By June Michelle Cartoon
June 16, 1976 was a memorable day for me – it happened to be my birthday and I was a student at Wits. All students were called to a special meeting where the Dean announced that riots had broken out in Soweto and we were dismissed for the day. Anticipating my evening surrounded by friends, I went home to prepare. Almost no one showed up; most of my friends had participated in the demonstrations downtown and were being held by authorities at John Vorster Square.
Growing up during apartheid, we were painfully aware of the divide based on race. I was fortunate to receive education at Epworth Girls High in ‘Maritzburg, where the faculty instilled in us the ethos that all men and women are equal, regardless of race, and that “we all bleed the same color.” After high school, I volunteered for the Progressive Party candidate in Sandton (he won) and was all too aware of censorship under the National Party when I worked for The Star newspaper. Many fine black journalists, technically under house arrest, were permitted to work as sub-editors at the newspaper including Don Mattera, with whom I had a wonderful friendship.
After immigrating to the US in 1979, I was quite ashamed to be a white South African living in Washington, DC. There were anti-apartheid protests around the South African Embassy that continued until Nelson Mandela was released from Robben Island. As a Saffa, I was glued to the television watching his triumphant release and his speech at Parliament in Cape Town.
Meeting Tokyo Sexwale
Fast forward fifteen years, and during a visit to South Africa, I was introduced by my late mother, Jacqui, to Tokyo Sexwale, who had also been at “Mandela University” on Robben Island. We spent an evening at Judy and Tokyo’s home in Boksburg, where I barraged Tokyo with questions I would never have been allowed to ask during Apartheid.
Tokyo learned that I was very involved with one of the oldest tutoring programs in the US, The Community Club, operating out of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC. Most tutors were well educated and all students were inner-city kids. It seemed like the kind of program that could be used as a model for white South Africans to interact and teach the disadvantaged and disenfranchised black youth. Tokyo suggested a meeting with Nelson Mandela, which I agreed to with alacrity!
Meeting Madiba was an honor of a lifetime. I could not believe that a man who had suffered such indignities could be so charming, respectful and dignified. Having met several US presidents and British royalty, I expected to be able to converse easily; not so fast! I was dumb-struck when I walked into his office until his assistant (who became Ambassador to the United States) was able to break the lull. We talked about The Community Club and I provided a proposal for him to pass along to the education division of the ANC. In turn, he autographed his biography for my student and gave me an inspiring letter to read to the students when I returned to DC.
The photograph of Madiba and me does not show him looking into the camera and flash. I later learned that his tear ducts had been damaged by years of being forced to smash limestone rocks in the quarry on Robben Island, leaving them dry and prone to irritation. Thankfully, he underwent surgery a few years later to correct the condition and his direct smile into the cameras thereafter was radiant.
As it turned out, the timing couldn’t have been better. When I returned to the States, the Rodney King riots had broken out in LA and the students at The Community Club were very upset. As I read the letter from Madiba, they started to scream and shout with delight. It was as much my pleasure as theirs.
Madiba was one of a kind and it was a privilege to meet him. He healed a country without bloodshed and left a legacy which I hope will be fulfilled by future presidents of South Africa.
The brilliant book about Mandela’s Prison Letters is out now for purchase on Amazon.