Columns

Mandela's visit in 1991

Michael BURKE

Thursday, December 12, 2013    

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I saw the Nelson and Winnie Mandela when they came to Jamaica on Wednesday, July 24, 1991 while Michael Manley was prime minister. I had never seen Jamaicans so happy en masse before. The euphoria when Haile Selassie came in 1966 did not equal it -- even though the Rastafarians did climb over the barrier at the waving gallery of the then Palisadoes (now Norman Manley) International Airport and onto the tarmac.

I was a student at Jamaica College (JC) when Selassie came in April 1966 and I well remember that visit more so because Selassie visited JC. The difference then was that the celebration was mainly by Rastafarians. With Mandela it was just about everyone who came out to celebrate. But the Mandela visit was marred by police brutality and a fatality in the National Stadium, when a policeman fired a gun into the Bleachers.

I take the liberty of quoting myself from my 1991 article in the Jamaica Record captioned 'I saw the Mandelas': "Looking at the crowd inside the Stadium, I estimated that there must have been about 50,000 people there, notwithstanding the fact that the Stadium was built to seat 35,000. I asked the people sitting next to me when last they had ever seen Jamaicans so happy and they could not tell me.

"Suddenly I had a flashback. Wasn't it about 20 years ago [now 42 years ago in 2013] that the Brazilian soccer star Pele, played football in this very Stadium? The incident of policemen, including one of a high rank, beating a spectator because he ran onto the field surely would not be repeated this night."

"How things have changed, I thought. It occurred to me not to even mention this thought as it was too happy an occasion to bring that up. How wrong I was. Thinking of myself I thought 'look how I nearly went to the Bleachers, which is what would have happened had I not been able to talk the soldier into letting me into the Grandstand."

A Grandstand ticket had in fact arrived at the offices of the Jamaica Record for me, but it was handed to me several days after the event. In any event, I consider myself very fortunate to not have gone to the Bleachers. I had planned to go to the northern end, the very secion in which the man was shot.

One more quote my column: "One thing that last week Wednesday taught me is that Jamaicans are far more emancipated form mental slavery than we realise.

"This however does not mean that we do not have a far way to go. I think that the Jamaica Chamber of Commerce president... totally misread the feeling of goodwill towards the Mandelas when he said that he did not support a general time off for work as it would hurt production."

Since Mandela's passing last week, some armchair critics have posited that Mandela should have done more to liberate the poor in South Africa, as if they could have done better. In my opinion, even if Mandela retired as soon as independence was granted and never sought election, he had more than done his duty. Mahatma Gandhi never entered representational politics in India, but he was the father of India's independence and is revered as such.

Those who criticise Mandela today are mainly those who believe that he should have lined up all the former oppressive white Afrikaners in the old apartheid regime and put them before a firing squad. But that is not the Christian way and Mandela was a Christian. Jesus Himself was criticised for not overthrowing the oppressive colonial authorities in Israel.

One also has to remember where South Africa is coming from. At the time of political independence this was certainly a change from the days of slavery when there were at least 12 classes; each according to the shade of their skin colour, from lily-white to very black.

In South Africa, like the south of the United States up to at least the 1960s, there were white schools and black schools. There were white hospitals and black hospitals, white and black restrooms. On trains in the southern United States there were white coaches and black coaches and so on. Black people had to walk with papers not only to identify themselves but also to show that they had the authority to be where they were.

And while education might have been more widespread in Africa than in Jamaica or elsewhere in Africa, it was the white Afrikaners that had the know-how when it came to jobs and so on. When South Africa got their independence, the whites with the education and know-how like lawyers and doctors and engineers had to be kept in such jobs until the black people caught up.

It was not, for example, until the 1990s that black people, in great numbers, controlled business and so on in Jamaica. And this was because it took time for the nation to educate what was previously the so-called underclass. Julius Nyerere addressed this problem in Tanzania.

In many African countries the colonial authorities educated one tribe and gave them jobs to create the divide-and-rule plan there. After Tanzania gained political independence in 1961, the other tribes complained that it was still the one tribe that got the top jobs. Nyerere explained that the system had to remain until the other tribes caught up with education and skills training.

In any event, Mandela shifted some people out of very high jobs and replaced them with poor educated people. I am grateful to Jamaica Observer Editor Karyl Walker for this insight, which he learned first-hand from a visit to South Africa while on the job some years ago. May Nelson Mandela's soul rest in peace.

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