Truth and lies – in black and white – a tribute to Nelson Mandela

Like many people, I sat reading the papers on Saturday about the death of Nelson Mandela. I thought what a huge inspiration he’d been to the world on so many levels. I wondered if, and how, I could add to the flow of tributes in this blog.

My good friend, the award winning author Belinda Bauer, lived in South Africa as a child, and I remembered her telling me something of what it was like to live under Apartheid. 

So much of what we learn in life is through association, what we’re told, by those we meet – whether it be truth or lies.

I knew Belinda would write a far superior tribute than I ever could – and indeed she did. Here it is:

A tribute to Nelson Mandela – by Belinda Bauer

Adolf Hitler. Osama Bin Laden. Nelson Mandela. Three names to strike revulsion and terror into any heart.

Is that strange? Because if you were a white child of Apartheid, it wouldn’t seem strange at all.

Let me tell you the history of South Africa. Four hundred years ago, a trading colony was established at the Cape of Good Hope. The English and Dutch settlers lived uneasily together for a while, and then the Dutch decided to strike out to the north and east in an effort to gain their own land and independence. They set off on the Great Trek into South Africa’s interior, which was vast and unpopulated – and therefore free for the taking by any man with the guts and the guns.

At about the same time, African people had the same idea, except they moved south from the ancient land of Zimbabwe just as the Dutch moved north. The black people and the white people met roughly in the middle and fought for the right to call South Africa their own.

The whites won.

And with it they won the absolute right – under Apartheid – to sit on benches reserved only for white bottoms. To ride on trains unsullied by blacks. To live in houses with servants and swimming pools and not in cardboard shacks without running water or electricity. Because the whites won the war – and to the victors go the spoils.

And the history.

Whites wrote the history of South Africa as I was taught it when I moved there in 1970 as an eight-year-old. Their history books were filled with maps of great battles where a hundred brave rifles despatched 10,000 Zulus, of brutal massacres where tricky natives cut the throats of innocent whites, of triumphant rivers that ran red with the blood of lesser beings.

If we’d questioned the textbooks; if we’d learned the truth and dared to repeat it, we would have failed our classes.

But why would we question it? We were children – and the children of children who had learned those same lies, along with the battles of Napoleon and the journeys of Marco Polo. Those lies were our truths. They were not challenged.

The victors continued to write their own history through state-controlled newspapers and – when it was finally introduced – state-controlled television.

When children were gunned down in the Soweto riots, less than 30 miles from where we lived, our frantic family back home in England phoned to check we were safe.

We didn’t know what they were talking about. The only TV channel was showing a documentary about reindeer.

All we knew was that we were the bosses and they were the servants, and that everyone was happy – because that’s what all the white people told each other.

The only consciously political memory I have of Apartheid was of Nelson Mandela. We weren’t taught about him at school, but his name was known, in the same way Ian Brady’s name is known, and Myra Hindley’s. I didn’t know Nelson Mandela was a lawyer. I didn’t know of his struggle. I only knew he was a commie bomber who would kill us in our beds. We all knew that.

Which was why I was so horrified when I returned to England as a teenager, to find people wearing badges, waving flags, and singing ‘Free Nelson Mandela’.

Did they WANT my family murdered?

I did what I could. I tried to re-educate my friends about all the happy blacks. I gave a speech at school, and told them that thing about a fair fight in an empty land.

Nobody was buying it. Thank God.

With the aid of a free press, the scales fell from my eyes and, when Mandela walked to freedom in 1990, I cried with happiness. But I also cried with sorrow for all the lies I’d been told, and all the lies my classmates and friends had been told, and all the lies that had kept white people prisoners of Apartheid just as much as black people. But in nicer prisons, of course.

I saw Nelson Mandela once. I shouted ‘Madiba!’ and he turned to smile at me and I was overwhelmed. I wish I could have spoken to him, to explain to him, to feel less guilty, less angry. Less white.

But I believe he knew. How could he not? Everything he did from the moment he left prison showed that he understood that it is not people but politics that makes enemies of neighbours.

His long walk to freedom was from fear, oppression and hatred, to something close to sainthood. My own long walk has been away from the tyranny of ignorance, towards the power of knowledge.

But without Nelson Mandela, I might never have been released at all.

Belinda Bauer is the author of four critically acclaimed novels, ‘Blacklands’, ‘Darkside’, ‘Finders Keepers’ and ‘Rubbernecker’. ‘Blacklands’ won the CWA Gold Dagger for Crime Novel of the Year and ‘Rubbernecker’ was shortlisted for the same award in 2013.

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