Earlier this month, I had the privilege of visiting South Africa with my daughter-in-law Maggie, my P&G associates, Lindsay and Steffen Schmauss, Lindsay’s dad Daryl (who lives in Durban) and Matthew Willman, a young man who served as Nelson Mandela’s professional and closest photographer for ten years starting about 2003.
It was the experience of a lifetime. In a period of 72 hours, we visited a succession of sites and were informed by testimony from Matthew that brought to life the courage, the fortitude and the values of Nelson Mandela’s life as we could have never otherwise experienced. Our visits took us to:
· The Nelson Mandela Center of Memory, where we met its founder Vern Harris.
· Robben Island. Matthew had spent 18 months coming to and from the island as part of his work with Mandela.
· The Victor Verster Prison, the final imprisonment site for Nelson Mandela. It was here that the negotiations were conducted with DeKlerk after 27 years of imprisonment and Mandela’s release finalized. We had the special privilege there of talking with one of his wardens, Jack Swart.
· The Nelson Mandela Capture Site outside Durban. It features a remarkable exhibit profiling Mandela’s life.
This experience was informing, inspiring and humbling. The bravery and determination of Mandela and his associates were palpable. It brought to life for me in a far deeper way what I had learned from his magnificent biography, “Long Road to Freedom.”
No words of mine will do justice to this experience. I’d urge all who can to make this visit. I only hope it can be in the company of someone who can convey close to the insight we gained from Matthew Willman, Vern Harris and Jack Swart.
I took a number of deep impressions from this visit; many uplifting, other presenting me with a personal challenge as I, together with so many others, work to pursue the mission of the Freedom Center. Here I will present two of these impressions:
1. The first is to say how glad I am that we were able to honor Nelson Mandela at our last International Freedom Conductor Award event and that his great-great-grandson, Luvuyo Mandela, joined us.
I’m delighted that we have acquired Matthew Willman’s photographs as a foundation for sharing Nelson Mandela’s story at the Freedom Center, and beyond through a traveling exhibit. I’m excited about other ideas that emerged from the trip which might enable us to become even more a repository for Nelson Mandela’s memory and values.
2. I was deeply impressed by the similar progress that has been made in South Africa and the United States in overcoming some of the worst aspects of apartheid in South Africa and segregation in our country. Yet, at the same time, I was impressed by the similar and enormous challenges our nations continue to face in overcoming the legacy of apartheid and slavery and on accepting each other as one.
While I am no expert on apartheid and how far it has been overcome, I was encouraged by some of what I saw. To observe the inter-racial beaches at Durban, which not long ago were segregated into four separate blocks—White, Black, Colored and Indian—was encouraging. I was moved by the congregation at Lindsay Schmauss’ father’s parish—The Anglican Parish of St. John the Baptist in Durban. Its racially mixed congregation and group of ministers would be the envy of most churches in our nation.
Still, the history of apartheid rests heavily on South African today, just as the legacy of slavery rests on our country. The history of South Africa is, in many regards, like our own. I was reminded how the Whites legislated the Black Africans into “Homelands,” not surprisingly the most arid and least desirable lands in South Africa. How alike in essence was this to what has happened in our country, as prejudice and the flawed execution of federal “fair housing” policy led to segregated neighborhoods and ghettos.
And within these shockingly disparate residential communities come the disparate schools, those for the poor, being dramatically inferior to those in the wealthiest suburbs, resulting in another cycle of increasing inequality.
On the positive side, I found it reinforcing to learn from Lindsay Schmauss’ sister-in-law, who is working in urban planning, that she is working with groups in major cities to bring together in a coordinated way government services in health, child development and education, recognizing that holistic improvement in neighborhood infrastructure is the only credible way to make significant and sustained progress. How similar that is to the growing conviction in Cincinnati (and elsewhere) that we need integrated neighborhood-by-neighborhood support for individual families to break the back of poverty and the lack of opportunity which so many of our young people face.
My visit to South Africa and ever deepening awareness of the ravages of poverty in our own nation add great weight to my commitment to do all I can to overcome our failure to give every child the opportunity to develop his or her abilities.
We must garner our energy and determination to address this challenge. The future of our nation depends on it. There will be no total solution; we know that. But the opportunity and need for major progress rests with us.
In closing, I share this challenge laid down by Nelson Mandela himself which I happened to read while I was on this visit:
“Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice. Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings. Sometimes it falls on a generation to be great. YOU can be that generation. Let your greatness blossom.”
“There is nothing I fear more than waking up without a program that will help me bring a little happiness to those with no resources; those who are poor, illiterate and ridden with terminal disease.”