Castro’s Most Enduring Legacy: An African Story

Say the words “Cuito Cuanavale” to the average American citizen, liberal and conservative alike, and you’re likely to get a blank stare in response. Add the name “Fidel Castro” to that phrase and you’ll instantly notice a nervous tick in their squinting eyes. Dare to throw the word “hero” into the mix and you’ll see a definite jerking motion in their knees and a reddening in the face.

“BUT CASTRO WAS A BRUTAL DICTATOR!!!!!” is what usually comes next (give or take an exclamation mark or two), followed by saliva dripping from the corners of their mouths, a clenching of their fists and an aggressive posture toward you. Symptoms resembling an epileptic seizure may even appear in the more rabid citizens. Like Dr. Pavlov’s famous laboratory dogs, U.S. citizens are trained by their corporate-driven news media to react a certain way to the sound of the name of Cuba’s long-reigning leader, who recently passed away at the age of 90.

Yet mention the words “Cuito Cuanavale” to people in other parts of the world, especially African and Latin America countries, and you’re liable to get a whole different response altogether. There, you’re more likely to get a knowing smile, a nodding of the head and an affirmation of what a hero Fidel Castro truly was in his lifetime — how he stood up to the forces of racism and imperialism in the world, and came away triumphant.

That victory, however, took place not on the shores of the Bay of Pigs in Cuba or even on American soil in New York City, home of Harlem and the United Nations, where Castro sometimes visited when he was alive. No, Castro’s most enduring legacy is arguably one that most of the U.S. press is not evening touching these days in the wake of the Cuban leader’s death. It occurred on the continent of Africa decades ago, and this is the story behind it.

Prelude to a Victory

Among the selected international heads of state who had the honor of paying homage to the deceased South African president Nelson Mandela at a massive Soweto stadium memorial service on 13 December 2013 was Raúl Castro, president of Cuba.
Castro referred to the late Mandela as “the ultimate symbol of dignity and unwavering dedication to the revolutionary struggle for freedom and justice — a prophet of unity, peace, and reconciliation.”

“Cuba, a country born in the struggle for independence and for the abolition of slavery, and whose children have African blood in their veins, has had the privilege of fighting and building alongside the African nations,” said Castro. He spoke of Mandela’s “moving homage to our common struggle” in the past and the “bond of affection” shared between his brother Fidel Castro, the aging former leader of Cuba, and the late Mandela as a “symbol of the fraternal relations between Africans and Cubans.”

The manic focus of American press coverage, however, was on a diplomatic handshake at the event between Raúl Castro and U.S. president Barack Obama, whose respective countries had not had official relations since the U.S. severed them in the early 1960s.
USA Today breathlessly called it the “handshake that shocked the world”. News reports widely repeated one U.S. senator’s likening of Obama’s handshake with Castro to shaking hands with German Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler. And not to be left out, Fox News dutifully propagated the U.S. right-wing political outrage that all but called for Obama’s head for daring to make such a gesture to a murderous “thug”.

Beyond all the hype of this typical U.S. media-created “controversy”, however, there was another far more important and legitimate news story about South Africa that was
going unreported in the American press: the vital role that Cuba, under the leadership of Fidel Castro, had played on the battlefield in helping to bring down the brutal South African apartheid regime at a time when the USA was busy propping it up.

This news story dates all the way back to 1965. It was then when Cuban revolutionary leader Ernesto “Che” Guevara secretly went to Africa in support of the Congolese liberation guerrilla army, following the Congo’s independence from its former colonial power of Belgium. While there in the Congo, Guevara met leaders of another African guerrilla force fighting against Portuguese colonial rule in the nearby southern African nation of Angola, the “Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola” (People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola), or MPLA. Guevara promised, and eventually delivered, Cuban military instructors and soldiers to the MPLA that would fight alongside the Angolans in southern Africa for as long as they were needed

In 1974 in Europe, the right-wing government of Portugal was unexpectedly overthrown in a military coup. With Portugal’s centuries-long colonial grip now gone, the African nation of Angola was finally poised to get its own independence. The MPLA’s leader, Agostinho Neto, an Angolan medical doctor firmly supported by the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc of nations (including Cuba), was the heir apparent to power in Angola. But the USA had much different plans in mind.

The U.S. government, under president Gerald Ford, saw the coming independence of the resource-rich Angola under the communist-supported Neto as a strategic threat, both ideologically and economically. Through its Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the U.S. government backed two other rival anti-government guerrilla armies in Angola — the FNLA (supported by neighboring Zaire) and UNITA (supported by apartheid South Africa) — to fight the MPLA and prevent it from coming legitimately into power.

The first big attack came in October 1975, on the eve of Angola’s independence, when apartheid South Africa sent its army across the borders of Namibia — a neighboring nation that South Africa had been illegally occupying for decades — and into Angola. “[W]e couldn’t just sit and watch,” said then-Cuban president Fidel Castro. “And when the MPLA asked for our help, we offered the aid necessary to prevent apartheid being installed in Angola”

The “aid necessary” turned out to be a contingent of Cuban special military forces, more than 30,000 Cuban foot soldiers and a host of Soviet-made weaponry. Due in great part to Cuba’s support, the South African army, the most powerful military on the entire continent of Africa, was beaten back. Angola’s national independence went ahead a month later as planned in November 1975, with Neto becoming its first president.

The USA and South Africa, however, continued working together, both overtly and covertly, to bring down the newly independent African nation of Angola through civil war.

The Battle of Cuito Cuanavale

For a dozen years, the government of Angola, with the military support of Cuba and the Soviet Union, fought off its two remaining domestic guerrilla forces, which were being backed by South Africa and the United States. A small country town in the south of Angola, Cuito Cuanavale, where two rivers meet, was where it all came to a head — the last “hot battle” in the world to be fought during the long Cold War period.

In late 1987 the South African military once again crossed over into Angola from its bases in occupied Namibia in support of the Angolan UNITA guerrilla army. And the Angolan government once again urgently requested backup from Cuba. Fidel Castro sent over tens of thousands of volunteer troops from Cuba, Soviet-made tanks, anti-aircraft weapons and, for the first time, military aircraft and pilots to join the Angolan air force in fighting the South African military, both in the air and on the ground. The fighting went on for about half a year

By early 1988 the Cuban military presence in Angola had contributed significantly to a defensive victory: saving the key battleground of Cuito Cuanavale. An offensive followed, with Cuban troops helping to push the South African Defense Forces back across the border into Namibia
[*4]. By summer 1988, it was all over. Although South Africa maintained that its military retreated on its own accord as “winners”, there could be no doubt that without Cuban support in the 13-year-long war, the independent nation of Angola would have fallen long before to the combined might of apartheid South Africa and the United States.

The siege at Cuito Cuanavale was
a military turning point that brought the Angola-Namibia border war to an end. That, in turn, led to a U.S.-brokered “peace plan” that saw the withdrawal of both South African and Cuban forces from Angola and Namibia, as well as the independence of Namibia from apartheid occupation soon afterward. Many in the South African liberation movement, not least Mandela himself, always saw Cuito Cuanavale as the straw that broke apartheid’s back — the decisive battle, along with domestic and international pressure, that eventually helped to weaken the apartheid regime of South Africa sufficiently enough that it was forced to negotiate with Mandela and the ANC for the future of a democratic South Africa.

Mandela, following his release from prison in February 1990, made his first visit to Cuba a year later. Standing on a stage alongside Cuban president Fidel Castro and addressing an outdoor rally crowd of thousands on what was the 38th anniversary of Cuba’s revolution on 26 July 1991, Mandela said that the “decisive defeat of the apartheid aggressors [in Angola] broke the myth of invincibility of the white oppressors”
[*5]. “The defeat of the racist army at Cuito Cuanavale has made it possible for me to be here today,” Mandela told the massive crowd of Cubans. “Cuito Cuanavale has been a turning point in the struggle to free the continent and our country from the scourge of apartheid” [*6].

The U.S. corporate-dominated media had their own take on this historical meeting between the two leaders. The
Los Angeles Times, reporting from Havana, termed Mandela’s three-day visit to thank the Cuban people for their support against apartheid an “unhesitant embrace of Cuban President Fidel Castro’s Communist revolution.”

“Hugging on the dais, the two men made an odd couple,” the
Times reporter observed. But such a gesture would seem “odd” only if you did not factor in, as the U.S. media had not bothered to do, the more than 300,000 Cuban troops, 2,000-plus Cuban military deaths and thousands of Cuban civilian aid workers that Fidel Castro had committed to the cause of freedom in southern Africa for almost a quarter of a century [*7].

Two decades later in South Africa, at Mandela’s memorial service, the American news media were all agog over a handshake between another Cuban leader and a U.S. president. Then, as now, the American media missed the real news story entirely: that when all the dust over four decades of apartheid in South Africa had settled and Nelson Mandela and his people were finally free, it was Fidel Castro and Cuba that stood on the right side of history and the USA that stood, to its eternal shame, on the wrong side. That story of what is arguably Castro’s most enduring legacy remains unreported today by the U.S. corporate press in the wake of his recent death, and will probably continue to go unreported or misreported for years to come.

Epilogue: A New Bone for the Dog

U.S. citizens are about to get a taste of what a “brutal dictator”
really looks like within the coming months, when an obscenely wealthy, unacceptably racist Wall Street businessman with a neo-fascist political agenda becomes their next president — the so-called Leader of the Free World. The abuse of power that Donald Trump will exercise from the White House in Washington DC these next few years is expected to pale in comparison to any failings shown by Fidel Castro when he was president of Cuba.

While Castro was no angel and certainly made his share of political mistakes, most of the people of the world recognize that Castro did turn Cuba’s economy around and oversaw the restructuring of his nation’s educational, medical and social welfare sectors — which now rank far higher than those of the United States on just about any indexes you care to name. Likewise, even though Castro surely had his share of political opponents and enemies in the world, he has still received, and will continue to receive, far more genuine respect from the international community than Donald Trump could ever hope to get.

Not least on the continent of Africa, where, it could rightfully be said, Castro’s most enduring legacy lies. He dared to have his Caribbean nation, located just 90 miles off the coast of the Yankee mainland, stand side by side on a battlefield halfway across the world in the global fight against white racial supremacy by South Africa and the USA.

So, Pavlov dogs of America: Unite! You are about to experience what it means to have the people of the world accusing you of “human rights abuses” at every turn and having doors that used to be open to you slammed shut in your face. You will be thrown a bone every now and then, sure, when countries like North Korea or China or Iran do something really bad and earn your rabid displeasure. But your knee-jerk reaction to all the sins being committed by countries that you don’t like will look mighty hypocritical indeed, considering your own government will now be the source of many such abuses in the world.

Hey, who knows? Out of all this you may even find enough humility, in what little soul you’ve got left as the most powerful nation on Earth, to reach out and ask the Cuban people for some help. After all, they and their departed leader, Mr. Castro, are known for kicking some serious butt and getting the job done — skills you may well need in the not-too-distant future in dealing with your own domestic devils and internal terrorism.

Cuito Cuanavale. Remember those words well and what they meant to people in other parts of the world in the past century, especially in Africa, and why they remain so important a part of Fidel Castro’s legacy today in the wake of his recent death. And please, from now on, refrain from dribbling down the front of your clothes when the mere mention of his name is made in your presence. It’s so unbecoming of you.


[*1] Background information from the DVD Cuba, une Odyssée Africaine (Cuba, an African Odyssey), Arte France, 2007. This epic three-hour, French-made documentary film stands as perhaps the definitive cinematic source on the subject of Cuba and the liberation struggles of Africa.
[*2] Quoted in
Cuba, une Odyssée Africaine.
[*3] Piero Gleijeses, Visions of Freedom: Havana, Washington, Pretoria, and the Struggle for Southern Africa, 1976-1991 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013), 408-09. See also Horace Campbell, “Cuito Cuanavale — a Tribute to Fidel Castro and the African Revolution”, Pambazuka News, June 3, 2008.
[*4] Gleijeses,
Visions of Freedom, 425-430. For an interview with author Gleijeses on the subject, see also “The Secret History of How Cuba Helped End Apartheid in South Africa”, Democracy Now!, December 11, 2013.
[*5] Quoted in Nelson Mandela and Fidel Castro,
How Far We Slaves Have Come! (Atlanta: Pathfinder Press, 1991), 23-24.
[*6] Ibid. For a video record of meetings between Nelson Mandela and Fidel Castro, see also
Mandela y Fidel (Mandela and Fidel, 2013), a short documentary film by U.S. filmmaker Estela Bravo.
[*7] Gleijeses,
Visions of Freedom, 521.

The Long Morning after Mandela

Today, 5 December, marks exactly one year since the passing of former South African president Nelson Mandela at age 95. In death, as in life, Mandela — arguably the greatest statesman of our time — seems to have left his own special mark on the world, and he most certainly has not been forgotten.

Has it really been one year already? These past 12 months have sped by, almost like they were one long morning after Mandela’s final rest. And who could ever forget the dramatic scenes we saw coming out of South Africa in the world’s media back then?

At the initial news of Mandela’s passing a year ago today, the whole world seemed to pause in unison, and turn its attention to the southernmost nation on the African continent. Coverage from literally every nation around the globe dominated the news pages and airwaves. South Africans poured out into the streets by the thousands to grieve and also to celebrate their beloved former president,
Tata Madiba, the father of the nation.

Ten days of mourning for Mandela was officially announced by the South African government, which seemed to me — and probably most South Africans — as way too short a time for such a towering figure. The big memorial service for Mandela at the soccer stadium in Soweto township on 10 December was broadcast across the planet, and the scale of the event and the love and respect that poured out from both the South African people and the visiting dignitaries just took my breath away.

Mandela’s body lay in state for three days from 11-13 December, followed by the
formal state funeral on 15 December with full military honors. It was, without question, the funeral of the century. There has never been one like it, at least not in modern times, and there is not likely to be a state funeral that ever equals it. It was deeply moving, and as I watched, I too could not help but join South Africans in shedding some tears.

The South African Broadcasting Corporation, the nation’s public broadcaster, was reporting around the clock, and I have to say that the SABC really outdid itself in its coverage. I followed as much of the SABC’s reporting of Mandela’s passing that I could on the Internet, hardly able to break away from it for even a minute.

Actually, for me, the SABC in itself was something to marvel at. I had to constantly remind myself that, yes, I was now watching public television in a democratic and free South Africa. That was because 20 years ago, when Mandela was still in prison, it was a much different story: The SABC was tightly controlled back then by the country’s small, white minority government and the public broadcaster served as little more than a shameless propaganda organ for promoting and perpetuating an illegitimate, mad-dog apartheid regime.

Now, under the Rainbow Nation of Mandela, the SABC announcers and reporters were from all the country’s races and backgrounds, they spoke in English, Xhosa and other South African languages, and without exception, they all did their jobs professionally and well. As a fellow journalist, I was feeling extremely proud of them.

By the time the formal state funeral wound to a close late in the day, with the cannon/21-gun salutes, military plane flyover and the lowering of Mandela’s casket into his family’s modest burial plot in the South African countryside of Qunu, I felt emotionally drained. I could just imagine how hard it was for South Africans to deal with it all.

During the 1980s and 1990s in Japan, I had joined South Africans and other persons of good conscience the world over in raising a voice — or in my case, using the power of the pen — to denounce apartheid, an evil that Mandela once accurately called an “indelible blight on human history”. With South Africa, I found my political voice and a renewed sense of higher purpose for using my writing as something other than just to make money. And this sense of purpose wasn’t only about South Africa: It also applied to human rights issues the world over — especially in my own country, the United States, which had (and still has) its own brand of apartheid to overcome.

Late into the evening (Japan time) when Mandela’s funeral day had come to an end, I knew I would not be able to sleep for a few more hours, at least. So I slipped out of the house and took a midnight walk alone, amid the brisk autumn chill, down the hill to a small farming community nearby where a traditional, unassuming Japanese Shinto shrine was nestled among the trees. There, I made my offering and prayers for Mandela’s spirit and for the good journey that he would be taking from here.

I remember that the next day, a Monday, when I stepped out into the warm bright morning, the world seemed to me an emptier place, a lonelier place, now that someone of Nelson Mandela’s high stature was no longer here in it. That same evening though, something unusual struck me as I scanned the night sky, lost in my thoughts: The dark sky was more illuminated by starlight than before, as if there more stars in the heavens at night after Mandela’s passing than there had been before.

My imagination at work? Probably so. But it was somehow comforting to think that perhaps Mandela, in his journey, was responsible for adding a few more extra stars up there in the panorama of night sky. And tonight, one year after his departure, as I again gaze at the sky on a very chilly autumn evening, I still feel that way. The days have somehow seemed emptier since Mandela bid us all farewell on his spiritual journey, but the nights have seemed to me so much fuller.

All of which leaves but only one thing to say to Baba Nelson Mandela after this past one year — the same thing I said alone at midnight at that Shinto shrine a year ago:
Hamba Kahle, as South Africans put it — Go well. May we meet again. And may you keep those stars shining brightly up there in the heavens for a long, long time to come.

It was Twenty Years Ago Today...

Millions of people lined up for miles and miles over the course of three days in late April 1994, many of them voting for the first time in their lives in their country’s first democratic elections — who can forget such images?

The whole world seemed to hold its collective breath as it watched South Africa take its first steps away from the brutal
apartheid racial segregation polices of the preceding 48 years (and from centuries of European colonialization of southern Africa before that) and into a new era of liberation and freedom.

By now, we all know the outcome of those historic elections. The African National Congress won with a 62-percent majority. A week later Nelson Mandela, the president of the ANC, was nominated in the South African parliament to assume the presidency of the republic.

And on this very day 20 years ago — May 10, 1994 — a dignified Mandela stood before his nation as president and
delivered his inaugural address to a free South Africa. It was truly an unforgettable moment in world history. Hundreds of dignitaries from around the globe came to the southern tip of Africa to witness the event in person and an estimated one billion people around the planet watched the inauguration on TV via satellite broadcast.

And me? I celebrated in the only way I knew how: I was inspired to write something about it.

As I remember, I faxed a poem I had written for the occasion of Mandela’s inauguration to government offices in South Africa as well as to the Tokyo office of the ANC. I received back a phone call not long afterward from Jerry Matsila, the Tokyo ANC representative, thanking me.

So, somewhere in the tons of boxes of historical archives preserved by the ANC somewhere in South Africa today, I would like to believe, is a faded piece of paper (dated May 10, 1994) that has my humble poem,
F is for the Future, printed on it:

F is for the FUTURE our children will bring
R is for the RIGHT to hear the songs they must sing
E is for EVERYTHING under Mama Afrika’s sun
E is for EQUALITY for each and every one
D is for the final DEFEAT of oppression
O is for ONE PEOPLE moving in a good direction
M is for MANDELA and the ANC

Now and forever: The people will be

My son would be born here in Japan just a couple months later in July 1994, and I was thinking of him and all the children of South Africa when I originally wrote this. What kind of future would they face? What challenges would they confront in the years ahead? What mark of their own would they be leaving on the world?

Today, 20 years later, we see the answer.

Mandela is now gone, having passed on five months ago, but the nation continues to move forward in his mighty shadow. For the generation of South Africans born after apartheid and into a free, democratic South Africa — the so-called “born-free” generation — the recent national elections held in South Africa just a couple weeks ago in April 2014 marked their first time to vote. The SABC, South Africa’s public broadcaster,
aired this memorable program on the 20th anniversary of official “Freedom Day” celebrations, looking back at the historic elections of 1994.

The future of South Africa is now, in many ways, in the hands of the youth who have come into the world after apartheid. They will take up the challenges that the evil system of apartheid has bestowed on them and they will shine their own light on the way forward from here. And the challenges are many: economic, social and educational disparities that still pose a great obstacle to the reconciliation of the “rainbow nation” for which Mandela worked all his life.

When I look back on this day 20 years ago, as Mandela stood on that podium under the African sun, raised his hand and took the oath of office before the eyes of the world, I am overcome with emotion. The road to freedom was a long one, and many died and were injured along the way. But freedom for South Africans was inevitable — just as it as for any people in the world who hold a yearning, burning flame of desire to be free deep in their souls.

I just feel grateful that as a writer, I was able to raise my voice at the time and use the power of the pen to join, in my own small way, the international outcry against apartheid and for a future South Africa that would be just, equitable and free to determine its own fate.

There is just too much to write on a special day like today, 20 years on. So let me just end it here with a simple but heartfelt wish:

Godspeed Mandela, and may your eternal journey continue to be a good one. Congratulations, South Africa, on having hit the 20-year mark. It all begins from here; thank you for teaching the world what being human is all about. And
Mayibuye (Rise again), Mother Africa, for when the continental cradle of humanity rises, we all rise along with you.

Mandela, the Man and the Myth

As we celebrate the life and times of the late Nelson Mandela in this website’s special tribute edition, it is perhaps appropriate to balance out the high honor and respect I hold for Mandela and his elevated place in world history (and in my life personally) with a few thoughts on Mandela the man vs. Mandela the myth.

As Nelson Mandela often told the story in his lifetime: When he was preparing to come out of prison in 1990 after 27 long years, his biggest worry was that the public would see him as what he called a “demigod” — someone who was saintly, morally perfect and closer to God than the rest of us. He wanted the people of South Africa and the world to see him not that way, but rather as an ordinary man with faults and problems of his own who was struggling like everyone else.

Alas, Mandela was not to have his wish because a demigod is essentially what he became after he left prison, went on to become the first Black president of a democratic and free South Africa, retired from office after just one term and traveled the world through the remainder of his years.

After he passed away in South Africa at age 95, memorial tributes were held in cities around the world (see the
PHOTOS page on this website for one of them). On 11 December 2013, a week or so after Mandela’s passing, an official memorial service was held for him in Tokyo at the United Nations University, attended by prominent people in government and the arts, among others.

Ms. Mohau Pheko, the South African ambassador to Japan, was on hand at the event and delivered a moving eulogy to Mandela, recalling his honored place in South African and world history. To her credit, Pheko, in part of her eulogy, also dared to separate Mandela the man from Mandela the myth, recalling some of the personal flaws that Mandela had.

“In his own life, he was a failure as a father — in part, but not entirely, because of his three decades of incarceration,” Pheko told the audience. “His daughter Makaziwe once said to him, describing a rebuffed hug: ‘You are a father to all our people, but you have never been a father to me’”.

“Like so many great leaders, he found refuge from the difficulties of familial intimacy in politics and struggle — in the family of humanity,” Pheko continued. “This led to a personality that combined ‘extreme heartiness with impenetrable reserve’”.

(These passages in Madame Pheko’s eulogy, unfortunately, are not original; they were lifted word-for-word without credit from an earlier obituary that appeared in a South African newspaper,
which you can read here.)

The point is well made. Mandela was a man — an honorable man worthy of our highest respect — and not a demigod, as he himself well knew.

One of the biggest open secrets in South Africa for the past few decades has been the existence of at least a couple of “love children” that Mandela had sired back in the 1940s/1950s, at a time when he was still married to his first wife, Evelyn Mase. Those children, as adults, had all but been rebuffed by Nelson Mandela and the Mandela family over the years. Now, however, it appears those children are coming forward and seeking a place at the Mandela family table when it comes to being recognized for their blood ties to the beloved patriarch. (
This article in the South African news media covers some of that controversy.)

And at the professional level, there is still some lingering criticism of Mandela, when he was president from 1994 to 1999, for not having put more of the state’s resources into recognizing and fighting the HIV/AIDS crisis that was engulfing South African society. After his retirement, Mandela did indeed do so, using his former prison number of 466/64 to raise both international awareness and treatment of HIV/AIDS in South Africa.

But many of those working on the frontlines of the South African AIDS crisis insist Mandela could have saved many more lives if he had used the power of his office to deal with the crisis head-on, instead of waiting until after his retirement.

Mandela has always acknowledged and accepted that criticism, but his defense basically was that he had his hands full trying to rebuild and hold together a nation after a half-century of apartheid; he couldn’t do everything all at once.

I think that both sides of that issue — the criticism and Mandela’s defense — have some merit. And for me personally, when there is a question about an issue like this, I tend to give Mandela the benefit of the doubt. Not because he was a demigod of any kind, but because he was a man who knew his own human faults and weaknesses, and was willing to admit them to the world rather than deny them.

In closing, to re-quote one more passage that was lifted
from another news source by the South African ambassador to Japan and used during her official eulogy for Mandela last December, on the point of Mandela being a “demigod” of sorts: “The writing and talking of his sublime greatness, and his assured place in that distant galaxy inhabited by those peerless men elevated to the level of gods [will be endless]”.

Indeed it will, as it should be. Nelson Mandela himself, though, always warned us away from such elevation of his myth on the grounds that he was an ordinary man with human faults like everyone else. Well, if the measure of a man’s true greatness is to be found in such a humble, honest self-image, then all I can say is: May we all aspire to be like him.

A Mandela Moment (2)

Those who are honored to have met the late Mr. Nelson Mandela, the former president of South Africa, always seem to take special pride in their particular Mandela Moment, a memory that remains with them for a long time.

first such Mandela Moment took place on 28 October 1990, a Sunday, when I had a chance to shake hands with the great man at a welcoming rally in Osaka, Japan just a few months after Mandela, then-deputy president of his party, the African National Congress (ANC), had been released from 27 years in South African prisons.

My second Mandela Moment a few months after that was just as memorable, if not more memorable, than the first one.

Some of us who had been active in the anti-apartheid movement in Japan were informed by Jerry Matsila, the South African head of the ANC based in Tokyo, that Mandela was scheduled to visit Japan again in May 1991. He had been invited by the Austria-based International Press Institute to be the IPI’s keynote speaker at the group’s annual international meeting, which was to be held that year in Kyoto, Japan. We were elated to hear the news; maybe we could organize another welcoming event for Mandela in Japan.

But it came with hitch: The Japanese Ministry of Justice was reportedly allowing Mandela to come into Japan on one condition — that he not make any public “political speeches” while he was in Japan. Any ANC fundraising events to be held in connection with Mandela’s Japan visit would be strictly off-limits.

Which was a strange condition, indeed. Mandela made headlines in whatever country he happened to visit, and his visits to foreign countries were always met with a warm reception and with big fundraising events. Why the cold shower from Japan this time?

We heard that Matsila, the Tokyo ANC representative, was enraged by the Japanese Ministry of Justice conditions on Mandela’s visit. Mandela had been invited by Japan’s government just a few months before in October 1990 as a VIP and given the royal treatment (though no monetary assistance for the ANC) while he was in Japan for a week. And now Japan was allowing Mandela to visit the country again, but essentially in secret and under the media’s and public’s radar? What was that?

Well, no matter. If Mandela couldn’t come to us, we would go to him. And if he was barred from being “political” in Japan, we citizens and residents of Japan certainly weren’t. We decided to give him a warm political welcome of our own when he arrived at the airport.

And so, during a weekday in mid-May 1991, seven months after I had met Mandela the first time, I had a chance to possibly meet him again. A Japanese friend of mine, Kyoko, who was not involved in the anti-apartheid movement but who shared an interest in South African culture and issues just the same, asked if she could come along too.

So there I was at Osaka (Itami) Airport with my trusty Minolta camera. My friend Kyoko brought along a bouquet of flowers that she wanted to hand over to Mandela personally, though I discouraged her from getting her hopes up too high. There was no guarantee that either one of us would even get close to Mandela.

But luck was with us. As it turned out, there were few or no members of the press there at the airport to report Mandela’s arrival that day; it seemed to be business as usual as people came and went through the airport terminal. The only visible sign, in fact, that a VIP was about to arrive was the big yellow banner reading
NELSON MANDELA – WELCOME TO JAPAN that some of the Japanese anti-aparthed activists had made and were hanging over the second-floor balcony at the airport’s international arrivals section.

We waited and waited for what seemed like forever in the airport lobby, with people exiting the doors one after another.

Then the doors opened, and suddenly there was Mandela. He and his small entourage were on the other side of the waist-high railing and heading right toward us. He raised his fist in solidarity with the small crowd welcoming him. One thing you could always say about Mandela: The man knew how to make entrances and exits.

When he got within a few feet of us, I used
Baba, the respectful South African (Zulu) word for “father” to get his attention. “Baba Mandela,” I called out to him. He looked over: “Yes,” he answered.

“Welcome back to Japan,” I said, with some pride at having been the first one to do the honors. “Thanks a million,” he replied.

I nudged my friend Kyoko, then I said to Mandela: “She has something she’d like to give you.” Kyoko handed her flowers to him, and he graciously thanked her and carried them on his way as he continued greeting others.

Undercover agents of the security police then escorted Mandela not through the front doors of the airport terminal, as we had expected, but out through a side door that led out into a parking lot. So all 25 or so of us made a mad dash out the front doors and around to the parking lot and watched from a respectful distance as Mandela waved in our direction.

He was just about to get into his specially appointed black car, when he did something unexpected: He turned away from his Japanese and South African handlers, and started walking toward us a couple yards away. I can still remember the looks of surprise and concern on the faces of Mandela’s handlers as he did so.

There was the 72-year-old Mandela, just within arm’s reach of us, larger than life, in his ordinary-looking greyish suit and brown/grey tie. I glanced at the Japanese activists standing around me and they were speechless, their mouths agape. But I just did what came naturally: I kept taking photos of him.

I forget now the exact words Mandela told us, but to the best of my memory it went something like this: Thank you for taking the time to come out here to welcome us. It means a lot. And thank you for raising your voices against apartheid in South Africa. Someday South Africa will be free, so keep on standing up and speaking out.

“OK?” he said, then, “Thank you”. And smiling, he turned and headed back to where his handlers were anxiously waiting for him.

The Japanese activists around me were stunned and couldn’t say a word. So, without even thinking, I made the first move. I raised my fist as Mandela was walking away, and began singing the first few lines of the famous anthem of the South African liberation struggle, “
Nkosi Sikekel’ iAfrika” (God Bless Africa), a song I knew by heart and had always loved:

Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrika
Maluphakanyisw’ uphondo lwayo
Yizwa imithandazo yethu,
Nkosi sikelela, thina lusapho lwayo....

(which translates roughly as:
God bless Africa
May her glory be lifted high
Hear our prayers,
God bless us, Your children....)

To my surprise — and great relief, since I must have looked like a fool singing solo — the other Japanese activists started joining in singing with me.

And we kept on singing it too, as Mandela got into his car and as the procession of cars edged toward us and moved out of the parking area. My last glimpse of Nelson Mandela in person was him inside the black car, smiling and raising his fist through the closed car window as he went past us. And then, he was gone and on his way.

That was in mid-May 1991. Three years later, almost to the day, Mandela became the first democratically elected president of a free South Africa — just as he had promised us the country would be one day.

When I heard the news that Mandela had passed away at age 95 on 5 December 2013, my mind turned to the two very memorable Mandela Moments I had had here in Osaka, Japan more than two decades before. And on the evening of his deeply moving state funeral ceremony in South Africa on 15 December, just like when I had first shaken hands with him at that massive rally in Osaka, I was deep into my thoughts and had trouble falling asleep that night.

So, the evening that Mandela was laid to rest in South Africa, I went out for a midnight walk alone in my neighborhood, down the hill and over to a small Japanese Shinto shrine that was nestled in the woods among some small farms, to pay my own respects. I brought along a food offering for the spirits, as is the custom.

And I thought about things as I walked along in the silent night. I thought about the long walk to freedom of Nelson Mandela and his people. I thought about all the suffering, all the countless South African lives destroyed by an evil system of segregation called
apartheid, which had been propped up and supported by the major Western countries for nearly 50 years.

I thought about the African continent, the birthplace of humanity, and all the suffering there throughout the ages. And I thought about all the problems around the world today, and how we could use more Mandelas in the world — how we could
be such persons ourselves, if we really wanted to be.

And at the Shinto shrine, there in the still and quiet of a chilly, late-autumn night, I prayed: for the spirit of this man, Nelson Mandela, to have a good journey; for the peace and prosperity of the South Africa he left behind; for all of Africa; and if the truth be known, for all of us in the world. We need it.

That is what my Mandela Moments, all two of them, meant to me. They will always be a part of me, for as long as there is breath and life left in me.

And who knows? Somewhere on that eternal walk that we all must make in our own time, somewhere in a time and space far away from here, maybe we will meet Nelson Mandela again. What a Mandela Moment
that would be....

A Mandela Moment (1)

It has been nothing less than soul-shaking and inspiring to follow the stories of so many people around the globe over the last week or so of how Mr. Nelson Mandela touched them in some way, whether up close or from a distance, whether with a smile or a hug or some kind of personal encouragement from him.

One of my favorite Mandela stories from South Africans themselves is
this one that appeared in the New York Times: how, during an early-morning walk in his native village back in 1995, one year into his presidency, Mandela helped a farmer plow his field. It’s a warm story, yet so typical of the testaments that so many people from all walks of life are sharing about their own encounters with Mandela.

Like some folks who have actually had the high honor of meeting Mandela in person, I too have my own personal episodes to share, two of my own special Mandela Moments that will remain a part of me for as long as I live.

My first one came on a Sunday, 28 October 1990 in Osaka, Japan.

That was the day when a group of Japanese anti-apartheid volunteer activists, of which I was a part, organized a
major two-hour “welcoming rally” for Mandela and a small contingent of members of Mandela’s political party, the African National Congress (ANC). The rally was held at an old sports stadium at a public park in downtown Osaka, and we managed to fill that stadium with 20,000 people. Mandela, as deputy president of the ANC, was on his first-ever trip to Japan following his release from South African prison some months before, and there was a sense of great anticipation in the air in Osaka that day.

The rally had already started and been underway for a while when the special guests from South Africa filed in a bit late, receiving cheers from the crowd when they were spotted. The guests were ushered over to a VIP tent near the stage and then, before I knew it, there was Nelson Mandela, wearing a gray suit and standing in front me a few feet away — the man the world had been waiting to see for more than 25 years.

Some of our Japanese organizing group members spontaneously lined up to welcome Mandela in front of the VIP tent, and I nudged my way into the small queue. One by one, we moved closer to him. Then it was my turn. Mandela looked down at me — he is quite tall — he kind of smiled, and I extended my hand to him.

I don’t know what I was expecting, maybe something like my grandfather the very last time I had seen him alive in the United States; his handshake had been a bit loose and weak due to his advancing age. But I was taken aback at how strong Mandela’s handshake was, considering he was 72 years old at the time. For an instant or two, I studied Mandela’s hand as I clasped it. I was surprised both by the largeness of his hand and the firmness of his grip.

Then, quickly my gaze went from Mandela’s hand, up his arm to his shoulder, and then up to his face. The feeling I had looking up at him was:
Here is a king. It’s really true what people say — that Mandela always had something of a regal air about him, due no doubt to his childhood link to royal members of his Xhosa tribe. And here he was right in front of me, standing erect, looking straight ahead and shaking my hand, and I just had this feeling that I was meeting a king for the first time.

It was a very quick, slightly rushed encounter; no words were spoken between us. But in those few moments, I understood instinctively what people mean when they talk about the “Madiba magic” (Madiba being the name of the extended tribal clan to which Mandela belonged). It was something you could just feel in the man’s handshake and see in the dignified way he carried himself. He was African royalty in a very real sense.

I went home that Sunday afternoon after the big welcoming rally and stayed on an emotional high the rest of the day. My excitement over the historic events of that day kept me awake late into the night, and I had trouble falling asleep. When I finally did drift off into slumber, I remember it was with a big smile on my face.

Meeting Nelson Mandela that day was one of those moments that I somehow knew, even if I couldn’t really put it into words, would be life changing. And indeed, life never was the same after that first Mandela Moment of mine.

(to be continued)

Honoring the ‘Father of Global Humanity’

What does Nelson Mandela mean to you?

It has been deeply moving for me these past couple of days to watch people from all walks of life, from all corners of the world, being asked that same question and to witness their responses.

Whether they are heads of state in some of the biggest countries of the world or ordinary South Africans in their own neighborhoods, people have been emotionally expressing their love and respect for the man that South Africans affectionately call
Tata Madiba, the loving father of their nation.

It brought tears to my eyes to listen to the calm, subdued reminisces of Mandela by Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu during a press conference, speaking as only he can. It was equally touching to see a live broadcast of members of the South African parliament, during a special session of that body, as one member after another shared what Mandela had meant to them personally.

One South African parliament representative at the podium, his fist raised in salute, managed to get all the other parliamentary members on their feet — on the floor of the parliament, mind you, during an official session — to sing in unison the words of an old liberation song, “Rolihlahla”, that had often been sung and marched to during the long years of apartheid:

Rolihlahla Mandela,
Freedom is in your hands!
Show us the way to freedom
In our land of Africa...

It is a song that those of us who were involved in the anti-apartheid movement worldwide, in support of the liberation struggle within the borders of South Africa, knew well. Hearing that song sung by South Africans to a marching beat had always, for me, signaled the coming death of the apartheid regime as we knew it. After all, with freedom in Mandela's hands, how could we lose?

But perhaps the most poignant comment came during one interview I saw with someone associated with the South African government, a person involved in the communications side of things. He said that it is a bit limiting to say that Madiba is the father of the South African nation. In fact, he said, Mandela is "the father of global humanity".

A father figure — yes, that is what Mandela means most of all to me.

In a world where father figures serving as positive role models often seem in short supply, Mandela filled that role for many. One young South African who was interviewed said just as much: that there was no real father at home and, in a broader sense, Mandela represented the missing father role in that young person's life as a guiding moral hand and a force for good.

As someone who similarly grew up in a dysfunctional family background, I too look up to Mandela in much the same way — as the father of his own immediate family and of his nation, surely, but also the father of global humanity. And in a very wide sense, Mandela was my father too.

But what does he mean to you? What about the man and his life has inspired you?

In the spirit of Madiba’s life and commitment to inclusion of everyone as members of one family, I invite you to share below, in this humble space in a small corner of the Internet, your own memories, thoughts, opinions, commentary, whatever, on his passing. It would be my honor to hear from you — wherever in the world you are — and to have you share with us the meaning of Mandela in your own life and how his passing has touched you personally.

As South Africa prepares to host an unprecedented, international memorial service in Johannesburg to honor a very special human being, let us join in the honoring too by sharing our own responses to the often-asked question these days: What does Nelson Mandela, Tata Madiba, mean to you?

Come, brothers and sisters, and share it with us.

In Memoriam: Rolihlahla Nelson Mandela

By now you have probably heard the very sad news that Mr. Nelson Mandela has just passed away at age 95 in South Africa.

The world stands divided in many ways, yet in Mandela's passing, he does now what he always did: bring the world that much closer together and remind us of our common bonds to each other.

I will have more to say on this blog page in the following days and weeks about Mandela and my personal memories of him. But for now, let me just say that it is difficult for me to imagine anyone who has had a more profound influence on my life than Nelson Mandela. There is simply no one else who even comes close to it. I'll be sharing those thoughts with you sometime soon; please look forward to it.

In the meantime, I am devoting today and the days to come to a time of quiet reflection and solemn remembrance of the life and times of this remarkable man. I'll read his words in books, listen to his audio speeches, perhaps watch a DVD or an old videotape or two featuring him. In grieving, I know I am just one of the many millions around this planet who are sending Mandela our last farewell and wishing him a magnificent journey back home to the ancestors and among the spirits.

Remembering with deepest respect Rolihlahla Nelson Mandela, 1918-2013.

The Children of Botshabelo

There is a place in the rural grasslands outside of Johannesburg, South Africa that stands on the frontlines of the HIV/AIDS epidemic worldwide. The place is called “Botshabelo” (pronounced boh-tscha-BELL-oh), and it serves as a struggling oasis of love and support for mostly children and young people who have nowhere else to go.

Botshabelo is, first, an orphanage that is a home to more than 250 South African children, many of whom are so-called “AIDS orphans” that have lost the adults in their families to HIV/AIDS. Some of the children themselves at Botshabelo are living with HIV/AIDS, including some who contracted the disease after being raped by HIV-infected adults. These are children coping with sexual trauma at its worst.

The children of Botshabelo are also the focus of a superb documentary film,
Angels in the Dust, released in 2008.

South Africa today is the country with reportedly the highest rate of HIV/AIDS in the world. More than five million South Africans are estimated to be living with the disease, and more than one million AIDS orphans are the most obvious result of the disease’s devastation of the traditionally close African family unit in South Africa.

In addition to being an orphanage, Botshabelo (also known as Boikarabelo) also has a school that educates about 280 African children, some of whom live at the orphanage and some of whom are from the surrounding villages — children, in other words, who have fallen through the cracks and are not being reached by South Africa’s great strides in education since the end of the apartheid racial segregation system in the 1990s.

This is an appeal for your support of Botshabelo, which has been struggling to keep itself afloat financially ever since its humble beginnings 23 years ago. The founders of Botshabelo — Marion Cloete and Con Cloete, a South African couple — have an open-door policy of not turning away any child or adult in need, and that has kept them struggling for financial support on a daily basis. Botshabelo gets no support from the South African government; it depends on contributions and donations from the public.

For me, the children of Botshabelo themselves are the real reason for wanting to help in any way I can: These are South African children who are dealing on a personal level with adult problems like death, poverty, rape, incest, prostitution and horrific sexual violence, and coming to terms with those problems the best ways they can. For those of us who come from a dysfunctional family environment anywhere in the world, you know the depth of the problem I’m talking about here.

That the children are finding ways to somehow cope with these adult problems is due mainly to the love and support of Botshabelo co-founder Marion Cloete, and the nurturing, understanding and counseling she gives these young people.

U.S. filmmaker Louise Hogarth, who lives in South Africa, deserves much credit for bringing these children’s stories to the screen in
Angels in the Dust. This film is so good that I’m surprised it has not won more awards or been shown more widely in many more countries. It is truly one of the best films about South Africa I have ever seen — a film full of heartbreak, to be sure, but also full of hope for the children of the “Rainbow Nation”, as South Africa has been called since the end of apartheid.

But this is not a movie review — it is an appeal for your support. What can you do to support children on the frontlines of the world’s HIV/AIDS epidemic? Several things:

• Find out more: You can find out what Botshabelo is all about by taking some time to check out the official Botshabelo website. Here you will find out how the Botshabelo community was all started, how it works, what life is like there every day — and most importantly, how you can help make a difference in children’s lives there.

• Watch the film: I would highly recommend buying the DVD of the film Angels in the Dust directly from the filmmaker’s website or from your favorite online store. Through the film, you will get to know the children of Botshabelo, their stories, their lives and their country’s struggle with HIV/AIDS. There are lots of DVD “extras” that make this well worth the purchase. (It’s an all-region DVD, so it plays in all DVD players, including here in Japan.) In the meantime, you can watch the film’s trailer here.

• Support a campaign: For those who are interested, I would encourage you to support the “Do Ubuntu” campaign by the film’s director, Louise Hogarth, to help HIV/AIDS victims in South Africa and give work to mothers who are struggling with the disease. You can get more information at Hogarth’s Do Ubuntu website here.

• Help out: Most importantly, you can help the children of Botshabelo by contributing what you can directly through the official Botshabelo website (listed above).

So why donate to help the children of Botshabelo in South Africa, when there are so many other problems in the world to worry about? I can think of no better reason than the one Marion Cloete gives in the film: “They are our children. They are mine, they are yours, they belong to all of us. We are all going to have to come together as men and women, and say we are the parents.”

Yes, these
are all of our children — wherever they happen to be in the world. They are the future of our societies and our planet. I will personally be doing what I can to help the children of Botshabelo, a struggling oasis of love and support on the southern tip of Africa. I hope you will join me in doing so as well.

Mandela: Speeches in Japan (1)

Thanks in great part to its “honorary white” status in apartheid South Africa, Japan in 1990 was one of the largest trading partners of South Africa, following the sanctions that other western countries had implemented in cutting their economic ties with the isolated apartheid regime.

Nelson Mandela had been out of prison eight months when he was invited by the Japanese government to Japan on a six-day visit as a state guest. A month or so before Mandela’s arrival a high-ranking Japanese government minister happened to make disparaging public comments about Black people that ignited a firestorm of criticism within and outside Japan. It was against this backdrop that Mandela visited Japan for his first-ever visit to the wealthiest country in Asia.

Following is the complete text of Mandela’s speech before an estimated 20,000 people in the Japanese city of Osaka at the “Nelson Mandela Welcoming Rally of Western Japan” on Sunday, October 28, 1990, his second day in Japan. It was held at the municipal Osaka Pool in the downtown Ogimachi Park, a traditional staging ground for political rallies and demonstrations in western Japan.

It was a very special event in many ways, most notably because Amandla, the cultural ensemble-in-exile of Mandela’s political party the African National Congress (ANC), was then on tour in Japan, playing sold-out shows everywhere it performed. Now Amandla would play for Mandela himself — the first time for many of the South Africans in the troupe to see their leader face to face. Mandela himself seemed pleasantly surprised that day by the warm South African welcome he received in the heart of a foreign country, Japan.

This event in Osaka was by far the largest and most impressive public gathering for Mandela during his six days in Japan in October 1990. In this public speech, Mandela is essentially letting Japanese government officials know what he will be expecting in his meetings with them in the coming days in regard to financial support — that is, putting their money where their mouths are when it comes to condemning apartheid.

The old Osaka Pool stadium was torn down a few years after Nelson Mandela’s visit and no longer exists today, but the spirit of that day will forever remain alive and well in that downtown park where Mandela once stood. (See the
PHOTOS and ESSAYS pages of this website for more in words and pictures about Mandela’s appearance that day in Osaka.)

• Nelson Mandela, deputy president, African National Congress:

“Thank you.

“After listening to Amandla, I find it difficult to start my speech. I have been so overcome by emotion that my vocabulary has dried up completely. I never imagined that this morning, I would be back in South Africa and in Soweto. We are very grateful to the choir — and also to you, for turning up to give them support and inspiration.

“We are in this country at the invitation of the Japanese government. We welcomed the invitation because it would give us the opportunity of discussing with the government matters of common interest. In particular, we welcomed this visit because it will enable us to discuss the relationship between the ANC and the government of the country. This invitation will also enable us to tell the government about the latest political developments in our country, and to make specific proposals on how the government of Japan could play a positive role in regard to those developments.

“The invitation will also help us to thank those many non-governmental organizations which help us in our struggle. Not only have the non-governmental organizations of this country condemned
apartheid, but they are giving us the means which we can use effectively in destroying apartheid. They help to maintain our offices here and have constant discussions with our representative [Jerry Matsila] as to how to help to promote the struggle against racialism in South Africa.

“Since the beginning of March this year, we have visited many countries in Africa, Europe, Canada and the United States of America. We met many governments and organizations who reject
apartheid and who have condemned it without qualification. Some of these countries and organizations were satisfied merely to condemn apartheid but did nothing concrete to help us destroy apartheid. In particular, they did not give us the resources, the money, which would help us to conduct an effective struggle for a new South Africa.

“But our visit to these countries and our discussions with the governments and other organizations changed that world picture to a great extent. What is more is that we asked these countries to give us the assistance in our hands, to give us monies, which we ourselves as the African National Congress can control. We asked them specifically
not to tell us that their own laws prevent them from giving monies to a political organization, and we said to them that we would like to take these monies away with us. I am happy to tell you that many of these countries did exactly that: They understood our difficulties, they sympathized with us, and they gave us assistance on the spot.

“We are now in Asia in order to raise funds for the struggle. The first three countries that we have visited in this region have been absolutely magnificent in their response. I am going to give you details because these three countries themselves have published to the world what they did for the African National Congress during our visit.

“We started in India and asked for a sum of 10 million U.S. dollars. They gave us, first, 20 million rupees. In addition to that, they gave us 6,800,000 U.S. dollars. And we took away that amount with us. The next country we visited was Indonesia, and we also asked for 10 million U.S. dollars. We got
exactly that amount. Australia has given us 50 million dollars. And I’m mentioning these figures because all these three countries have published these donations to us.

“We are now in the richest country in Asia, and we are going to ask the government and business people in this country to give us these funds. And we have the confidence that the government and people of Japan will respond in the same way in which the three countries we have visited have responded.

“The Japanese government has clearly condemned
apartheid and also assured us that they would like to cooperate in the establishment of a new South Africa. And we believe that this is exactly what they are going to do.

“We are aware of the good work which the government and people of Japan are doing in order to better the living conditions of the people in the countries that are our neighbors. We are confident that they will not only give us the support which we require but that after
apartheid has been dismantled, they will also involve themselves in the development of our economic system.

“The government of this country has assured us that they welcome the negotiations between the African National Congress and the government [of South Africa]. We believe that the Japanese government is in a position to help, to facilitate, this process. It is with this expectation and hope that I will see the prime minister, the minister of foreign affairs and other leading figures in Tokyo from Monday. I will brief the prime minister, within the time at my disposal, to the fullest extent about what is going on and precisely how we would expect the Japanese government to play a positive role.

“I would have preferred, I would have liked, to brief you in full about the political developments that are taking place in our country and about the issues, the problems, which may lead to the derailment of the peace process. But unfortunately, there is not enough time for me to do this.

“But your presence here in such large numbers shows that we have hundreds of thousands of people in this country who are our true friends and allies. Your population is more than 100 million, and [you are] a country which has such a big population — which has far exceeded even some of the old industrial countries in the West in its economic development and prosperity. A cause which is supported by such a country can never fail.

“I will report to the African National Congress and to the people of South Africa that the warm welcome that you gave us yesterday and your presence here, representing so many people in this country, is a guarantee that our cause will never fail.

“We thank you from the bottom of our hearts for your commitment and for the support that you have given us. Thank you.”

Mandela: Speeches in Japan (2)

Two days after Nelson Mandela’s memorable welcoming rally in the Japanese city of Osaka, Mandela stood before a joint session of Japan’s Diet (parliament) in downtown Tokyo on Tuesday, 30 October 1990 to make his appeal for support directly to the government and people on the national stage of Japan.

It was indeed a rare honor for a private citizen to be invited to address the Diet, reportedly only the second time in Japanese history that such an event had happened. It was a measure of the high esteem in which Mandela was held in Japan and in the other countries around the world that he had been visiting in the eight months since he was released from 27 years of imprisonment in South Africa.

Following are excerpts of Mandela’s 30-minute address to Japan's Diet, tape-recorded from a Japanese public television broadcast of the event. The ellipses (...) indicate parts where the Japanese interpreter’s simultaneous voiceover cuts into Mandela’s voice, making the words hard to hear. Most of the speech excerpts, however, are transcribed here just as Mandela delivered them.

• Nelson Mandela, deputy president, African National Congress:

“Speaker of the House of Representatives, president of the House of Councilors, prime minister, honorable representatives and councilors, distinguished guests:

“We are greatly honored by the invitation extended to us by the government of Japan to address this august body. This occasion provides us with the valuable opportunity to share with you our views and perspectives on the political developments in South Africa, as well as our direct involvement in these processes.

“We appreciate that the Japanese government has advocated the abolition of
apartheid and supports the peaceful process for solving apartheid problems through negotiation. Your acknowledgement of the importance of our goal to this end is a source of encouragement for us at this time.

“We note the Japanese government’s past and present relationship with the South African government. We also note the necessity for broadened extension of your government’s cooperation to the people of South Africa. At this time, when we are embarking on the transformation of our country into a democratic, non-racial, united state, this will act as a form of encouragement to all our struggling.

“The foundation of democratic practice in South Africa is an essential ingredient in the ... of processes now underway. In this context, we appeal to the government of the people of Japan and the rest of the international community for the concrete support of ... and non-governmental workers, educational and social agencies, for example, with self-reliance in South Africa. The infrastructure of reconstruction has to be determined and implemented urgently so that the new order in South Africa is ensured with a healthy start and success.

“The process towards the peaceful resolution of the South African conflict is an explicit policy objective of the African National Congress. As such, we have taken the initiative that resulted in the Groote Schuur and Pretoria Minutes. These talks were followed by the October 8 meeting held in Cape Town, which our organization called for, to address the problem of violence which threatens to abort the entire the peace initiative.

“Despite the wave of violence, increasing numbers of political prisoners are being released. Political exiles are returning home, some after decades of exile. And the state of emergency has been lifted. In addition, the Separate Amenities Act has been repealed. These developments are cause for optimism and encouragement that our fundamental goal of one person/one vote on a common voters’ roll will be realized.

“We believe that social stability is essential for forward movement towards negotiation, to which we reiterate our full commitment. Our organization, the African National Congress, after 30 years of banning, is considerably handicapped by the lack of resources so essential for fulfilling this task. We are urgently faced with the repatriation and resettlement of exiles. They, together with released political prisoners, need housing, employment and education in a society with severe shortages and inadequacies in this regard.

“History has placed our organization in the role it is now playing: the shaper of destiny of all our people and our country. We need to discharge the best resourcability but can only do so if we have the appropriate resources. We hope that the Japanese government and people will be able to help us achieve ... .

“We are tremendously encouraged by the generous responses we have received from nations big and small. The countries we have visited in Asia during this trip have also made significant contributions and thus directly strengthen our ability to start dealing with the process of the urgent problems at hand.

“Today in South Africa, the overwhelming majority of the population are victims of illiteracy, unemployment, homelessness, disease, lack of proper education and numerous other social ills. Perhaps the hardest hit are the children and youth of South Africa, who have been raised during the height of the years of resistance against
apartheid. They, who represent the future of our country, more than any section of our population, require to have the funds to participate in programs for use ... preparations for their future.

“A deliberate and urgent program of reconstruction is needed in South Africa. The political processes now underway can only be enhanced by concrete evidence of commitment to the eradication of poverty and deprivation. In this regard, to help accelerate those, radical educational policies and processes must be instituted urgently.

“The enormous achievements of Japan, we learned, occurred as a result of effective political, social and economic strategies undertaken simultaneously. Any government at the helm of a new South Africa will be still be faced with formidable problems inherited from the past. Your advances and experience in technology, education, economics and other spheres can be of tremendous benefit to us — indeed, to southern Africa as a whole — now and in the years ahead.

“We are certain that there is a strong basis for us to [have] confidence that Japan will strengthen the call for the abolition of
apartheid through a concrete process of further assistance to our struggling people. This will shore up the pillars of democratic participation in our country. This can be done through your overseas development assistance programs, as is the case with the European countries, Canada and the United States of America, which are making significant contributions to change in South Africa. We request you also to rally with others in the region to intervene emphatically on the side of positive change in our country.

“We congratulate you on the occasion of the [100th] anniversary of Japanese parliamentary democracy. I am privileged to address this summoning during the observance of your centennial. Our visit coincides with the preparations for the ceremony of accession to the imperial throne. On this occasion, we extend our people’s felicitations to the government and the people of Japan, and their commitment to the cause of peace.

"We thank you.”

(Postscript: As this Chicago Tribune article on Mandela’s address to the Japanese Diet reported at the time, Mandela had requested $25 million in financial support from the government of Japan but did not get it. Despite the royal VIP treatment he received from the Japanese government during his visit, Mandela left Japan literally empty-handed, with not one single Japanese yen promised or given to his party, the African National Congress — despite the fact that Japan, under its official “honorary white” status in apartheid South Africa, was making lots of money at that time as one of South Africa’s top trading partners.)

‘Mandela in Japan’ — A Retrospective

I’m a firm believer in honoring our elders, heroes and inspirations while they are still with us in this life, that we may deepen our respect and remember anew how they lived, what they stood for and how they changed our lives in their own special ways.

Since no one has had for me a more positive impact and influence than Mr. Nelson Mandela, the former president of South Africa, and since he is still with us, I'd like to post here a few thoughts of my own about him.

Mandela came to Japan at least a couple times following his release from prison in South Africa in 1990 but before his inauguration as president of that country in 1994. I was lucky enough to be here in Japan then and to very briefly meet Mandela both times.

I’ll go into more detail about those memorable experiences later on, but for now, let me share with you — in pictures and in words — the impressions and images of Mandela that I managed to capture during his trips to Japan back in the early 1990s.

Have a look at these pages that I’ve added and/or updated to this website especially for remembering Mandela’s visits to Japan:

PHOTOS — “Mandela in Japan”: a photo retrospective of his October 1990 and May 1991 visits to Osaka, Japan, where I was living at the time.

ESSAYS — "Mandela in Japan": a series of articles I wrote (listed here in two parts) that were originally carried in a December 1990 issue of Comrade News, the Japanese newsletter of the local Osaka branch of the Japan Anti-Apartheid Committee, which I was a volunteer member of at the time.

And while you’re at it, treat yourself to a reading of a poem I later wrote in honor of Mandela’s inauguration as president of South Africa:

POETRY — “F is for the FUTURE

With the birth of a new, democratic South Africa capturing the world’s attention in May 1994, and with the birth of my own child expected just a couple months after that, the state of the world’s children was very much on my mind then. I imagined the kind of “ABCs” that South African children might be taught (or hopefully would be taught) in their schools following Mandela becoming president, and came up with this poem. So, this one is for the children — mine and South Africa’s.

And yes, as it notes, I did send this poem via the ancient technology of the fax machine to the new government under Mandela in Pretoria, South Africa, as well as to the Tokyo branch office of Mandela’s political party, the African National Congress. I’d like to imagine that included amongst all the thousands of archived boxes of official stuff commemorating that historical moment in South African and world history, my humble little poem today is right where it should be: buried at the bottom of a pile somewhere, forgotten, collecting the dust of time.

If you are a Facebook friend who happened to be in Japan at the time of Mandela’s visits, please join in sharing your own thoughts, impressions and images of “Mandela in Japan” in the Comment space below. After all, we can never honor enough this great man and all that he has worked for and lived for in his long and extraordinary life.
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