Listening to BBC after Nelson Mandela died left me sleep deprived. It was virtually nonstop from midnight to 5 a.m. on WVXU, and BBC demonstrated how a first-class news organization covers a major story.
The broadcasts carried me back to 1990 when I stayed up to see the telecast of Mandela walking out of prison. There was no way I wouldn’t see that. Here’s the backstory: As a college student, I knew why Miriam Makeba couldn’t sing in her native South Africa and I read about the Sharpeville massacre, but Mandela, Mbeki, Sisulu and Slavo weren’t yet part of my active conscience.
That ignorance ended when I joined UPI in London in 1962 and began graduate work at the School of Oriental and African Studies. Violent black Africa was a place for a budding photojournalist; I wanted to go there. So I studied African anthropology.
London was a hotbed of anti-apartheid activism and UPI handled news from Southern Africa. Part of my job was to scan London dailies, including the fiercely anti-apartheid Guardian, for stories UPI should have. Mandela and his revolutionary ANC comrades, as well as key figures and places in apartheid South Africa, were frequent news. I learned about violent townships and commuter trains, brutal police, the deadly Marshall Square jail in Jo’burg and Robben Island prison in Cape Town bay.
By late 1963, I was in Africa. UPI sent me with the Philippine president’s coast-to-coast tour en route home from JFK’s funeral. Stops included Liberia, Kenya and Tanzania, three independent, black-ruled countries.
I flew from Dar es Salaam to Salisbury, Rhodesia, and got my first dose of white minority rule in that British colony. There, I sought out Joshua Nkomo, a leader of the black independence movement.
I found him in a cloud of tear gas after police broke up a demonstration in the Harare township.
White Rhodesians had not yet declared unilateral independence from Britain nor had black Rhodesians taken to the bush in what became a civil war leading to black majority rule.
Local papers were solidly behind the white minority government, and news of the major terrorism trial in neighboring South Africa was prominent. Defendants were Mandela and key ANC comrades. They all were principal figures in ANC’s armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe. They were charged with sabotage and attempting to overthrow South Africa’s white minority government. (This is why Mandela was on the U.S. terrorism watch list … until 2008.)
After a few days, I flew to my new job in Northern Rhodesia, a British Protectorate known now as Zambia. Our weekly Zambia News reported Mandela’s trial but our focus was on black majority rule in soon-to-be-independent Zambia.
White-minority rule to the south — Rhodesia and South Africa — and to the east and west — Portuguese Mozambique and Angola — was a concern for landlocked Zambia with its dependence on exported copper and affinity with independence movements.
Beyond those realities, Mandela’s fate was a living story to us, not least because Zambia quietly was host to ANC fugitives and Umkhonto we Sizwe members training to return to South Africa as saboteurs.
White miners on the Zambian Copper Belt — largely Afrikaners supportive of South African apartheid — offered a dramatically different perspective. To them, ANC was a terrorist organization, and overwhelming numbers of black South Africans at home were a mortal threat if not kept “in their place.”
I heard in our local pub; miners valued their lucrative jobs and comfortable life style too much to flee. However, impending Zambian independence and revelations from Mandela’s trial and stunning four-hour closing argument in court created an underlying anxiety about the white, and especially Afrikaner, future.
Anxiety over their children’s prospects persists among Afrikaners we met in South Africa in 2011.
By the time Mandela was sentenced to life in prison in 1964, we had assembled an international crew to publish the Zambia Times. A handful were South Africans. With one exception, their government considered them to be fugitives because of their anti-apartheid activities at home.
Those colleagues thought of themselves as refugees or, at least in one case, a refugee who really was a fugitive for his role in the South African Communist Party.
None of them had met Mandela before leaving South Africa. Like the rest of us, they knew him and his comrades only through words and deeds. That was enough.
We knew he and his closest comrades were political activists who despaired of peaceful change and turned to violence. It was a classic case of “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.”
That was Mandela’s complexity.
CONTACT BEN L. KAUFMAN: email@example.com