My Gratitude to Prisoner Number 46664

I have been overwhelmed by the world’s reaction to Nelson Mandela’s death on Thursday. It has been emotional, to say the least, to see people from all across the globe pay tribute to this ‘giant of history’.

I was a young child when one hot August afternoon, our plane descended onto the tarmac of Toronto’s Pearson International Airport. I looked out the window excitedly to see what my new country looked like. At immigration, under the line “Citizenship of” in the Record of Landing document was typed “stateless”. From birth, I belonged to no country. I was an individual without a citizenship, until Canada became my first home.

Like many South Africans who fought against the apartheid regime, my father was forced to flee South Africa and go into exile. He lived in exile for almost thirty years before coming to Canada. My mother had one hope for herself. She vowed that if she ever had children they would never grow up under apartheid. She left her life and family in Cape Town and began the nomadic life abroad.

My mother’s hope was realized. I never grew up under apartheid, but it clung to our lives and haunted us. My father’s hope was to live on the border of South Africa in order to be close to our families. But the closer to the border we came, the more our lives were endangered. When I was five, living in Botswana, our family came under surveillance by the South African government. Many South African families living in countries bordering South Africa were under constant surveillance, which resulted in killings or homes being bombed. One afternoon, I discovered a parked car outside our home. Two white men in plain clothes were taking photos of our house. The police later confirmed that they were monitoring our family. That night my parents packed up our family, and drove an hour into a remote village where we would hide out at my aunt’s home. We did this every night for months. That’s how South Africans in Botswana died. Their homes were surveilled, and then later bombed. We never knew in what state we would find our house the next morning. My parents decided to leave the country and immigrated to Canada. My mother’s hope was realized. I became a citizen of a country for the first time when I was ten years old. My home was and always will be Canada.

This is the story of millions of South Africa whose lives were affected by apartheid. I was the fortunate one. I never experienced the humiliation of segregated bathrooms and buses, the immorality laws, the onerous obligation of having to carry a pass, or have a pencil put through my curls to see if my hair was ‘kinky” enough to relegate me to the fourth class citizenry of “Bantu”.

Instead, I was given the opportunity to grow up in a country governed by the rule of law and filled with endless possibilities, where if I worked hard I could accomplish anything, irrespective of my gender or race. My parents struggled as new immigrants in a foreign country. My mother returned to school and my father, with a PhD in Chemistry from a West German university, struggled to find work for our first year. Our lives weren’t easy, but my parents instilled in my brother and me the value of hard work and integrity. We lived in a safe country, free of racial violence and systemic bigotry. We could go to school and play outside without fearing for our lives.

Today, I owe my gratitude to the many South Africans who stood up and defied the apartheid regime. And I owe a profound gratitude to a man who has humbled me with his unfathomable sense of grace and forgiveness and unwavering desire to achieve for us the simple fact of life in a democratic society.

My parents would never have realized their hopes of raising a family outside apartheid if it wasn’t for a country that gave us sanctuary. We’ve read this week about the important role that Canada played in calling upon the international community to take action against the apartheid government. However, Canada also played a role in giving a home to many South Africans whose lives were threatened by apartheid. I was able to go to school, go on to earn two law degrees, get married and bring into this world two amazing children whose lives are a testament to Madiba’s legacy.

In 1998, I went to live in South Africa where I spent two years living in the Eastern Cape, one of the poorest provinces in the country and also where Mandela was born and raised. The beautiful landscape and breathtaking scenery is marked by endemic poverty, violence and AIDS . At the time that I lived there, one in four people was HIV positive. Charlize Theron was appearing on television commercials about the fact that every 26 seconds a woman was being raped in the country. I lived in a small town which was emblematic of South Africa’a historical past. The centre, buried in a deep valley, was developed and for the most part, white and privileged. The periphery was lined with shanty towns, poor infrastructure and destitute poverty. I was so disappointed by the socioeconomic situations that so many of black South Africans endured. What did democracy mean when many of these people didn’t even have adequate drinking water? But despite the poverty and unemployment, South Africans have an unequivocal sense of hope. I realized this most when I photographed the second democratic election in 1999. If there is one memory that lasts with me, it is of these individuals waiting patiently in line since the early hours of the morning to cast their ballot. There they stood quietly, resolute in their desire to exercise a simple right that was now entrenched in their constitution.

So when I read about how Mandela’s legacy has come to an end, I am reminded of the millions of men and women who stood in line to vote in 1999 and the millions more who continue, in the face of the growing social and economic divide, to hope for a better tomorrow. We watched Mandela walk out of prison a free man in 1990 and we owe it to him to fulfil his promise that “[n]ever, never, and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another.” It is a deep sense of hope that will allow us to realize this dream.

My parents’ hope for a better life for their children meant that they could live in a society where their grandchildren would never even fathom the ugly face of apartheid, that their children could realize their potential without any social or political obstacles. My own children’s knowledge of apartheid will derive from the history of their grandparents’ lips. They will never appreciate what apartheid meant because the concept of dividing people according to their racial makeup will be as foreign and insidious to them as the holocaust and slavery is to me. This is the hope that Mandela had for all of us, and one we must continue to honour for those who still struggle in the face of social injustice. As Mandela so poignantly wrote, “the purpose of freedom is to create it for others.”

It is hard to imagine that a young boy from a remote village in South Africa would grow up to lead a nation, to become the most revered figure of the twentieth century and to leave an indelible mark on mankind. Would that little boy in Qunu have known that millions of people around the world would tweet about his passing, that countries would declare national days of mourning, that foreign dignitaries would travel to his remote village to bear their final respects to such a great figure? I am only one individual, but I owe a deep gratitude to Madiba for bringing freedom and democracy to my country, and to enable me to achieve the destiny I was intended for.


4 thoughts on “My Gratitude to Prisoner Number 46664

  1. Thank you for sharing your personal experience. I have found it very interesting to read.

    We have published your story on Please keep writing.

  2. Pingback: WE SHALL OVERCOME | We dream of things that never were and say: "Why not?"

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