Then it happened! We heard the news that Nelson Mandela and all political prisoners in South Africa were to be released, unconditionally, and that the liberation movements and the ANC were to be unbanned! This changed everything. It was a chaotic and heady time, with high hopes and renewed life as the once impossible dream of returning ‘home’ was to be realized.
My parents and I took a trip by ferry from Helsinki to Stockholm, Sweden. This was an overnight ferry-ride and the trip was magical because we met Nelson Mandela, who was freed after 27 years on Robben Island. He was in Stockholm,Sweden to meet the President of the ANC, comrade Oliver Reginald Tambo, Mandela’s old friend, law-partner and life-long comrade in the ANC. President Oliver Tambo, who had been in exile for almost 30 years was a dynamic and charismatic and intellectual giant who had built the ANC in exile from being just another liberation movement in exile into the voice of the South African freedom struggle, launching successful campaigns to isolate Apartheid South Africa from the world community.
Unfortunately, President Oliver Tambo had suffered a stroke and was convalescing as a guest of the Swedish government. Sweden was a staunch ally in the fight against Apartheid. Nelson Mandela met his old comrade in Stockholm and we met the godfather of my sister, and the would-be best-man of my father in a hall in Stockholm. I have photographs of the tears and joy as Mandela hugged my father and mother, and as old comrades including Ahmed Kathrada who also spent 27 years in jail with Mandela and the other Rivonia Trial accused, met after nearly 30 years! I was overwhelmed, as were countless others to finally meet the man who had become the face of the worldwide struggle against Apartheid. There was a sense of vindication, of oppression though still not defeated, but definitely in its final moments, as we acknowledged that we all stood on the cusp of something so many had not only dreamed about, but dedicated their entire lives to achieve.
We spent a few days in Stockholm and Uppsala, and then hopped on the ferry back to Helsinki, to finally begin preparations for the return home. The trip we made was on freezing November night, when we boarded a train from Helsinki to Moscow, and then flew to Maputo in Mozambique where we spent a night, before boarding a South African Airways flight to Johannesburg.
I will never forget the stifled sobs of my mother as the pilot announced we were flying over South African soil.
My parents and I returned to South Africa on a November day in 1990, as part of a batch of returning political exiles. I was 18 years old then and met most of my family members for the first time. And so it was that just past my 18th birthday in September of 1990, I found myself ‘home’ in South Africa, after 18. After years of dreaming what ‘home’ would be like and how my brother and sister and cousins and aunts and uncles would take me into their homes and lives.
I was overwhelmed by the outpouring of love and kindness showered on me, the ‘returning’ boy who was not really returning, but was dipping his toes into the early1990′s, a period of South African history, just preceding the first free and democratic election in 1994 that was one of the country’s most trying of times.
The Apartheid regime, having unbanned all political organizations and liberation movements and releasing political prisoners such as Nelson Mandela and others, was still not willing to relinquish power, and had embarked on a cynical and dirty campaign of fomenting violence in the sprawling black townships in Johannesburg, Durban and other cities around the country.
There were killings and hit-squads that roamed and terrorized communities while negotiations between the Apartheid government and the African National Congress (ANC) offered hope and then broke down, and then were restarted until finally, on April the 27th, 1994, black South Africans, for the first time in their lives, cast their ballots which resulted in sweeping Nelson Mandela’s ANC into power, with Nelson Mandela or ‘Madiba’ as he is known becoming South Africa’s first black President.
I attended the inauguration of Nelson Mandela as South Africa’s first truly democratically elected President in Pretoria on a crisp May 10th morning along with friends and comrades, and we openly wept as the South African Air-Force flew overhead, the flag of our new ‘rainbow’ nation fluttering below.
My early days in South Africa were ones of family dinners and visits to relatives and old family friends and comrades in the struggle. My father started work almost immediately at the ANC’s headquarters in central Johannesburg, and I attended my final year of high-school, also in central Johannesburg.
Looking back now, I see myself then as a caricature of the immigrant who just wants to fit in, always being on one’s best behavior, and under no circumstances allowing the turmoil within to bubble to the surface.
I was born to parents who were non-religious, my father definitely more so than my mother, who ‘believed’ in God, though was never one to make a show of it. I grew up not really knowing what religion I was born into, as my parents never, and though never is a strong word, it is applicable here, my parents never mentioned religion at home. My mom would cook up a storm on Eid-ul-Fitr every year, the feast that is the culmination of the fasting month of Ramadaan, but then we never fasted or paid attention to religious ritual or practice. I can say that religion was absent from our home, whether we were in India, Cairo or Helsinki. This upbringing imparted humane values rather than strictly religious ones. Though, these values are not mutually exclusive.
The school I attended in Delhi in the 1980′s, Springdales, is an institution founded by two great humanitarians, Mrs. Rajni Kumar and her husband Mr. Yudhishter Kumar, both people that who possessed the qualities of compassion, humanity, and a burning sense of the need to tackle injustice, wherever and in whatever shape or form it was to be encountered. During my years at Springdales in Delhi, I was hardly a promising academic student I now look back and am forever indebted to the culture of tolerance and respect for all people, regardless of station in life, religion, caste, gender or race, that my still-beloved Springdales. The culture of Springdales School and the manner in which my parents raised me, has led to a life-long aversion to intolerance in any shape, colour or form, and a strong belief in the power of rational and critical thinking. I thank my parents again, and my Springdales, for bestowing on me this invaluable gift.
Lately, I find myself often feeling that I am on the outside, looking in and I find this vantage point to be strangely comfortable. I do not have much time for religion or for cultural affiliations. Again, this is not meant to be offensive to anyone, these are the feelings I am comfortable with. I cannot stress this enough, my upbringing and my years at Springdales have hewn into my consciousness, the absolute need for the respect for all.
I will end this narrative with the words of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, who responded to a woman who also bore the ‘Guevara’ name and had written to Che asking him where in Spain his ancestors came from, he responded.
“I don’t think you and I are very closely related but if you are capable of trembling with indignation each time that an injustice is committed in the world, we are comrades, and that is more important.”
Dear reader, thank you for your patience and for taking the time to read these ramblings of mine.