November 21, 2010

“Are you happy sir?” … I heard in what seemed to be a far off voice.  I said, “What do you mean?”  I’m walking through the slums of Soweto with my tour guide Life (his real name) and this seems like a random question.  He says, “Are you happy with South Africa so far?”  In a nano-second with thoughts that included lucky, blessed, fulfilled, and content, I answered, “Yes, I’m very happy right now”.

On what turned out to be a free afternoon in Johannesburg, I had the opportunity for either a wild animal park visit or to spend some time both in Soweto and visiting some important apartheid sites that featured Nelson Mandela, Bishop Desmond Tutu and the Hector Pieterson museum.  Of course, I chose the latter.  What I did not expect was to be moved so much not by Soweto itself, but by the entire movement which happened not so long ago.

When I asked the tour guide his name and he said Life, I had to ask him to spell it for me.  After I told him it was a lovely name, he kindly explained (for about the thousandth time) that his mother worked for a white English woman and when he was born, the employer named him.  I thought it was fitting to be shown the sites by Life.

He went through the history of South Africa from the British and Dutch colonialists through the Boer Wars and how they came to be segregated, not just by black (including Indians) and white, but also by tribal backgrounds.  The seminal point in history came on June 16, 1976 when local police fired on protesting students who did not want to be taught only in Afrikaans; they wanted to be educated in English.  This made no sense to me initially until he explained that this was a way for the white government to keep the people from being global and able to move about the rest of the country and the continent.

The museum, which is on the place of the murders, is one of those locations that gives you goose-bumps with anger.  For me, the co-location of local blacks and tourists in the same place was a bit of deja vu.  As humans, we try to connect the dots to previous experiences.  I flashed back to the day I saw the Enola Gay exhibit in the Smithsonian surrounded by Japanese and Americans, or the Holocaust Museum with Germans and Jews, or the Anne Frank House, or being in Tiananmen Square; all the same but different.

It would be 14 years before Mandela would be released from prison by F.W de Klerck and the ANC would be recognized.  And another 20 years after this before tourists walking through Soweto could see the new World Cup Stadium just on the outskirts of the township where in June this year a new football champion was crowned.

As I saw women and children playing in the streets, doing their laundry, laughing, running and enjoying life mostly without the benefit of electricity or plumbing, I thought about what Life said to me as we were driving:

“After Mandela, we could live where we want to live.”

I just had to remind myself that being free to choose is the greatest gift of all.  Giving thanks for all our freedoms has helped me have one of my best Thanksgivings. Choose Life.  Choose Happiness. Be Thankful.


Author’s note: I wrote this almost exactly ten years ago, and in later years, would be fortunate to visit South Africa many times.  We fell in love with the people – and to see whites and blacks during (and after ending) apartheid rise up together to fight for racial equality was moving then, and still is now.  We’re continually grateful for our freedoms and we’re hopeful that in the coming year our country can start to fully implement many of the structural and systemic changes that need to be made to the U.S. system to enable 100% access to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”.