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Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Remembrance Of Nelson Mandela From Roosevelt Island Resident Ike Nahem - "You Become Special When You Fight For Freedom" Said Mandela To Nahem

Reported last December 5 on the life and death of Nelson Mandela. He was buried on December 15.

Roosevelt Island resident Ike Nahem shares his thoughts on the struggle against South African apartheid and personal memories of meeting Nelson Mandela.

According to Mr. Nahem:

Poverty is not an accident. Like slavery and apartheid, it is man-made and can be removed by the actions of human beings.

-- Nelson Mandela

The incredible outpouring of human emotion and dignified appreciation that has met the passing of Nelson Mandela on December 5, 2013, has flowed like a raging river from every nation and people on the planet. It was a grief tempered by a jubilation and wonderment at the life of this great and humble human being.

While it is certainly true that the death of Mandela is felt most viscerally and genuinely by his own people and by the oppressed and exploited overwhelming majority of humanity who toil, think, and struggle for a better world, a world with more freedom, justice, and equality it is also true that he was admired and loved by countless millions from all social classes and walks-of-life with any democratic and anti- racist ideals who were sincerely touched by his amazing life, his example, and his deeds.

I had the unforgettable experience -- and the thrill of a lifetime -- to meet, shake hands, and exchange a few words with Nelson Mandela.

It was June 1990 in the so-called VIP reception area of Washington's National Airport. (Surreally to me the airport was later renamed for President Ronald Reagan who notoriously vetoed legislation mandating economic sanctions against apartheid South Africa that was overridden. Less well know is the fact that the Reagan Administration with bipartisan support, allied with apartheid South Africa in a series of devastating wars -- fought overtly by the apartheid South African army and covertly by the CIA -- against newly independent southern African states that were supporting Mandela's African National Congress. In Mozambique and Angola reactionary tribal groups -- RENAMO in Mozambique, UNITA in Angola -- were armed and trained under South African and CIA direction. Over a number of years through the 1980s they laid waste to the southern Africa lands, killing some 1.5 million people by most credible accounts.)

I had gotten an invitation as a longtime activist and organizer in the anti-apartheid movement. Since I had first heard of it as a teenager affected by the US Civil Rights Movement, I had always hated the apartheid system and state and wanted to do something about it. In college at Indiana University I had helped organize a big conference which featured anti-apartheid South Africans. But in the late 60s and early 70s, as the Vietnam War raged on, the racist apartheid state was implacable and seemed invulnerable. In truth it was entering its last period as history started to accelerate.

Endgame for the Portuguese Empire

In 1974 the centuries-old Portuguese Empire in Africa collapsed as the quasi-fascist Salazar dictatorship was overturned by a group of progressive-minded military officers. The floodgates of long-suppressed mass, democratic action opened up in Portugal and among other things it was a sentiment that wanted nothing to do with maintaining colonies in Angola, Mozambique, and Guinea-Bissau against growing independence movements.

The former Portuguese colonies that were adjacent to apartheid South Africa were about to form governments dominated by the liberation forces who were longtime friends and allies of Mandela's African National Congress (ANC). On the eve of its formal transition to full independence Angola found itself invaded by a powerful, highly mechanized South African army marching, practically unopposed by the badly outgunned Angolan forces, on the capital Luanda aiming to install a puppet government. The new Angolan government urgently appealed to the Cuban government for help and got it just in in time. (A wonderful account of the Cuban mobilization is given by the Nobel Prize-winning novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez called Cuba in Angola: Operation Carlotta, which can be found online and on Fidel Castro's government dispatched thousands of volunteer soldiers and heavy equipment without even telling the Soviet government which they knew would oppose it as too risky and a provocation to Washington, with whom they were pursuing a "detente" in Cold-War tensions following the end of the Vietnam War and US Watergate crisis. These considerations were of little importance to the Cuban leadership who saw clearly the worldwide ramifications for progressive humanity of a unbridled victory for the South African racists.

At any rate the Cuban army arrived, usually going directly from port or airfield directly to combat in the front lines and soon drove the apartheid invaders out of Angola. This was a political and psychological game changer in Africa. For the first time the white South African army (there were a number of white-officered conscripted African troops as well) were beaten in frontal combat by troops that were largely of color. The mystique of white superiority and domination was being broken.


In June 1976, in no small part inspired by these events, the Soweto student uprising took place. This insurrectionary student revolt that began against the mandatory instruction of the Afrikaner language of the racist regime, was the greatest-ever mass challenge to the apartheid regime since the 1950s. It was drowned in blood with many hundreds gunned down and murdered, to the utter revulsion of world public opinion.

I was living in New York when the Soweto uprising occurred. Two of the central leaders of the uprising, Tsietsi Mashanene and Khotso Seatlhoho, managed to escape South Africa and the death warrant on their heads. Anti-apartheid activists fought like hell to get them a US visa for a nationwide speaking tour. We finally succeeded and it was a big success. When they got to New York we gave them the grand tour, the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, and the then-overwhelmingly seedy and decadent Times Square of long ago. I'll never forget the wide-eyed, 18 year-old Mashanene, who had an almost childlike gentle demeanor that combined with a visceral intellectual and political intensity, astonished reaction to the Times Square of the late-1970s. With that distinct South African accent and inflection, he said to me, "My God, in New York you have not only X movies but XXX. I do not understand." I really had no answer to that.

After the tour both young warriors went back to Southern Africa for military training at an ANC camp. Years later I heard that both of my friends had died in combat. When my wife Erin and I first visited free South Africa in 2010, friends took us into Soweto, to the Memorial for the martyred youth

Images From Ike Nahem

and saw a tribute to my friends. We also visited Robben Island, off Cape Town and saw the cell where Nelson Mandela spent the big majority of his prison time.

Free South Africa Movement

In the mid-1980s, leading up to the crumbling of the apartheid regime, there burst onto the scene spreading from Washington, DC, the Free South Africa Movement. It was initiated by the DC-based group TransAfrica , led by Randall Robinson. It was decided to start daily picket lines in front of the South African Embassy, which was right in the middle of DC's opulent, serene, and fabled Embassy Row. The protest featured selective people engaging in non-violent civil disobedience and getting hauled away for a day in DC's jails.

As word spread of this happening, the protests grew bigger every day. A solidarity ritual took hold. Every day a new group would take the lead, mobilize some of their folks, and get arrested. Hundreds every day; on some special days thousands. Every day. Sculptors Against Apartheid, Punk Rockers Against Apartheid, Jewish groups, Muslim groups, so many churches, atheists and Buddhists, practically every trade union in the DC area -- grizzled looking old white guys who fit some biased anti-union stereotype brought their folks to the picket line --college students every day from a different campus, high school students from elite private schools, feminists, gays and lesbians. One day I couldn't believe my eyes there was a downright militant, chanting delegation of Accountants Against Apartheid! Pretty soon even the politicians got on board.

We had a movement on our hands. Campuses and banks were coming under heavy pressure to divest from South Africa. The forked-tongue Reagan Administration policy of "Constructive Engagement" began to collapse.

It was amazing. It was inspiring. And it told me that the apartheid state was doomed...and probably sooner rather than later.

A few years later Fidel Castro's Cuban Army led a military force including Angolans, South Africans, and Namibians (a former German colony ruled by the apartheid state) routed the South African army in the Battle of Cuito Cunavale, forcing a retreat back to South Africa where, now, the African townships were in open, permanent, mass rebellion. Endgame for the racist regime.

Namibia won its independence. Nelson Mandela and all the political prisoners were freed. The ANC and all the banned anti-apartheid organizations were legalized.

And Nelson Mandela was coming to the United States! It was the second country he visited since winning his freedom, in recognition of the strong, unstoppable anti-apartheid movement here. His first stop was Havana and Cuba to speak before hundreds of thousands embracing his close friend Fidel Castro and thanking the Cuban government and people for what he called their crucial, even decisive part in his release from prison and breaking the back and the morale of the apartheid state. (For the full speech of Mandela in Cuba see

Meeting Mandela

I was feeling pretty humble standing there in the VIP Lounge among the dignitaries, politicians, diplomats, Secret Service Agents, media and other celebrities, with my fellow activists. His flight touched down, taxied, and Mandela, the living legend, entered the room. As I approached him I teared up. My tiny piece of the struggle was a big piece of my life. I caught that amazing smile and thought to myself, What a burden it must be to have people blubbering all over the place when they meet you. But I guess he's used to it. I shook his hand and gave him some copies of a pamphlet with several of his recent speeches -- always clear, precise, and elegant -- published by Pathfinder Press which I was helping to widely distribute. They were very attractive and professionally done and he seemed very pleased.

I managed to blurt out, "It's an honor to meet you." He replied, "Well it's an honor to meet you." "But I'm nobody special," I protested. Mandela looked me in the eye, smiled and said, "Well you become someone special when you fight for freedom."

The Struggle Continues

South Africa, a ravishingly beautiful land where we met so many warm and friendly people, is still far from overcoming the brutal legacy of apartheid. It remains starkly unequal and there is growing unrest and turmoil, especially from industrial workers and agricultural laborers. Corruption among the small, emerging layer of newly-rich Africans who have gained entry into the still-white dominated business and financial summits, has shocked and disgusted the many who still lack running water or decent housing, or who are among the 25% -- 50% among Black African youth -- who are officially unemployed. Police violence is rampant, as exemplified by the cold-blooded murder of 34 striking platinum miners by police last year.

Nelson Mandela and his generation of revolutionaries like Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu, Joe Slovo, Ruth First and so many others, are almost all gone now, but what they fundamentally accomplished by destroying the structures and prerogatives of apartheid, was to lay the foundations to advance around questions such as land reform, education, access to medical care, women's rights, and decent housing. The destruction of apartheid established the democratic and political space, the rights for working people to move about freely, to associate, and to organize in their interests, which they are doing every day, in the ongoing fight for social justice and social equality. The struggle, personified by Madiba, the Xhosa name by which Mandela was affectionately known, conquered dignity and democratic freedom, the prerequisite for the previously oppressed majority to win a good and better life, to pursue happiness.

The ideas and example of Nelson Mandela will never die as long as human beings live and fight for freedom, justice, and equality by any means necessary.
(Ike Nahem has lived in Westview since 1999 with his wife Erin and son Andrew. He activism against apartheid goes back to the late 1960s. Ike is an Amtrak locomotive engineer and member of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, a division of the Teamsters Union. He drives high-speed trains from New York to Washington, DC.)