Monday, December 9, 2013

Mandela and Azania

South African leader, Nelson Mandela
Nelson Mandela
In 1976 I was a freshman at the University of California at Santa Barbara. I was walking past the student plaza when Peter, a young man standing behind one of the literature tables near the student union building, chatted me up. He told me about life in South Africa for its 87% majority Native African population, and the tiny European immigrant minority that ruled the country.

As he spoke I felt an empathic rush for the victims of this ethnocracy half a world away. With me that usually means watch out! I am about to get deeply involved in a social cause that will draw my focus, my time, and my involvement. This was no exception.

The fact that caught my attention most severely was that the leader of the Christian Nationalist Party, Pik Botha, had spent time in jail during WWII as a Nazi sympathizer. After the war the Christian Nationalist Party seized control of the South African government from the British party that had been in control for decades. The Christian Nationalists were really the Dutch Afrikaaners who descended from Dutch settlers of many years before.

I became aware of the extensive system of segregation, aka apartheid that pervaded South African society; of Stephen Biko, a student leader who had been killed in detention; of the political leader Nelson Mandela who had ben imprisoned on Robbin Island since the sixties. I read the UNESCO documents that anatomized apartheid: three kinds of schools — for whites, blacks, and mixed race or coloreds; no voting for Africans, the pass laws requiring documents to be carried at all times, and many, many more laws restricting life for the South African natives.

I joined the UC Santa Barbara branch of Campuses United Against Apartheid, a multi-campus organization. Our goal was to get the University of California to pull its investments out of companies doing business with or in South Africa. For the next five years I worked on this issue.

I started a radio show, Southern African Perspectives, at the campus radio station. KCSB had a 10,000 watt transmitter, no slouch, and then-candidate Reagan could get us on his ranch on the ridge behind the campus. Peter became my partner and we interviewed local and visiting professors, labor leaders from South Africa, journalists such as Dumisani Kumalo and others.

The next year I expanded the show to African Report, and we covered the whole continent of Africa. At that time there was a southward trend of colonial liberation in Africa as the British left Rhodesia and Southwest Africa, now Zimbabwe and Nambia, and the Portugese left what is today Mozambique. Finally, only South Africa represented the European colonial power in Africa, and it was a vicious and brutal regime that clung to minority rule.

The new UCSB Chancellor, Robert Huttenback, had written a book called Gandhi in South Africa. We interviewed him on our show and learned that Gandhi, as a young lawyer in South Africa, developed his nonviolent resistance that was so effective against British rule in India. The Indians who traveled within the British Empire before liberation were as powerless as the native Africans.

During my last year at the University, the PBS show World Press was cancelled. I produced my own version of it which came to be called Third World News Review. It featured Cedrick Robinson, head of the Black Studies Department at UCSB and our moderator; Gerard Pigeon, a professor from Senegal reading Le Monde; Simeon Kanani, a graduate student who followed the Kenyan newspaper, The Nation; Bagaar Habibi, an Iranian triple major who listened to Radio Tehran; and Shubash Rae, a doctoral student from India who tracked the Times of India. I read the Johannesburg Star and Peter read the London Times.

During these years we marched across campus and occupied the Chancellor's office. We led a march through the Bank of America in Isla Vista, the local student town, and demanded the disinvestment by the bank and the University, and led countless actions on campus against apartheid. The disinvestment strategy was supported by the Native South Africans.

By the end of 1980, I graduated and moved north, back to my roots in Sonoma County. I left the show in the capable hands of Corey Dubin, our engineer, and heard that Pacifica wanted to syndicate the show. Years later I saw that Cedrick Robinson had migrated the show to local television.

From all of this I learned a great deal. One labor leader, Zola Zembe, told us that when the revolution in South Africa came, it would"...make the French Revolution look like a tea party." Yet, that didn't happen.

The disinvestment program during the 80s eventually worked. The government of South Africa became a pariah and was forced to compromise. It was a great event.

There was no bloodbath. Instead, we saw a Truth and Reconciliation Commission that aired the pain and horror of years of murder and brutality by the state. The work of Mandela and Bishop Desmond Tutu triumphed and what could have been a tragedy of extreme proportions instead stands out as an extraordinary moment in human history. Mandela won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Mandela went on to become President. Representative Ron Dellums, the primary advocate for South African disinvestment in the US Congress, stayed in Congress until the end of the 90s, and I went on to environmental issues like electric transportation and solar energy. Now Mandela has passed away at 95. Such a noble man has not been seen in a long time in politics.

President Obama said yesterday that,"Mandela no longer belongs to us. Now he belongs to the ages." Like Gandhi, Cesar Chavez, Martin Luther King, and others he will be remembered as the heartbeat of human nobility. I will remember him as the man that changed human history and turned a potential bloody disaster into a great exercise in compassion and forgiveness.

The following is a poem I wrote during the movement in the late 70s. Azania is the native name for South Africa.

Azania, the native name for South Africa

Azania is seldom heard of
From Eastern Asia to Western Norse.
Ever since the sailor’s coming
Joy has floundered on the shores.
Disgrace has happened to us all
On the south coast of the Moors.
Brutality cannot be brooked ...
Niagara menaces the Boors.
While Northern students strike and protest
Atlas the sleeping giant snores.

The slaved in rusted manacles
One single snap — the beast thrown o’er.
No longer will the native peasant
Yearn for freedom, digging ore.
The wives of workers will look

From washing buckets, bodies sore.
The umfundisis, seeking heaven,
Will kneel and pray to thank the lord.
Little children, breaking fast,
Will raise their bowls and ask for more.
Even the tropical jungle steaming
Speaks, it says "Let the rain pour
And drown the master race. Our friends
Have songs to sing and hearts that soar ...
Not plans to cut the greenness down."
It shuddered at the steel tractor.

South Africa, you foul diseased nation of excrement and gore
Be gone and do not dare return!
The land is taken back from your
Greedy grasp and racial hatred,
Foolish brand of social more.
The countryside returns to life:
Fishing, farming, hunting boar.
No need for that prosperity of warehouses of endless store.
You've sucked the blood from the veins
And mined the marrow to the core.