Nelson Mandela, a towering personality of our times & of all the times to come

Nelson MandelaA white South African’s memories of Mandela

By Nadia Bilchik, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Nadia Bilchik is a CNN editorial producer.

(CNN) — I was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1964, the year Martin Luther King Jr. was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the Civil Rights Act was passed in the United States, and Nelson Mandela was sentenced to life in prison.

Mine was a relatively idyllic childhood in the affluent and segregated northern suburbs of Johannesburg. Like many white South Africans, I lived in an ignorant cocoon of privilege, with no idea that having two live-in maids, a full-time gardener and a driver was unusual. It was perfectly normal for my African nannies, Rosina and Phina, to live with us rather than with their own children, and there was no need to learn their language or even their last names.

It was only as a teenager that I began to realize something was horribly wrong. Phina and I were walking along the road of our pristine “whites only” neighborhood when we saw a police van stop. Two armed white police officers got out and began interrogating the black passers by. They roughly shoved several of them into their van, screaming obscenities all the time.

I was terrified and asked Phina what was going on. She explained that the police were on a “pass” raid, and any black person in a white suburb without an identity book stamped with official permission to live and work in Johannesburg was a criminal and liable to arrest.

From that day on I was no longer innocent to the evils of apartheid.

A teacher in my segregated public elementary believed in schooling her privileged white students in the injustices happening all around them. Suddenly Phina and Rosina became real people to me, and I learned for the first time about Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress.

Songs like “Free Nelson Mandela” became part of our consciousness, but Mandela himself was still a mythical figure: the blanket of South African government censorship, which made it a crime to publish the words of prohibited leaders and organizations, or to write about the South African Security Forces or prison conditions, kept us in relative ignorance.

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http://www.cnn.com/2013/06/14/opinion/bilchik-nelson-mandela/index.html?hpt=hp_bn7

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