Beyond borders

2013-12-18 10:00

SA still has some way to go to defeat the demon of racism

Kader Asmal once sat next to Gloria Steinem over dinner and failed to recognise who she was. Urbane, knowledgeable, funny and at ease in the heady world of intellectual activism, Asmal’s normally alert recognition radar failed him because he was at his best and in his element as the raconteur of the table that night.

He did not make the same mistake the next evening when Nelson Mandela was guest speaker at the gala dinner. He promptly reintroduced himself to Steinem, who was trading jokes with Mandela, with a nervous degree of jocular embarrassment.

It was the year 2000 and Steinem was in town to attend a conference that dealt with race relations in Brazil, South Africa and the US. It was a preparatory meeting for the UN Conference on Racism held in Durban in 2001 and, as it turned out, a much better opportunity for real debate. The Durban conference was too political to deliver anything really meaningful. The warm-up meeting in Cape Town was much better.

Steinem was part of a team that included former Black Panther Charles Hamilton and one of the wisest men I have come to know, former president of the Ford Foundation, Frank Thomas.

An African-American of great stature, it was Thomas who had the longest relationship with Nelson Mandela. It was he who with his successor, Susan Berresford, opened a Ford office for the first time in a democratic South Africa, having refused in principle to do so under apartheid. About $200?million (R2.07?billion) in grants have since been invested in educational initiatives, fighting poverty, combating HIV/Aids, strengthening civil society and access to justice programmes.

Mandela and Thomas’ relationship went back to the time when, in May 1986, Thomas had arranged for a meeting between the chairperson of the Broederbond, JP de Lange, and Thabo Mbeki in New York.

Thomas had hosted a conference on education and invited De Lange and Mbeki to attend. In a historic but little-known meeting, they spent more than six hours in De Lange’s hotel room working through all the issues critical to resolve if we were to forge a negotiated solution to our problems.

De Lange, a confidant of PW Botha, returned home and resigned as rector of the Rand Afrikaans University and declared it was time for the Afrikaans elite to take the risk of negotiations. He also tried to convince Botha to release Mandela. This was the power of Mbeki at work.

Thomas made many other contributions. He once raised R1?million in an hour to help Independent Newspapers and the Institute for Democracy in SA to publish the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as newspaper supplements. He contributed to the development of an extraordinary plan for the Robben Island Museum. He financed internships at the Constitutional Court.

It was appropriate that Thomas, Beyond Racism conference organiser Lynn Walker Huntley from Atlanta’s Southern Education Foundation and I received Mandela when he arrived at the dinner that night.

Hand outstretched as he emerged from his car, he greeted me in typical fashion by saying he was so pleased I had not forgotten him now that he was no longer president. He warmly embraced Thomas and Walker Huntley, adding that he was so very pleased to see “the Americans”.

Dressed in one of his trademark shirts, Mandela entered a memorably decorated room to a standing ovation from an adoring crowd. He was at ease with people and delightfully without pomp.

He enthralled the 100 dinner guests with a speech that launched the reports on race and racism in Brazil, South Africa and the US.

Focused as always on the least powerful and the most vulnerable, he spoke with anguish, saying “human freedom and equality are being mocked while human beings are still assigned to inferior stations in life on the basis of race and colour”.

South Africa had a special responsibility to move the world “beyond racism”, building on our ability and moral courage to defeat apartheid.

It is ironic that the lived experience of South Africans is still infused with race. It is marked by such poverty that, in memory of the great man, we must strengthen our resolve to take the fight to government, business, trade unions and civil society for not doing enough to lift us beyond the effects of past racism.

»?James is a Member of Parliament and former trustee of the Ford Foundation

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