A whisper was all I had heard of him when I walked into a professor’s office in 1986. On my way to study abroad in London, I had decided to do a research project on state-sponsored terrorism. I planned to study Arab states, but the professor looked me in the eye.
He paused and said, “For you to focus on anything other than South Africa would be a total waste.”
Like most Americans, I knew nothing of apartheid. That was by design. The builders and partakers of the most oppressive political system on the planet needed our ignorance. They needed silence and worked hard keep themselves under wraps, but we sometimes heard little bits from rock stars or experts on tv. Like soft whispers, they were drowned out by carefully re-packaged news.
My professor asked me to read a couple of articles in newspapers he had in his desk. Kinda surprised me that a Texas prof had saved articles about a place he had never visited.
And then he said the name, “Mandela,” which I had been trained by propaganda to associate with terrorism. “You’ll need to study Mandela.”
The first article was about Soweto, a place where high school students had demonstrated against the government changing the language of their schools to Afrikaans, a language they could not speak or read, overnight. They would have to learn a whole new language or fail all their classes. I felt sorry for them–and then read that they were shot for demonstrating, mowed down by police. Children. Hundreds of them.
The second article was about a lawyer who worked tirelessly to defend black South Africans against unfair pass laws. The lawyer called constant attention to South Africans being killed or jailed for tiny offenses–or none. The Secret Police could kill blacks for no reason because by law they were a lesser level of person. The lawyer, Mandela was eventually jailed himself. The speech he gave to the court was brilliant, deeply inspiring:
“During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. 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 to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
We didn’t have the internet then so I had trouble finding information on South Africa at first. I scoured library microfiche files. I dusted off old magazines in the “foreign” corner of the stacks … and I got mad. But people all over the world were angry, it did no good.
It took a whisper of a man, locked in a prison on a rock island in the middle of nowhere, to harness that anger into an unstoppable movement. Under armed guard in a tiny prison cell, he quietly inspired a revolution with things like hunger strikes, peaceful protest, boycotts, and yes, people taking up arms when they had to. What would you do if your government opened fire on your peaceful march?
We left school, quit jobs, stood on street corners, organized marches — and slowly, ever so slowly we drowned out the sound of apartheid’s lies by amplifying the truth.
The whisper carrying that truth was Mandela.
So when the newscasters call him an “icon,” I get angry because he was so much more. Mandela, the prisoner, terrified world leaders like Thatcher, Reagan and Botha, with simple, quiet dignity. He incited revolution with a whisper the apartheid regime tried so hard to suppress. He defeated a powerful villain in a way that defies things like Hollywood, TV news and media branding.
“Mandela” the whisper is personally responsible for the peaceful change of power in South Africa. Quietly, he empowered the people of South Africa to change -both black and white.
With their diamonds, gold, tanks and power, the apartheid regime couldn’t drown out the whisper, “Mandela.” It blew out their golden speakers.