Columns

Mandela's visit 23 years ago

Michael BURKE

Thursday, July 24, 2014    

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Nelson Mandela, freed from prison for more than a year and three years before becoming president of South Africa, landed in Jamaica for an official visit on July 24 1991. I was in attendance at the rally for Mandela in the National Stadium. I would not have gone had it not been for someone stupidly deciding to place Mandela in a car with a tinted glass from the Norman Manley International Airport to his first stop at the University of the West Indies. This was where the late Professor Rex Nettleford said that the children did not mispronounce his name when they said "Mandehya", but what they meant was "Man is here".

At the stadium, one local entertainer decided to sing something 'off-colour' -- inappropriate for the occasion. The crowds booed him off the stage. Also at the stadium, a few young men went out on the track and were brutalised by the police. The crowd reacted by throwing bottles, and then a policeman fired a gun into a section of the bleachers, which killed one man.

However, Mandela and his party, including then Prime Minister Michael Manley and other Caribbean prime ministers, arrived in the Stadium after the incident and the show went on.

The police made the same mistake 20 years previously, in 1971. There was a football match going on at the National Stadium involving the then Brazilian football team, including Edson Arantes do Nascimento, known to the world as Pele. In front of a large crowd, a spectator went on to the fled and was hit with a baton. The crowd reacted negatively to that.

The first thing that police should do in a large crowd, at any location, is to urge the spectators to return to their seats, and force should only become necessary when there is a refusal to comply with the police's instructions. But to simply start swinging batons, as I witnessed at the Mandela rally on July 24 1991, only turns an otherwise peaceful crowd into a mob.

We have a historical problem here. Our police force was established after the Morant Bay Rebellion in 1865 to ensure that poor peasants never again rise up against "Baccra". How much of the police training has changed since 1865? Certainly, many in the police force still act as if they are there to protect the wealthy and the powerful rather than all citizens.

The ironic thing is that, while I was not in the Stadium in 1971 when Pele came here, during the visit of Mandela I had a flashback to the incident in 1971 and thought to myself that those days would never return. But they did return on the very same night I had the flashback.

The anniversary of the visit to of Nelson Mandela, who went to prison for 27 years fighting for the freedom of South Africa, comes two weeks after the death of Dennis Daly. I would have mentioned Daly in my column last week about Sir Howard Cooke and Joseph Earle, but it was just too much for one piece.

Daly was a human rights activist, and the first time I met him was when some complained about police brutality. Eventually I became a member of the Jamaica Council for Human Rights and remained so until the council went out of existence.

Many are annoyed with any group dealing with human rights because the various human rights bodies in Jamaica only seem to react when a policeman is brutal but not at any other form of killing. As a result, the two words 'human' and 'rights', when put together, have a bad name, which has been so for decades. This is very unfortunate.

At the same time, it is true that over 90 per cent of the cases reported to the human rights bodies are excesses by the police. While it is true that in many countries the police are guilty of excesses, Jamaica is ranked too high on the list of human rights abuses. In many respects it has to do with an aspect of mental slavery, where abuse is seen as something that goes with the territory of life itself. Do we need to have classes in confidence? I think so. Who would set the curriculum? I know that I have some ideas.

Teaching people to stand up and speak in public is one. Positive songs that teach confidence are another. There are such songs that exist and in any case we could write some for ourselves. A section of a poem attributed to Nelson Mandela runs thus: "Our deepest fear is that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be?

And, in the Stadium when Nelson Mandela came, I decided that I would go straight to the area around the Royal Box to get a better view of Mandela. It was then that I discovered that the then Prime Minister Michael Manley, son of Norman Manley, wore a hearing aid.

I recalled Sabina Park, around the time of the incident, when tear gas was thrown at spectators in 1968. The breeze blew it over and I was in the grandstand, at the age of 14 going on 15, and got the tear gas in large volumes, as did National Hero Norman Manley, who I discovered wore a hearing aid.

A historian might later use such simple information to understand why both the elder Manley and his son responded to statements in the way they did, and question whether they heard the statements correctly or not.

On that day, 23 years ago, when I decided to have a better look at Mandela, all the seats immediately outside the Royal Box at the Stadium had been taken. A woman offered me a 'cotch' in the same seat with her and I did. It always reminds me of how much weight I have since put on. Today that would be impossible as I am somewhat larger these days. I introduced myself to her and she said she knew of me from my articles in the now defunct Jamaica Record. So I asked her for her name and she responded: "I am Jennifer Edwards." I asked: "You mean the mayor of Spanish Town?" And she simply smiled and said "yes". Jennifer Edwards is no longer mayor of Spanish Town, but is now in charge if National Solid Waste Management.

ekrubm765@yahoo.com

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