In July 2013, when I went to South Africa, 95-year-old Nelson Mandela was critically ill, and the country he freed from white minority rule was already in mourning—and already fearful of what the future might be without him.
A good friend of mine, a really great travel writer, said something: “the more I travel, the less I know.” I feel that particularly strongly here in South Africa, a place I came in a state of near total ignorance, loaded with preconceptions.
For the first part of my life the South Africa I knew was not a happy place, or a good place. It was a pariah state—surrealistically, outrageously divided into black and white. A throwback to attitudes we thought we’d long learned to reject. The nationalist government in South Africa enacted apartheid laws in 1948. Who you could marry, where you lived, where you could walk, be educated; everything decided by racist laws backed by police, army and secret services. The institutionalized racial discrimination was designed to maintain white minority power and economically suppress the black and mixed race South Africans who lived in townships, mostly in poverty. In 1923 the African National Congress was formed. By 1961 it had been radicalized by the influence of a young Nelson Mandela, among others, and formed an armed wing called “The Spear of the Nation.” In 1963, Mandela was charged with sabotage and conspiracy and sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island. It would take another 27 years of violence and injustice before the inevitable would happen. With South Africa’s white minority under international sanctions, internal political pressure, and the decline of the Communist threat, Mandela was released from prison in 1990. In ‘94, he was elected president of a new, free South Africa. There have been very few figures in the entire history of the world as revered or as important as Nelson Mandela. But the question is, what happens next?