Special to The Bee

Dr. Boatamo Mosupyoe talks with Nelson Mandela in 1999 in Seattle, where the former South African president was visiting.

Q&A: South African CSUS professor discusses Mandela's legacy

Published: Monday, Jul. 29, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Friday, Dec. 6, 2013 - 6:00 pm

Last week, Dr. Boatamo Mosupyoe gazed at her photos with South African leader Nelson Mandela with a mixture of gratitude and grief. For the past two months, Mandela, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who has come to symbolize the power of forgiveness and nonviolent struggle, has been fighting for his life in a Pretoria hospital.

Mandela's lifelong nonviolent struggle against South Africa's segregated society, known as apartheid, ended with his election as president in 1994 – the first free election for all South Africans.

Mosupyoe, a South African who chairs the ethnic studies department at California State University, Sacramento, celebrated Nelson Mandela Day at San Francisco's Grace Cathedral.

On Mandela's 95th birthday on July 18, Mosupyoe and the Committee for South African Solidarity called on citizens of the world to volunteer at least 67 minutes to their communities – one for each of Mandela's 67 years of sacrifice and service for freedom and justice, including the 27 years he spent in South Africa's Robben Island prison.

Mosupyoe recalled what her life was like under apartheid, and how Mandela gave strength to her and millions of other South Africans of color.

What's Mandela's legacy?

This is one of the greatest men who ever lived. When his time comes, I am satisfied that he has given his all. He has led South Africa to a peaceful democracy as one of the key players in bridging the gap between the oppressed and the oppressors. He is a role model for the world.

What was life like under apartheid?

I was born in Pretoria and grew up in Atteridgeville, a township where the apartheid government put black people in matchbox houses made of brick and asbestos. We had outside plumbing and no electricity until about 1977. Our lives were restricted: We had to carry passbooks, we were surrounded by police all the time. I saw my dad beaten up because he didn't have his passbook.

My mom, who is Xhosa like Mandela, was a helper – in this country you call them maids. My dad, a Motswana, was an anthropologist by profession and a boxer like Mandela. Later my parents bought a store. My grandmother was principal of a black middle school.

When did you meet your first white person?

My first interaction with white people came when I was 7 and went with my mom into the city to buy some things. The townships were very far away from the department stores.

My mom and I were in line to pay for dresses at the Woolworth's in Pretoria – now called Tshwane We – and this white lady had a little child who called my mom a kaffir maid. Kaffir is as offensive as the "n" word to an African.

My mom said to the lady, "Is this your child? Why did you teach him to call me a kaffir?" The lady said, "That's what you are."

My mom started beating this woman up. I started crying and two white teenagers came to attack my mother and she took off her pencil heels and defended herself. Several black men protected her and said, "Run, sister, run!"

I asked my mom, "Why are you always fighting white people?" and she said, "If they disrespect you, you claim your dignity and it doesn't matter if you go to jail or not."

Shortly after that about 15 security police came to my house at night, kicking in doors and opening drawers.

They were looking for my grandfather, who had bombed the post office at night because he had mailed three letters to the prime minister asking him to stop oppressing his people and the prime minister didn't respond, so he thought the post office was useless. He used to say the Europeans had taken away our land, our culture and our beliefs because of the color of our skin.

My little brother, who was 11 years old, was detained as a terrorist and made to sleep with a corpse for two days. The cops said he was protesting apartheid. He was in sixth grade and the cops said he was one of the ringleaders. My brother was never the same.

When did you first hear about Mandela?

I became fully exposed to Mandela at 13 1/2 when my mom showed me pictures and played tapes of him talking. She said he and others were fighting for freedom and that he would come out of prison and we will be free someday.

It was illegal to have a picture of Mandela in your home, so my grandfather and uncle showed me their favorite picture, where Mandela was saying, "We are tired of fighting a government that always responds with violence to unarmed people."

His voice just gave you goose bumps and hope. When my grandfather showed me a picture of him wearing traditional Xhosa attire while he was walking into prison, it filled me with pride.

I joined the outlawed African National Congress after coming to the U.S. in 1988 to get my master's and Ph.D. in anthropology at UC Berkeley, where I was very active in bringing anti-apartheid organizations together to call for a boycott of South Africa. We had huge demonstrations of thousands of people.

What kept you going?

In 1985 President P.W. Botha offered Mandela his release. Mandela – who rejected five previous offers to return to Transkei bantusan, a restricted black area – refused to leave prison until other South Africans of color had true freedom to organize, travel and work freely without passbooks.

He said, "I cherish my freedom deeply, but I care even more for your freedom. Too many have died since I went to prison. Too many have suffered for the love of freedom. I owe it to their widows, to their orphans, to their mothers and fathers who have grieved and wept for them. … Your freedom and mine cannot be separated."

We kept the pressure on with the international divestiture movement and in 1990 he was freed after President (Frederik Willem) de Klerk held a referendum and the people voted to hold free elections. In 1994 I went back to vote for Mandela.

When did you meet Mandela?

After his election he came to Oakland to thank people for the struggle, and my 4-year-old daughter, Palesa, gave him flowers at the airport. I was there holding my baby Lesogo, and Mandela grabbed her out my hands, kissed her and played with her.

He was tall, regal, wearing a black suit and tie and you knew you were in the presence of greatness. He exudes "Ubuntu," the African tradition of human kindness and respect.

Then he thanked us "for making it possible for us to realize a non-racist, non-sexist South Africa," and said he always knew we were going to see freedom in his lifetime.

In 1999 Bill Gates invited him to Washington state. I had a talk with him. He asked when I was coming home. He said there's no need for us to be outside the country.

Call The Bee's Stephen Magagnini, (916) 321-1072. Follow him on Twitter @stevemagagnini.

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