How auspicious for us to be in Cape Town on Freedom Day, the day that commemorates the first post-apartheid elections, the first time black people could cast votes in South Africa, the beginning of democracy for South Africans. And all of it led by Nelson Mandela, an international hero and legend. May he rest in peace.
Click here for a brief history of South Africa.
I’m not sure I have the right or best words to describe the sensation of being in this place at this time. A mixture of deep sorrow over the death of Nelson Mandela to full-on celebration for being with the people whose joyful sense of freedom is only twenty years young. Or perhaps it was the nagging feeling of disappointment or concern knowing that South Africa still has a long way to go for her people to have equality.
We talk with people, Scott and I, while traveling. It is one of my favorite nomadic experiences, having chats with locals. For months now, we’ve been chatting but mostly listening. And I’ve heard on multiple occasions from black people how their pay is 25% that of a white person for the same job or how they are unable to find work in their scope of skill. And despite these conditions and more, I’ve also heard raw jubilation at their being able to walk into a neighborhood without identity papers (a permission slip!) or to sit in a restaurant where white people sit, or to vote – a privilege so many of us take for granted. These folks we’ve talked with believe that they have come a long way, and they have, relatively speaking. But I can barely articulate the guilt I feel (and I don’t know why I feel guilty save for the fact my race has caused their race such horrific hardships) when hearing a lovely woman tell me that life is so great now because she can walk anywhere in the city without feeling threatened, with feeling like she belongs in that place, like she is allowed to walk there. Shouldn’t it have been that way all along? Why is it a 76-year-old woman has lived nearly 3/4 of her life in fear? Or worse yet, feeling subservient to white people? Didn’t she always deserve better?
So, yes, Freedom Day is to be celebrated. The fact that South Africa or any country needs a day to commemorate the freedom of a human because that human was once considered subhuman saddens my heart.
Freedom Day is on April 27, this was the first day of democracy in South Africa in 1994. We were in Cape Town on the 27th and asked about a half-dozen official-looking people if there were any goings-on. We looked in the newspaper. We asked at an information desk. Nada. No fireworks, no parades. Nothin’. Imagine my disappointment after having lived in Mexico where they celebrate life in any and every way imaginable and often with loud explosions. If there’s no holiday, there are fireworks just because it’s Saturday. Whatever. Celebrate!
I wasn’t about to give up on finding something. You see, to me, the best way to immerse myself in a new culture is to find the celebrations. That’s where the people go, and that’s where I get to meet a lot of folks and that’s how I learn. Pubs too. Pubs and celebrations. Write that down.
Finally, we found someone who told us about the unveiling of a bust of Nelson Mandela at Parliament on the 28th. I found a news blurb online. The plans were in motion. That is, until we saw the flat tire on the morning of the 28th. Could we make the train in time – with the holiday schedule? Or do we deal with the flat tire? My hubby was adamant: history first, tire second. We bagged the tire and hightailed it to the train station making it to the city in perfect timing.
Having no idea if we could get into Parliament to see this pivotal moment in history, we went from one official person (mostly police) to the next. We were sent through this door and that gate and down this hall toward that tent. Eventually, when we discovered there indeed was a place, a gathering place and the people at that place were getting stickers, we changed our strategy telling the official-looking people “we need to get our stickers” and that I was a blogger recording events of the day, and finally we were given clear guidance to the place of stickers. Little did we know that we would also get an awesome bag AND a brilliant orange tee-shirt with Nelson Mandela’s image commemorating 20 years of democracy.
We just followed the crowd – to a tent, down a sidewalk and right into the Parliament building, up some stairs and into the National Assembly chambers. There we sat. Scott and I accounted for 2 of the 3 white people we saw in that room of hundreds. Where were all the white people?
The Defining Moment
Sitting there, in the National Assembly Chambers, watching on a big screen an event occurring just outside was the defining moment – the unveiling of Nelson Mandela’s bust. We were there, with the citizens of South Africa, old and young, those who clearly remembered the hardships before 1994 and those who were fortunate enough to have been born after but who likely still bear the burden of a collective pain forced upon them by the white people. When the veil was removed, the room erupted into a spontaneous outburst of song. If you watch any of my videos – ever – watch this one. At about 30 seconds you will experience what we felt at that defining moment. I expect you to have some chills if not an all-out 2-Kleenex session.
The Fist – Power to the People
After the event, we ambled about Parliament talking with folks. President Zuma, who went from freedom fighter to exploiter, walked by and gave a nod to Scott as I was chatting it up with someone else. One thing that strikes me here in South Africa is the warmth of her people. A hand shake is gentle but firm and met with honest eyes. Scott tells me it’s like the Korean shake where the left hand of the handshaker touches his right forearm, a sign of respect.
Is it possible the South Africans are friendlier than the Mexicans? I have to sit on that one and think about it. Walking about with a camera around my neck, folks were asking me to take their picture all the while inviting me into the photo! I collected about 10 email addresses to forward the photos – a task happily completed.
Add to it, members of Parliament were approaching us and opening dialogue. Joel Matshoba, who took the time to share his vast knowledge of South African history also took us into his office and gave his telephone number so that we could continue the discussion another time – maybe even in California, a place he would like to visit.
We met Mama Lulu and her daughter, Lulu, and her granddaughter on Freedom Day at Parliament. She is about 76 years worth of inspiration. Beaming (and adorable), because of Freedom Day, Mama Lulu told me: “I am happy because years ago, I could not be in Parliament. I didn’t think I would be able to live such a long time to do this. I lived before and after. Now, I am allowed to walk anywhere, to stay in the city, to go places. I was born in 1938. I’ve seen a lot.”
Charles was more than eager to talk with us and to share his experience of being at Parliament on Freedom Day. A gentle man with a sincerity that makes Mr. Rogers looks criminal, Charles was holding his baby boy while talking with us. Two generations -one who felt the pain and one who is protected by freedom from it.
As we were leaving, we encountered a group of women in the most striking garb. I asked if I may have their photo, and I found myself conducting a photo-op with a women, Marie Jose, who was wearing a traditional dress from Nigeria.
These women, these strong, beautiful, solemn women, are from the Congo, and they took full advantage of the audience we provided, to tell us, very passionately, about the violence inflicted upon women and children of the Congo – rape, beatings, sexual slavery. We were honored to be their audience and parted ways feeling helpless and wondering how one finds the strength to overcome such atrocities.
They, these women, have found refuge in South Africa, but their hearts are at home, in the Congo. They want the peace and freedom that now exists in South Africa, for their people. They need a Nelson Mandela, they need a Madiba.
What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived.
It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.
~ Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela
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Check out the other South Africa posts below:
South Africa Post #1: Our first Kruger National Park Safari
South Africa Post #2: Babysitting a Banded Mongoose Pup in Marloth Park
South Africa Post #3: When Zebras Visit
South Africa Post #4: Daily Living in Marloth Park, South Africa
South Africa Post #5: Kruger Restcamps: Skukuza, Satara and Olifants
South Africa Post #6: Kruger Safari: Full Moon over Letaba
South Africa Post #7: Kruger Safari: Treasure Hunting in Tamboti and Lower Sabie
South Africa Post #8: There’s a Mongoose in my Ear!
South Africa Post #9: Peering through God’s Window at Blyde River Canyon
South Africa Post #10: The Dam Boat Tour at Blyde River Canyon
South Africa Post #11: Rare Sexual Encounters of South Africa
South Africa Post #12: To the Wildlife of Marloth Park
South Africa Post #13: Nelspruit to Cape Town
This is South Africa Post #14: Moved to Tears on Freedom Day
South Africa Post #15: Penguins in South Africa?
South Africa Post #16: The Southernmost Tip of Africa
South Africa Post #17: Birds of Eden at Plettenberg Bay
South Africa Post #18: Dear South Africa: I love you, but…
South Africa Post #19: Elephants at Addo National Park
South Africa Post #20: The Garden Route: Nature’s Valley and Wilderness
South Africa Post #21: Endangered Bontebok
South Africa Post #22: Top Five Cape Town Experiences
South Africa Post #23: Chasing Rainbows in South Africa
South Africa Post #24: Vegan Wanderlust in South Africa
South Africa Post #25: Ubuntu