From South Africa to Moose Jaw and back again

Times-Herald Staff
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His bodyguards expertly ushered him through the crowd but he stopped with each handshake and in his jovial way, looked each person in the eye and said, “Pleasure to meet you.”

As I waited my turn, I had the sense that this was going to be a monumental handshake. Something that maybe comes around once in a lifetime.

By Marlon Hector

Special to the Times-Herald


It was just another school day. We had come in from recess and were still settling down. Suddenly, gunshots rang out. The windows of our classroom rattled. The teacher barked instructions to get under our desks. Of course, we rushed to the window to see the commotion outside.

Police were in pursuit of high school kids who were protesting. The word of the day was apartheid — a system of legalized racism devised by a white minority government. Another word was “Mandela” — somewhat foreign to us, a mythical figure who somehow embodied our nation’s hopes.

We understood very little of this at the time. And all we heard on the news was that high school kids were rebelling as high school kids do. Because the best way to keep people oppressed is to make them believe they are not.

I mean, we heard stories. Our parents would talk about how they were forcibly moved from areas the government declared “white.” When my uncle and his family were forced to move, they ended up renting the house they previously owned from the new white owner. I guess they were lucky.

By the time I became aware of the world, the “whites only” and “natives and dogs” signs at restrooms and cinemas and beaches had been taken down. But schools and marriage and employment were still divided along colour lines. White first, then Indian, then coloured, then black. So if you were a black woman, you were s--t out of luck.

My mother told me tales of standing in line with her siblings, waiting for the officials to pass a pencil through their hair. If the pencil fell out and your skin was light enough, you won. You won the right to be classified “white.” And white meant good, and right. Privileged.

My people — coloureds — have a history filled with seeking to be white. The straight hair, the blue eyes, the light skin. White was always better. In fact, years later, many coloureds would vote for the very political party that previously denied them the right to vote. “Rather the devil you know than the devil you don’t,” they would say.

We didn’t know we were oppressed. We thought it acceptable to be barred from living in certain areas, going to certain schools, dating certain people, getting access to certain opportunities.

Schools across the country closed for three months around the time those protests took place. The government declared a state of emergency — maybe if the youth couldn’t gather at schools, they wouldn’t gather in protest.

Eventually life went back to what we thought was normal.


The older students in our Coloureds-only school called them awareness programs and they were right on the money, because most of us simply weren’t aware.

We were caught up in the newspeak. We didn’t know we were oppressed. We thought it acceptable to be barred from living in certain areas, going to certain schools, dating certain people, getting access to certain opportunities. It was just the way things were.

So our teachers would give us time out of classes to gather and learn an alternative, and as it was, a true, history of South Africa.

The high school seniors would call us comrades — and we joked about it, not knowing that there was a very real world out there of real comrades who were enduring extreme hardship so that one day we would be free. And chief among those was Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela.

Those awareness programs were successful. Illegal, but successful.

In very many ways, for many of us, Mandela was the stuff of legends. The key not only to South Africa’s freedom, but to its greatness. I remember the principal of our school giving us time to celebrate his birthday, except instead of singing the birthday song, we sang We Shall Overcomeand Nkosi Sikelele (our then-unofficial national anthem).

Eventually those gatherings clashed with the police. We obliged with signs and chanting.

“Viva Mandela, viva!”

“An injury to one is an injury to all!”

The police obliged with gunshots and by destroying any pro-Mandela paraphernalia. Some of my school friends boycotted final exams in protest. No doubt some of them were looking for an excuse to skip finals. Others genuinely sacrificed a year of their lives for the struggle and had to repeat a grade. Compared to Mandela’s life sentence to hard labour, one year was nothing.


Organizations: National Party

Geographic location: South Africa, Moose Jaw, Cape Town Africa Saskatchewan Rustenburg

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Recent comments

  • Jason Moffat
    January 30, 2014 - 17:08

    Powerful, conversationally-written piece. Thanks so much for sharing, Marlon! Rev. Jason Moffat World Vision Canada

  • Glynis Swigelaar
    December 11, 2013 - 02:07

    Amazing article, Marlon, brought tears to my eyes, death of a loved one has a way of uniting a family and Nelson Mandela's passing is doing that, people from all walks of life are united in grieving for someone they considered their family, united in celebrating the life of someone they considered family. You can feel it in the air, we are being kinder and more tolerant. He was our father. I pray the unity we feel remains long after the sadness has passed and that the life he lived will always inspire us to be better human beings.

  • Megan Hector
    December 11, 2013 - 01:29

    Madiba To a man who made our land his life And forgiveness his focus Who turned hatred into humility And made peace with the past Who made his captors his comrades And his prison cell his podium Who turned imprisonment into freedom And a divided people into a nation Who made children his cause And love his legacy Rest In Peace Nelson Mandela

  • wesley
    December 11, 2013 - 01:03

    "really an amazing and thoughtful article on Nelson Mandela" straight from a south african view point...