|My brother Michael and me. 1966. Cape Town.|
Nelson Mandela lived opposite me.
Me in my big house, him on Robben Island
Although I never knew that.
I would stand for hours by the fence, looking at the sea,
Looking at Robben Island and at the setting sun turning the buildings below golden.
I remember how lonely I felt.
I remember feeling like I was the only one,
Like I was the only one that felt ashamed of what I saw.
And ashamed of myself for not doing more
Today I learned I was not alone then.
My father felt that too.
This is how he tells it:
"I was a medical student at Cape Town Medical School in 1942.
Cape Town Medical School allowed White and Coloured students to go there, but not Black students..
Black students had to go to Medunza or Durban.
If a Coloured student came to Cape Town Medical School, their parents had to sign a letter saying their child would be admitted to Medical school under the following conditions:
1. They could not dissect a white body
2. they could not attend a white post-mortem
3. They could not attend an operation on a white person or examine a white person
4. They could not be taught on a white patient.
If they did any of these things, they would be expelled"
This was progress. Before 1942, Coloured students were not admitted to Cape Town Medical School at all. They had to qualify in London, Glasgow or Edinburgh.
My father remembers they had a brilliant professor who was an admirer of the Nazi party in Germany.
All the other teachers would teach on Coloured patients, but so as not to miss an opportunity to humiliate the Coloured students, this professor made a point of bringing in White patients.
My father remembers how the professor would look at the Coloured students, tilt his head toward the exit and say officiously: “Come along, people”
The Coloured students would then have to get up and leave. My father says all the White students just sat there in silence.
“Not one of us got up. We just felt ashamed” he says.
(Subsequently, they went to the Dean and complained and the professor moved to a different teaching hospital)
But that encounter in the moment, the opportunity to do something kind, something ethical, something moral, was gone.
When the professor died after a long and successful career, 5,000 people came to his funeral where he was buried with full honours. There is no Justice my father says.
But Nelson Mandela, the man across the water, taught me something else- that anything is possible.
It is shame that makes us blind to the possibility of action.
In each moment, there is always the possibility to transcend our loneliness, and see that we are all connected.
On the 6th of June 1966, when I was four years old, Robert Kennedy made a speech at the University of Cape Town. My parents were there.
I was probably at home, looking across the sea at the time.
I like to imagine Mandela was looking over the rippling sea back at me.
I like to imagine us both listening to these words:
“Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events. It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance”
I like to imagine that in listening, I am part of that ripple. And that you are too.