Skip to main content

A white South African's memories of Mandela

By Nadia Bilchik, Special to CNN
updated 2:43 PM EDT, Tue June 18, 2013
 Nelson Mandela holds his first press conference after his release from jail, February 12,1990, in Cape Town, South Africa.
Nelson Mandela holds his first press conference after his release from jail, February 12,1990, in Cape Town, South Africa.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Nadia Bilchik grew up in a cocoon of privilege in South Africa, unaware of apartheid
  • Voting with blacks and whites for the first time, she appreciated what Mandela did
  • Bilchik: His release from prison was highly anticipated and enormously feared
  • Bilchik: Mandela's profound lack of bitterness after 27 years of prison informed his life

Editor's note: Nadia Bilchik is a CNN editorial producer.

(CNN) -- I was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1964, the year Martin Luther King Jr. was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the Civil Rights Act was passed in the United States, and Nelson Mandela was sentenced to life in prison.

Mine was a relatively idyllic childhood in the affluent and segregated northern suburbs of Johannesburg. Like many white South Africans, I lived in an ignorant cocoon of privilege, with no idea that having two live-in maids, a full-time gardener and a driver was unusual. It was perfectly normal for my African nannies, Rosina and Phina, to live with us rather than with their own children, and there was no need to learn their language or even their last names.

It was only as a teenager that I began to realize something was horribly wrong. Phina and I were walking along the road of our pristine "whites only" neighborhood when we saw a police van stop. Two armed white police officers got out and began interrogating the black passers by. They roughly shoved several of them into their van, screaming obscenities all the time.

I was terrified and asked Phina what was going on. She explained that the police were on a "pass" raid, and any black person in a white suburb without an identity book stamped with official permission to live and work in Johannesburg was a criminal and liable to arrest.

Nadia Bilchik
Nadia Bilchik

From that day on I was no longer innocent to the evils of apartheid.

A teacher in my segregated public elementary believed in schooling her privileged white students in the injustices happening all around them. Suddenly Phina and Rosina became real people to me, and I learned for the first time about Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress.

Songs like "Free Nelson Mandela" became part of our consciousness, but Mandela himself was still a mythical figure: the blanket of South African government censorship, which made it a crime to publish the words of prohibited leaders and organizations, or to write about the South African Security Forces or prison conditions, kept us in relative ignorance.

Nelson Mandela prepares to address a rally just a few days after he was released from prison, in February 1990. \n
Nelson Mandela prepares to address a rally just a few days after he was released from prison, in February 1990.
Nadia Bilchik attends an event with Nelson Mandela.
Nadia Bilchik attends an event with Nelson Mandela.
Jubilant residents of Soweto wait to hear newly freed Nelson Mandela speak at Orlando stadium February 12,1990. I\n
Jubilant residents of Soweto wait to hear newly freed Nelson Mandela speak at Orlando stadium February 12,1990. I

The Soweto riots happened on June 16, 1976. Police shot into huge crowds of schoolchildren of all ages protesting a directive they could not be taught in their own language. Hundreds of people were killed; the cruelty and brutality of the government's reaction was met with rioting that spread to other townships. It was the beginning of the end of colonial, racist South Africa. The shooting death of 13-year-old Hector Peterson galvanized the world. Yet we knew little about it, even though Soweto was less than 20 miles away.

In high school, history teacher Mr. Lowry, who had been arrested several times for anti-apartheid activism, insisted we wear black armbands every June 16th. We complied. But it was only in April 1994, in my late 20s and standing for hours in a long line of black and white South Africans to vote in the country's first democratic election, that I came close to truly understanding the unforgivable nature of apartheid.

Next to me was a dignified 75-year-old man who had taken two buses and walked 10 miles to the voting station to vote for the first time in his life. On my other side was Salaminah, the lady who was helping raise my children, and who had become an integral part of our lives. Only now, at the age of 55, was she considered a real citizen in the place where she and her ancestors had lived for hundreds of years.

We whites had lived in a place that denied people their basic human rights. Why had it taken so long to change this inhumane system? How had we allowed it? I stood in that line experiencing a mixture of jubilation and guilt. Had I really lived for 29 years in a country that had denied the majority of its people the right to vote?

It was also a time to truly appreciate the enormous sacrifice and achievement of Nelson Mandela and his comrades.

Mandela's release from prison in February 1990 had been both a highly anticipated and enormously feared event. Many members of the white South African minority were terrified of the kind of displacement and retribution that has historically followed revolutions and major changes in government. So you can imagine everyone's relief when, rather than calling for a revolution, Mandela instead preached reconciliation, and spoke of a Rainbow Nation and the importance of Ubuntu -- we are human through the humanity of others. It was then that the brilliance of Mandela as a peacemaker, a politician and a statesman emerged.

To really understand the psyche of Mandela is to grasp his profound lack of bitterness, a quality that is almost inhuman for a man who spent 27 years as a prisoner of the South African government. It seems Mandela consciously cultivated that quality. He wrote: "As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn't leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I'd still be in prison."

As chronicled in the Clint Eastwood movie "Invictus," this is a man who donned a green rugby jersey during the Rugby World Cup in 1995 to send a message to racist white South African rugby players and fans that everyone in the "Rainbow Nation" of the new South Africa would be rooting for their victory. This is a man who in 1995 visited Betsie Verwoed, the 94-year-old widow of one of the prime architects of apartheid, and a man who invited his white jailor as a VIP guest to his inauguration as the country's first black president.

I first met Mandela at a business awards gathering. The second time was at the opening of the SOS children's village in Cape Town where he presided as guest of honor. He was charming, talking to me about my job while holding my hand. He was still extremely energetic at 79 and very handsome. His only ailment was watery eyes, the result of 13 years spent doing hard labor at the limestone quarry on Robben Island, where he spent 18 years of his 27 years of imprisonment in a small cell.

I also met the president at the Mandela House in Johannesburg when he greeted the Manchester United soccer team, who were visiting South Africa. It was amazing to see these superstar athletes awestruck at being in the presence of the most famous politician of this generation.

It was 1997, and the transformation of the country's psyche was palpable. We were no longer the pariahs of the world, and suddenly Mandela had lifted South Africa from disgrace to worldwide acceptance and applause. He had done so gracefully and relatively peacefully. That is probably why nearly everyone introduced to Mandela would tear up, so moved were they by his stature and accomplishments.

Mandela's family suffered. His daughters Zenani and Zindzi and their mother Winnie were exiled to Brandfort, a town hundreds of miles away from Johannesburg. They grew up without their father, sleeping on the floor. Mandela lost three of his six children, one of whom died while he was in prison. In June of 2010, his beloved great-granddaughter Zenii was killed in a car accident at the start of the World Cup Soccer Tournament.

Now, at 94, nearly 95, like most mortals in their twilight years, Mandela is frail, and in the hospital yet again, in serious condition.

All this is not to say that Mandela's emphasis on facilitating a peaceful transition of power in South Africa has not been criticized. Many believed, and still do, that Mandela was too conciliatory and that too little was done to transform the South African economy. Indeed, to a large extent, economic power still remains mainly in the hands of whites and a small black elite. The country is grappling with enormous problems, including high unemployment and growing corruption.

Indeed, the new South Africa that owes its relative peace and prosperity to the transformative vision of Nelson Mandela is still a work in progress. But, whatever the future brings for the Rainbow Nation, Mandela will always be the man who turned a nightmare into a vision, a vision into a dream and a dream into a reality.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions in this commentary are solely those of Nadia Bilchik.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 5:01 PM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
updated 12:19 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
updated 6:35 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
updated 9:36 AM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
updated 6:08 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
updated 5:54 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
updated 12:21 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 10:14 AM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT