Nelson Mandela: 1918 - Forever

Boston Workmen's Circle member Janet Axelrod reflects on the death of Nelson Mandela.


Somewhere across the ocean there was always Mandela, and as long as he breathed the air, even when imprisoned, we knew the world might turn out to be a good place.  Although we knew he couldn’t last much longer, that in fact his last days were painful and uncomfortable, we didn’t want him to leave this earth.  Because there’s a hole where he once was, and the world feels off-balance after we have shared this era with Nelson Mandela.

The passing of Mandela makes me think of the great organizing of so many activists here in Boston during the years of struggle against apartheid, and since freedom

In 1970, Caroline Hunter and Ken Williams founded the Polaroid Revolutionary Workers Movement after discovering that it was Cambridge’s own Polaroid Company film being used to create apartheid’s passbooks. Their organizing helped set in motion what became an international economic boycott and movement for divestment that dealt some body blows to South Africa and to the companies that enabled apartheid there. By 1977 the Revolutionary Workers had scored a victory, when Polaroid pulled out of South Africa.

Through the good work of Mel King, in collaboration with SEIU, AFSCME, Mass. Teachers Union, Boston Coalition for the Liberation of Southern Africa, Transafrica Boston, Fund for a Free South Africa and other groups, the Massachusetts legislature voted in the 1980s to divest of any financial involvement in South Africa, and of companies doing business there. This action paved the way for those of us in corporate leadership positions, as I was then at Lotus, and to disallow the sale of our products there as well.

The Amandla concert, held in Harvard Stadium on July 21, 1979 in solidarity with Southern African liberation movements, featured Bob Marley and the Wailers, Dick Gregory, Patti Labelle, Eddie Palmieri, the Art of Black Dance and Music and the S. African group Jabula. Marley claimed it was his best performance ever, and the Wailers played for free, as did the others, to 20,000 ecstatic listeners that gorgeous day.  

In 1977, Hampshire College in Amherst  became the first US college to divest from South Africa. The Boston-based Fund for a Free South Africa gathered up many local South Africa activists, myself included, and put us to work in various capacities, raising and distributing money, communicating with the African National Congress and Black Consciousness Movement, and brainstorming ways to support our South African friends in the struggle all over the world - by now many of them were exiled here in the US, in London, Mozambique, or other locales.  I sat next to Boston Workmen’s Circle member Margaret Burnham at FreeSA board meetings. After liberation, Mary Tiseo, a FreeSA staffer, created South Africa Partners to help build the newly freed nation, and Margaret Burnham and I continued working on the board.

I believe that all along Mandela knew about our work: when he was released from prison in 1990, his first US destination was Boston. He visited us to thank Massachusetts and honor the work our movement had done to support his freedom and that of all South Africans.  

These events have particular meaning now because Mandela’s message was always about standing together in solidarity to make the world a better place.  Massachusetts was the site of many other creative, sometimes courageous acts of solidarity. We can be proud of our legacy in that regard, as we too were part of Mandela’s struggle. Inspired by the genius of Mandela and his comrades, our work continues at South Africa Partners.

Many of the most committed white members of the ANC in South Africa were secular Jews, some of whom were also active members of the South African Communist Party. Jews were disproportionately represented among those who fought apartheid from the very start, and it makes sense. The families of these Jews, most from Eastern Europe, had fled Czarist or Nazi terror, only to find a different kind of oppression across the globe.  For them, apartheid had an all–too-familiar taste, and their struggle was more poignant for being their second fight against fascism. Though few in number, some of these fighters did live to see freedom come to South Africa.  It’s a particular delight to hear Yiddish words spoken in a South African accent.

I have enjoyed reading the many appreciations of Mandela that rightfully laud him for his ability to forgive, forging a new nation out of peoples who had been mortal enemies for so long. I will remember Mandela as the consummate strategist, the brilliant and pragmatic leader for whom the enfranchisement of his people was more meaningful than any personal need for retribution, and who saw beyond nationalism to include all South Africans in his vision. It is also important to remember that when there was no alternative to armed struggle against apartheid, Madiba called for it and planned it.  As the end of apartheid neared, that part of the fight had served its purpose; that path came to an end too. Mandela, ever the realist, led the ANC and the nation in the direction of unity, and history once again proved him right.

(The word for “Power” in Zulu, and a rallying cry for South Africa’s freedom fighters)

-- Janet Axelrod