Race and Mandela
To fully understand Nelson Mandela’s legacy—to South Africa and to the world—we need to address the issue of racism. This is especially important for us Filipinos, because we too often suffer from racial discrimination and, even sadder, we can be quite racist ourselves.
We hear the term “apartheid,” an Afrikaans (a Dutch dialect that evolved in southern Africa) term that translates as “apart-ness” or “apart-hood,” and think of parallels with the United States’ discriminatory policies against blacks. But apartheid was much more vicious, much more entrenched, justified by pseudoscience and religion.
We marvel at Mandela’s election as the first black president of South Africa shortly after being released from prison, where he had spent 27 years. But those 27 years pale in comparison to centuries of bloodshed that marked colonial racism. It was, as the title of Mandela’s popular biography, a long road to freedom.
Since time immemorial, humans have probably had some kind of discrimination against people different from themselves, but racism developed only during the period of western colonialism—as European and American colonizing powers invaded and occupied lands in Africa, South America and Asia, and began to differentiate people by the color of their skin, with the accompanying sense that people with darker skin belonged to an inferior race.
Anthropology and race
In the 19th century, anthropology emerged in the West as a science to study human beings and, unfortunately, was a major player in creating the pseudoscience of race. Physical anthropology was largely a study of “races,” with endless reports about physical differences among the so-called races, which would then be described as “primitive,” “savage,” “barbaric.” Such studies continued into the 20th century in the Philippines, with American researchers classifying Filipinos by their skin color, shape of ears, even feet (which were described as having prehensile qualities, insinuating we were close to monkeys). One American researcher even claimed to have found a new human species in one town in Rizal, again with suggestions of inferiority.
In the United States itself, laws were passed in many states prohibiting marriages between “whites” and various races—“Mongolian,” for example, which at one time included Filipinos. In the 1930s, a courageous Filipino migrant in California, Salvador Roldan, challenged the existing law to marry a British white woman, arguing that he was not Mongolian, but Malay. In response, the California State legislature quickly passed a law prohibiting marriages between Caucasians and Malays, but Roldan’s marriage remained valid. It was not until 1967 that the US Supreme Court ruled such laws to be unconstitutional.
Let’s return to southern Africa. The Dutch and the British fought many bloody wars against the native peoples, as well as with each other, to expand their claims over lands rich in natural resources, including gold. As they occupied more lands, the colonizers looked for more ways to segregate people by their skin color.
Mahatma Gandhi was himself an early victim of racism. At the age of 24, he had gone to what is South Africa today to become a lawyer for the growing Indian community. Shortly after he arrived, he was thrown off a train for refusing to move out of the first-class compartment. The next day he was able to board another train and use first class; but a few days later in a stagecoach, he was beaten by the driver for refusing to make room for a European passenger. After he reached his destination, he was barred from several hotels.
Gandhi’s experiences were to mold his views on civil rights, and on nonviolent resistance. But it is interesting that he continued to believe that the Indians were not the same as the native Africans, and that whites should be the predominant race. He helped to organize an ambulance drivers’ corps for the British in 1900, to prove that Indians could take on wartime tasks. Such was the power of racism, where the victims themselves come to accept the discrimination as natural.
One can imagine this idea of a natural order of things becoming even more powerful when the South African government, citing “science” and the Bible as justifications, established apartheid as a national policy in 1948. Four races were “declared”: black, white, colored and Indian, with all kinds of sub-classifications. For example, the “colored” races were broken down into Cape Coloured, Cape Malay (to which Filipinos probably would have been classified), Chinese, Griqua and “others.”
A Racial Classification Board established in 1954 took care of classifying people, and monitoring violations of laws around races. The experiences of this board should be used in history and social studies classes to show how ridiculous “race” was. The board used physical characteristics (skin complexion, eyes, hair) as well as education, residence and even friends, to “prove” one’s race. There were instances where people would be reclassified, sometimes on their own appeal, or sometimes because someone had reported them as being misclassified. (The most amusing one was a report in 1984 where two whites were reclassified as colored, Chinese.)
Apartheid meant keeping these races apart in their places of residence, schools, hospitals, transport, even beaches and benches. Marriage between races was prohibited.
Most importantly, civil rights were severely curtailed for non-whites. There was no way for non-whites to be elected into office. As black South Africans agitated for their rights, the apartheid regime responded with more violence, and protest rallies turned into massacres.
In his youth, Mandela had been influenced by Gandhi’s writings on nonviolence, but later he felt armed insurrection was necessary. He compared nonviolence to tackling a wild animal with bare hands.
Mandela was thrown into prison for 27 years by the South African apartheid regime, but his influence grew through the years, with pressure coming from the international community for his release. After his release, there were fears that he would take revenge against the white population but this did not happen. Not only that, he went out of his way to establish reconciliation between whites and blacks. Instead of establishing war tribunals to try the white oppressors, he supported the formation of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission where “oppressors,” black or white, would meet the families of people they had killed, tortured or imprisoned. After the hearings, there would be apologies, to bring closure. The hearings were so emotional even “judges” were reduced to tears.
South Africa remains gripped by racial tensions, and many other problems of economic inequality, but without Mandela, the situation could have been far worse. He has been praised with terms like “pragmatic,” “willing to compromise,” “reconciliatory,” but at the heart of his leadership was a powerful sense of anti-racism, whether of whites over blacks, or of blacks over whites.
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