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From the Editor...A man who made a difference

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From the Editor...A man who made a difference
Cloquet Minnesota 122 Avenue C 55720

In some ways, the world changes very quickly. I was reminded of that when Nelson Mandela died last week and I considered the tremendous changes that have occurred in South Africa during my life, which has been only half as long as his so far.

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When I was a waitress in London, England, in the 1990s, I worked with several South Africans (all white). Christian was a bartender who wanted to make films. Adrianna was a very intense waitress, funny and irreverent. Gareth taught me how to ask for a cigarette in Afrikaans, sort of a hybrid Dutch language descended from the early Dutch settlers of South Africa.

Coming from southern Indiana, I knew about the racial segregation in South Africa, but only in the broadest sense of black and white, poor and rich. It was Gareth who taught me what it meant to him growing up, a couple years after apartheid ended.

Green-eyed with wavy brown hair, Gareth lived in an all-white neighborhood and attended all-white schools. He explained that when he was growing up, schools were either white, "coloured," or black. Coloured students included mixed race children and teenagers (and probably any other people with brownish colored skin).

After apartheid ended, Gareth's parents finally told him the truth about his own ancestry: that a great-grandmother -- or maybe a great-great-grandmother, I can't remember -- had been black.

It was their great dark family secret, because -- under the rules of apartheid South Africa -- they would not have been allowed to live in their neighborhood and Gareth wouldn't have been allowed to attend his high school, had anyone known of their mixed-race heritage.

With skin color came opportunity. According to a 1980 story in the New York Times, students in coloured and black schools boycotted the schools in protests against inequality in a system "in which per capita spending on white students is three times higher than on coloreds and 10 times higher than on blacks."

It wasn't accidental that white schools got more money. It was government policy, specifically the Bantu Education Act of 1953, which established an inferior education system for Africans based upon a curriculum intended to "produce manual laborers and obedient subjects," according to www.sahistory.org. Similar discriminatory education laws were also imposed on "coloureds," who had lost the right to vote in 1956, and Indians. The government denied funding to mission schools that rejected Bantu Education, leading to the closure of many of the best schools for Africans. In the higher education sector, the Extension of University Education Act of 1959 prevented black students from attending "white" universities (except with government permission) and created separate and unequal institutions for Africans, coloureds, and Indians respectively. According to the same website, the apartheid government also undermined intellectual and cultural life through intense censorship of books, movies, and radio and television programs.

Although racism and segregation existed before the late 1940s and early 1950s, it wasn't enforced by official government policy, and Gareth's great-grandfather was freer to choose a spouse in those earlier times.

Nelson Mandela became politically active in the era leading up to the formation of apartheid South Africa ... and spent many of those years in prison. His life history is well worth reading, and even more worth emulating.

Rightfully, Mandela could have emerged from prison determined to destroy the white-run government that put him there, by any means possible. Instead he advocated for an end to apartheid, but not for the ouster of every white person in South Africa.

"During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people," he said at his trial in 1964, for attempting to sabotage the white-only elections. "I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. 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."

I saw Mandela nine years after his release, in 1999, just before he finished his first (and only) term as South Africa's president. I was back in London for a visit and had hopped on a bus into central London. I deliberately did not take my camera, because I didn't want to feel like a tourist.

I could see a crowd outside the gate on Downing Street (where the Prime Minister lives) and got off the bus to see what was going on. Within minutes of my arrival, Nelson Mandela exited 10 Downing Street and came to the large metal gate blocking the street. He stretched his arms through the gate, touching people's hands, smiling, seeming to thoroughly enjoy the interaction.

He was a remarkable man, and left the world a better place (although still far from perfect).

Jana Peterson

"What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead."

~ Nelson Mandela

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Jana Peterson
(218) 879-1950
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