Vuyiswa Bushula, a 33-year-old doctoral student in plant pathology from Nigel, South Africa, said she remembers playing with children her mother watched as a nanny when she was young. She remembers the games, songs and laughter they shared, but Bushula also said she remembers feeling that she was undoubtedly not the same as the other children.
“As soon as you became aware of your surroundings, that’s when apartheid began defining itself to you,” Bushula said.
Bushula said as she was growing up in South Africa, adults did not talk about apartheid – an institutional system of racial segregation. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, South Africa’s National Party began enacting a set of laws in 1950 that classified citizens into one of four racial categories: black, white, Asian and “Coloured.”
The lowest group a person could be categorized as was black, but “Coloured” or people of mixed descent, often faced similar discrimination during apartheid. Nonwhites were required to carry documentation at all times and faced strict regulations, which controlled things like what neighborhood they lived in and whom they were allowed to marry.
Bushula said that during the time of apartheid, the laws did not only demand racial segregation. Black South Africans were also forbidden from holding gatherings past a certain number of people, organizing or attending political gatherings, discussing politics or speaking out against the government.
The fear of what would happen if these rules were broken kept the adults around her from speaking of an imprisoned Nelson Mandela, who served as an activist against apartheid in South Africa.
Bushula said before the release of Mandela, who later became the first black president of South Africa, the social interactions she witnessed between black and whites were all she knew about the laws that segregated her country.
According to the New York Times, Mandela was a member of the African National Congress and helped start the group’s guerrilla army, the “Spear of the Nation.” He sought to unify South Africa and grant every citizen equal rights, no matter their race.
“I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination,” Mandela said in his 1964 defense speech at his trial for sabotage and treason, according to an article from the BBC. “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
According to an article from The New York Times, 45-year-old Mandela was sentenced to life in prison for conspiracy and sabotage against the South African government on June 12, 1964. He spent over two decades in prison, but he remained dedicated to his beliefs, even if that meant rejecting terms for a conditional release.
Mandela had to wait 27 years, but he was finally released from prison on Feb. 11, 1990 when then-President Frederik Willem de Klerk made good on his vow to end apartheid and repeal laws restricting non-white groups, including the African National Congress. Mandela’s release came as a welcomed victory to the people who supported his political activism.
After the death of Mandela on Dec. 5, 2013, Bushula joined other members of KState’s African Student Union and talked about the man credited with playing a crucial role in ending apartheid. Although most of the African Student Union’s members did not grow up in South Africa, many recalled hearing of Mandela throughout their childhoods when Mandela was imprisoned.
Moses Khamis, grain science and industry research assistant student from Uganda, said he heard of Mandela through music. According to Khamis, several African artists sang songs protesting both Mandela’s imprisonment and South African apartheid. He said he remembers one song specifically by African jazz singer, Hugh Masekela.
The song, “Bring Him Back Home,” called for Mandela’s release with blatant lyrics such as, “I want to see him walking down the streets of South Africa-tomorrow.”
That being said, Bushula said South Africans were less vocal about their support for Mandela. She said she was 9 years old before she knew who he was and learned about Mandela only after he was released from prison.
“Our parents, of course, have long known about it, but at the time you were not allowed to talk or mention anything about Mandela,” Bushula said. “When he got out of jail, I was brought up to speed about and what he stood for and what the excitement was all about.”
But even though Mandela’s release gave momentum to the movement to end apartheid, the event was followed by a tense transitional period that left South Africans unsure of the future of their country. From 1990-94, violent political protests and riots broke out in South Africa. Even in her youth, Bushula said that she could sense the intensity of the situation.
“Everybody was just anticipating something, whether it was good or it was bad,” Bushula said. “Mind you, this was a man that had been jailed for so long for beliefs that everybody knew the governing party was against. I don’t think anyone had the deciding (thought) that, ‘Yeah, this is it. Apartheid is over!’
Although Mandela spent decades behind bars for his beliefs, he remained an ardent activist after his release. He worked with de Klerk and other politicians to make a new constitution and was an advocate for nationwide suffrage in South Africa. In 1993, Mandela and de Klerk were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to unify South Africa, according to the Nobel Peace Prize website.
“How many people spend 27 years in prison fighting against a repressive government that brutally enforced laws that enshrined racial discrimination and come out even stronger?” Kabila Gana, senior in chemical engineering from Cameroon, said.
Bushula said that as a child, she did not fully understand the weight of all these events. The most noticeable difference to her was the freedom her parents had gained. She did not notice how guarded her parents were until they were allowed to do and say what they believed in.
“For me, that change made me realize what they had missed out on,” Bushula said.
For Bushula, Mandela meant freedom and a person who fought for her equality.
African Student Union members say that it is now up to the rest of the world to ensure Mandela’s efforts were not in vain. Though Mandela did much for his country, members of the African Student Union said they believe there is still work to be done.
“We need to stop thinking of ‘them’ and ‘they,’” Bushula said. “It’s ‘us’ now,”
Bushula, who has a 3-year-old daughter, said that as a mother, the most important lesson she can teach her child is to value human life equally, regardless of race. She said she plans to tell her daughter about Mandela, but she wants to be an example of how her daughter should treat others.
“You can tell someone something over and over again, but it means nothing if you do not show them,” Bushula said.
Bushula said that looking back at the apartheid, she cannot rationalize it. Bushula cares for her Chinese friend’s baby while her friend attends classes, and said she has come to love her friend and her baby so much that the concept of apartheid and racial segregation has become more bizarre than ever before.
Bushula said that she is grateful and excited that her daughter will grow up in a South Africa where she can love people no matter what their race.
“You don’t look at a person and say, ‘Wait, what color are you? Ok, I can’ or ‘I can’t love you,’” Bushula said. “That is just ridiculous.”