died of natural causes.

That's one tough man.