A South African Odyssey

If Shooting really starts, whites aren't going to be there

The first South African head of state to set foot in the White House in 45 years, F. W. de Klerk has made enough network TV appearances recently to rival recovery addict Kitty "Stop me before I swill Drano" Dukakis. President de Klerk has been hailed by many as a reformer, a notion he himself endorsed in a recent New York Times article, when he agreed that, ahem, he could be ranked with Mikhail Gorbachev as a progressive, post-Cold War, reform-minded leader. Which makes sense: both presidents have assumed emergency powers (although so far, de Klerk is way ahead on the civilian body count).

All in all, de Klerk was a pleasant guest, at least to the extent that he did not praise Fidel Castro, Yasir Arafat, or Moammar Gadhafi.

Not so Nelson Mandela. Mandela made the U.S. newsroom rounds, too, including a lavish gig on ABC's A Town Meeting with Nelson Mandela and a PBS special. On both occasions, aired just prior to his June 27 visit to Miami, he was asked about Castro, Gadhafi, and the Palestine Liberation Organization. His response was that of a man from another age. In that increasingly familiar, measured, dignified voice sprinkled with those slowly rolling, guttural r's, he said, "You are making the mistake of thinking that your enemies are my enemies as well." He said, "We identify with the PLO because just like ourselves, they are fighting for the right of self-determination."

That bit of candor got Mr. Mandela in deep trouble in deep South Florida. While city and county commissions stood mum, a five-mayor "delegation" led by Xavier Suarez refused to extend an official welcome to the ANC leader, a refusal that led to the current black boycott of Miami, which organizers vow will continue unless and until an apology is made to Mandela and the local black community.

So far no one's apologizing.
I had no difficulty welcoming Mandela and I don't really care who assisted him in the past, because the thing is, I owe him. I've never been sure precisely what it is I owe him, but I've felt debt for years now. I could babble about admiration, common humanity, inspiration, but that's junk talk, the kind you get from low-rent therapists. And not what I feel. I feel personal debt. Feel it as clearly as if he'd made bail for me back in 1972 Watsonville, Georgia, when I was popped for marijuana and believed prison was forever.

Mandela made Miami mad when he reminded all Americans that the ANC went to Cuba and got support for their human rights movement "long before the West would do anything to assist us. I am surprised that anybody should now expect us to condemn Cuba, to condemn the PLO, which has been working with us right from the beginning.... It is totally unrealistic."

Surprised? Unrealistic? Plugging the PLO and Castro on American network TV?
You zany son of a bitch, Nelson Mandela. You loony son of a bitch. They don't like that kind of talk around here.

The thing about you that Ted Koppel found out, that President Airhead discovered on the White House south lawn, is that beneath your gray hair, kindly bearing, dignified speech, well-tailored suit, is hard rock. You didn't do 27 years in South African jails, step outside at the age of 71, resume family responsibilities, lead the ANC, begin revolutionary talks with a recognized and powerful government, embark on a protracted world tour, even, by God, write your own speeches, because you're made out of sugar candy.

You've always had that quality, Mandela. Turned confinement inside out: became the man who refused to leave prison until the Republic of South Africa agreed to terms - your terms. Christ, you stand up there and speak the truth as you see it. Seems a reckless thing to do in this country, and highly dangerous. Be warned, Mandela: we don't let a lot of people get away with that. They're not used to it over here, Mandela. It's been decades.

May 8, 1986. I am the only passenger on a 30-minute shuttle from Jans Smuts International Airport to Johannesburg's city center. Jo'burg's population is three million plus and its downtown bears an uncanny resemblance to Atlanta, Georgia: a skyline of new, vacuous-looking 40-story buildings, television towers, and, at 9:00 p.m., deserted streets. It's 26 hours since the States, I stumble onto pavement prepared to surrender. "Anything, I'll tell you anything, just no more airplanes."

The downtown bus terminal is closed. Clutching a stuffed backpack I walk into the Johannesburg railway station, Africa's largest, modeled after Mussolini's Termini - 80-foot ceilings, marble floors - epic Italian fascist. Here, there, footsteps echo against concourse walls. I petition random pedestrians, begin informational panhandling, "Where are the cheap hotels?"

In this manner I find myself, on a chilly fall night, trudging Elloff Street toward the Springbok Hotel in downtown Jo'burg, accompanied by two white men from Cape Town. They're in search of a quick beer between trains. We agree to a round at the hotel bar. Over Castle draft, my companions begin what I will come to know as the Standard White South African Line: How conditions in South Africa are changing so fast, "in five years we'll be just like the States." How no outsider can understand their problems. How whites receive no credit for all the changes, how apartheid is almost gone, how blacks are too ignorant to run a country: "Look at the rest of Africa." The speaker turns to me, his face torqued with anger, "Five years ago there would never have been that tawdry scene in the lobby."

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