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A Transformative Experience: South Africa and the Atlanta Olympics

The Summer Olympics took place 20 years ago in Atlanta. This was two years after the 1994 triumphant first democratic elections in South Africa when Nelson Mandela was elected as President. I was fortunate to serve as an international observer in the elections (along with many others from Atlanta) and to stay for Mandela's spectacular inaugurationone month later in Pretoria. Given my long involvement in the anti-apartheid struggle, during the 1996 Atlanta Olympics I opted to spend my time in the South African pavilion in downtown Atlanta along with friends here in Atlanta and from South Africa. There is a narrative from that experience during the Olympics that I want to share. But first some history. I was in South Africa in 1994 withThandi Gcabashe who is the daughter of Chief Albert Luthuli. Luthuli. Luthuli was the President of the African National Congress and the first African Nobel Peace prize winner in 1960. Luthuli was ultimately banned by the South African government in 1960 and died mysteriously in 1967. Not long after her father's death, Thandi Gcabashe left South Africa for Atlanta and became our leader in the anti-apartheid movement.

Below also is a brief history of the South African apartheid system that we fought against and that relates overall to the narrative from the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. Ever since the original South African inhabitants encountered the imperial Europeans, on a consistent basis, they were confronted with oppressive and racist systems and attitudes. The Dutch were the first to establish a permanent settlement in South Africa in the 1600's and in 1652 the Dutch East India Company established a fort as a supply station in the "Cape of Good Hope" which is in the southern tip of Africa. By the mid-1600s slavery was also entrenched in South Africa with slaves largely imported into the area from Angola, Jakarta, Guinea and other areas. The description below about this history is incredibly informative for what was to come regarding subsequent policies and attitudes by Europeans in South Africa:

Within weeks of his arrival at the Cape (in 1652), Van Riebeeck (of the Dutch East India Company) requested slaves to work at setting up the refreshment, as the Cape was not to be a colony, with the right to enslaving the indigenous population. Good relations with the indigenous people, the Khoikhoi and the San, were to be maintained. Although Van Riebeeck did not receive slaves immediately, and although the Cape was not to be more than a refreshment station, the economic demands and the greed for land soon reversed Van Riebeeck's mandate and instructions. Within four years of Van Riebeeck's arrival, the first war between the Khoikhoi and the Dutch broke out, as the Khoi clans tried to drive away the Dutch who had appropriated their land, forcing them into less fertile areas of the region. Soon the colonial project was well underway. With the systematic importation of slaves from mainly Dutch East Asia the Cape economy developed into a slave-based economy. This had profound repercussions at all levels of society, determining as it did social relations based on a slave/servant-master paradigm that translated within a short period of time into a racial hierarchical social order. Europeans/whites became the masters, while the indigenous population was either decimated or subjugated to the level of a slave/servant class. (South African History)

Ultimately, over the centuries, both the Dutch and the English, as well, had a stake in South Africa. They had legendary battles against each other for dominance of the resource rich country that always, thanks to the Europeans, incorporated countless restrictive laws against the indigenous population.

Moving forward to the 20th century, after WWII in 1948 the National Party (NP) won the South African national elections. The NP was controlled by those of Dutch descent, who were largely known as Afrikaners. Their language was Afrikaans that developed from the "Dutch vernacular of South Holland." (wikipedia)

South African blacks were, of course, not allowed to vote in that infamous 1948 election, or ever, in mass, while South Africa was under the rule by those of European descent.

With the NP in power, almost immediately more extreme and draconian "apartheid" (separation) laws and policies were passed and enforced, making life for South African Blacks more restrictive and dangerous than had been the case previously.

Many Afrikaners were also members of Dutch Reformed Church, which was influenced early in its history by the European reformist John Calvin (1509-1564) who "believed the church should influence government policy, and that races should remain pure and separate." (South African History)

The Dutch Reformed Church also utilized the infamous Biblical "Curse of Ham" interpretation from the Bible to justify apartheid and, earlier, the slavery and oppression of those who are Black, whether in South Africa or elsewhere. (Click herefor the "Curse of Ham" definition. The "Curse of Ham" was also used as a justification by many of European descent during the American slavery system and it's legacy remains.)

In other words, the Dutch Reformed Church was renowned for its staunch support of the apartheid system and the separation and exploitation of the South African Black community.

Between 1948 and 1994, while the National Party remained in power, countless apartheid policies to separate the races were passed as menioned and enforced with excessive violence coupled with resistance by the South African Black population. This led to massacres, imprisonment and harassment, along with banning of individuals and organizations by the government, to name but a few oppressive government reactions. This was coupled with underground and open initiatives by Black and colored led liberation movements of those resisting, including armed struggle, non-compliance, international economic pressure, on and on. The list of it all is impressive and excessively long and that finally resulted in ending the apartheid system.

But, back to Atlanta and the 1996 Summer Olympics.

In the South African Pavilion, in Atlanta, I met South African journalists. One, in particular, was a white South African of Dutch descent whose family had also been members of the Dutch Reformed Church. His father, I was told, played a prominent role in the Church.

I shared with this journalist my experiences in South Africa during elections in 1994 and how impressed I was with the efforts to try to help everyone to vote.

Then, he shared with me a story about his family that continues to resonate with me. He said that, prior to the '94 elections and the end of apartheid, in Johannesburg there were often "running" marathons that were "officially" held exclusively for whites. But he told me that Blacks would run anyway for the competitive experience.

In these races, he said his father would always follow in his own car so that when his son needed to stop for water or a quick rest, he was there with water and a towel for his son to drink, wipe himself off and basically refresh himself.

In the early 1990's, not long after Nelson Mandela had been released from his 1964 to 1990 imprisonment on Robben Island, one of these marathons was held and my journalist colleague participated in it. He said this time, as in the past, there was also a Black runner who inadvertently paired up with him. And, as per usual, his father followed him in his car.

When he finally stopped for a rest, his Black partner stopped as well. His father got out of his car and walked over to his son with water and a towel. He gave his son the bottle of water. Immediately, however, before drinking anything, the journalist gave the water to his black companion. This was an unjustifiable behavior under apartheid.

As a result, he said, the three of them stood there in silence for what probably seemed an eternity. They didn't know how the father was going to react. Then the father looked at his son and then at his son's Black companion. After that, his father walked over to the Black runner and with his cloth in hand he began to wipe the moisture off the Black runner's head, then off his chest, his legs, and then his feet.

The next week his father left the Dutch Reformed Church.

When my South African journalist colleague ended his story, I stood there in awe. He said, "I hope I didn't offend you. Usually when I tell this story I start to cry." I said, "No, please, I have no idea how to adequately respond. It left me breathless and speechless. It was the most remarkable transformational experience I have ever heard." Some have told me, such as Black attorney J.L. Chestnut in Alabama, this event had biblical proportions as in "washing the feet of Christ" and expunging oneself of past sins and thoughts of preeminence. I am inclined to agree. Maybe there is some hope for the world.

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