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YA Eco Mysteries, Memoirs, Novels & Travel

Mandela Influenced Our Lives

How Nelson Mandela Influenced My Life

Where were you when you heard that the great statesman and world leader, Nelson Mandela had passed away? I was in my car, listening to the BBC from my iPad. An immediate sense of regret and sadness washed over me for the loss of a man like Nelson Mandela. As I drove down the congested highway, I began to think about how Mandela had influence my life. In my mind, I was transported back to my childhood in Johannesburg, South Africa, reminding me how apartheid had wreaked havoc with the lives of political leaders and ordinary people I had known, like the Greek immigrant I will call Mr. Kakoris. 
I can still picture Mr. Kakoris—the proprietor of a café near my parents’ grocery store—greeting me with a happy chuckle. In my memoir, Behind The Walled Garden of Apartheid, Growing Up White in Segregated South Africa I write, “I liked Mr. Kakoris because he gave me chocolates whenever I visited his café. Later, in my teens, I was shocked to hear that Mr. Kakoris had been charged with the crime of breaking the Immorality Act. This act forbade ‘immoral acts’ between whites and people of other races. Even a kiss could lead to criminal charges, with a punishment of up to seven years in prison.” Before he came to trail, Mr. Kakoris drowned himself rather than have his family suffer through a public humiliation. 
As I recalled this tragic event, I was startled to hear the B.B.C announcer introducing George Bizos. You see, years later, Kakoris’ daughter married George Bizos, an attorney and personal friend of Nelson Mandela. Bizos served on the team of attorneys that defended Mandela in the Rivona Treason Trail that resulted in Mandela’s imprisonment on Robben Island for twenty-seven years. During the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings in 1996, Bizos lead the team opposing amnesty for those who had murdered leaders of the antiapartheid movement. This was against Mandela’s wish that the perpetrators should go unpunished once they had confessed.

BCRI GROPU
At the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute on
Nelson Mandela Day


As I neared home, I though about how Mandela’s long struggle for freedom as a leader of the National African Congress (ANC) had changed the course of my life.

Shouth African Students
Claire at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute with Exchange Students from Johannesburg

Throughout the 1950s, the apartheid government ruthlessly crushed Mandela’s tireless campaign to gain equality for blacks by the passage of increasingly draconian laws. In my memoir, I write, “Strikes and protests continued, with the predictable harsh clampdown by the government. Police detained people secretly and without warrants. The government used its emergency detention powers to arrest ANC leaders, and those association with them.” 

In 1961, while I was in college, Nelson Mandela and the ANC leadership organized a secret arm of the ANC, known as Umkhoto we Sizwe, to wage a campaign of sabotage. “During the last months of 1961, post offices and governments buildings were bombed, telephone lines were cut, and electricity pylons were blown up.” All this created fear and uncertainty throughout the country. 
This hateful political climate continued after I graduated from college and married Boris Datnow. I write that, “We were tired of being citizens of a country in disgrace with the world. We were tired of defending a system we despised.” And so in 1965, partly as a result of the unrest caused by the struggle against apartheid, we made the momentous decision to leave South Africa, the country of our birth to make a new home in the United States. At the time we believed that South Africa was on the brink of a bloody revolution.
After I parked in the garage, I sat listening to the interviews paying homage to the great man Nelson Mandela who, in the 1990s, miraculously lead South Africa's peaceful transition from white-minority rule after 27 years as a political prisoner. This blog has probably raised many questions, if so please feel free to contact me. For those of you who would like to understand more about Mandela’s courageous struggle against apartheid and what it was like to grow up in South Africa at the height of apartheid, I invite you to read my memoir, Behind the Walled Garden of Apartheid



Behind The Walled Garden_cover



Other links of interest: My Life Comes Full Circle from Johannesburg to Birmingham
South African Memoir Comes Full Circle


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