Sinners Who Keep On Trying – Remembering Madiba’s Influence On My Life

Spring 1985.

UCLA. We named our protest encampment Mandela City. I was lying on a sleeping bag in a tent on a grassy field in front of Schoenberg Hall, a sitar that I borrowed from the Music Department on one side, my shortwave radio on the other. I took the shortwave and extended the telescopic antenna.  Then I strung the wire antenna extension out the mouth of the tent and looped it around a tree branch above me. There. I could get better reception, then.

~~~

Fall 1975.

Home from school. Sick day. My brother showed me what the thing in the corner really does, besides look old and cool. It brought the world into our shared bedroom. My mother popped her head in the door. We heard a little tune on guitar followed by the sounds of a mechanical bird. Then a voice announced, “This is radio station RSA, the Voice of South Africa from Johannesburg.” A fanfare followed. The national anthem of South Africa. I was amazed. Is this signal really coming all the way from South Africa? Yes, my brother said, it is.

~~~

Spring 1985.

I wanted to hear the news, wondered if our little protest made the world press. ‘Divest from South Africa’ became the mantra for my generation of college students. We did our bit at UCLA and brought the biggest protests to campus since the end of the Vietnam war. We did it to help end apartheid, the gruesome, ugly, malignant offspring of Jim Crow. On the radio, I go for the obvious: BBC World Service. 6175 MHz.  “This is London.” I wait to hear the news.

~~~

1976.

I got permission to listen to the radio, which I dubbed Grandfather, whenever I wanted. I treated it gingerly and with respect. It was made in 1937. The world became my stage. I heard lots of different countries, but always came back to that first station, Radio RSA, the Voice of South Africa. They aired programs about South African industry, innovations, commerce, and technology. They claimed to be the crown jewel of the continent. My 10-11 year old mind pictured happy African children running home from school, their mother waiting for them with the radio on, listening to Radio RSA. In time I would write to Radio RSA and get on their mailing list. They published a magazine, glossy and in color, a print version of their on air programming. It touted the country’s industrial prowess. I remember clearly the one issue that featured giant digging machines, with tires the size of whole trucks. We’re the first in the world with such advanced equipment, they declared.

~~~

Spring 1985.

After some news about South Africa, they talked about the divestment protests. I called over friends. A couple ran to my tent. “It’s the BBC!” I say. We listen. The signal was clear and the announcer, in his clip Received Pronunciation accent, easy to understand. We got a shout out! No one was quoted, but UCLA was mentioned as one of the schools where protests occurred. We shouted and  high-fived.

Then I tried to get Radio RSA, the Voice of South Africa. What were they saying about this movement to further isolate their country? I retuned to their frequency. Static. I could not get a signal. Could it be that they had to cut back power to their transmitter due to the economic squeeze? Shortwave transmitters are notoriously expensive to operate. I could usually tell the state of a country by the strength of their international shortwave service. Weak signals usually meant tough times at home and cut backs.

~~~

1979-80.

As an early teen, I listened more to Radio Netherlands and Radio Australia and less to Radio RSA. But I still listened on occasion. They still boasted their economic and technological prowess. Our workers are the best trained in the world. The magazine even showed black miners, though they rarely showed them smiling.

~~~

Spring 1985.

While lying on a sleeping bag in a tent in a grassy field in front of Schoenberg Hall, I learn more about South Africa than I did during the years I listened to Radio RSA. Stephan Biko, the anti-apartheid freedom fighter, was murdered in 1977 by the racist apartheid police forces, the year I got on Radio RSA’s mailing list. That news never made their airwaves. Instead they talked tractors and mines.

Nor did Radio RSA ever, ever, ever, ever, ever talk about Nelson Mandela. When I started listening to RSA, Mr. Mandela had been in prison for 13 years. His name never hit the airwaves. If Radio RSA talked about the African National Congress at all, they always referred to them as a terrorist group. At the time, my government agreed with that assessment. As the official mouthpiece of the apartheid government, Radio RSA dutifully told the world that but for the anarchic terrorists of the ANC, South Africa would fulfill its destiny as a world leader, their giant-wheeled tractors and advanced mining techniques leading the way.

~~~

1983-4.

In my teen years, I started to get clued in on what South Africa was really about. It probably started when I learned about the bantustans, reservation-like settlements where the majority black African population were forced to live. The idea was to divide black Africans by tribe and put them in remote geographic locations, which were usually barren deserts, and treat the bantustans as semi-sovereign nations. Transkei became the poster-child of bantustans and even appeared on the covered of Radio RSA’s color glossy magazine. To my teen ears, bantustans started sounding eerily like Native American reservations. And we all know that story.

~~~

Spring 1986.

UCLA. The year after sleeping in tents, we decided to do direct action/civil disobedience. A group of us stormed the Placement and Career Planning Center in the middle of campus and held a “sit-in.” During those frantic, chaotic moments, we talked to the press, educated each other and others about South Africa, and sang “We Shall Not Be Moved.” I wanted to try to call South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, but the police got hold of us before we could do anything further. 2000 came out and rallied as we were led away in a van.  One of my friends wore short-shorts that day, thinking we’d be cited and released. Rather than giving us cite releases, though, they sent us to LA County Jail, to “teach us a lesson.” My friend had to wear the short-shorts all night on the icy cement cell benches. They crowded us 50 to a 10 person cell in the men’s facility. I understand the women at least got baloney sandwiches. It was a growing experience, and we felt good about it. And of course, none of us had to stay in jail for 27 years.

~~~

1994.

My mom and I shared tears of joy over the phone upon Nelson Mandela’s election to the presidency of South Africa, four years after being released from jail. We couldn’t believe it. During my stay in Mandela City at UCLA, I wanted to put a red ribbon on the house, the symbol of solidarity with the anti-apartheid movement. She didn’t like the pitiful little ribbon I had selected, so she made a bigger one. “If you’re going to make a statement, make a statement,” she said. I recalled that moment as we celebrated. We both loved happy endings. South Africa had a long road ahead, and it still does. But that moment, when Nelson Mandela became President Mandela, will live forever.

~~~

Epiloge.

The humanity he embodied should serve as an example for all of humanity. He overcame personal tragedy, maintained steadfast determination, forgave rather than act vindictively. At the same time, he refused to think of himself as a saint.

I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.

I can think of no better a saint for humanity. Keep trying. Keep smiling. Keep striving.

May we all keep him in our hearts for decades to come.

RIP, Madiba.

© 2013, gar. All rights reserved.


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