Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Mandela's legacy: a day out in the national park

So, I'm sitting in my Land Rover, driving in the Kruger National Park on my way to Lower Sabie and in the car in front is a family - mum, dad and two kids.

On the back of the car is Blue Bulls sticker - that's the Joburg/Pretoria rugby team.  We've all stopped to look at some elephants and the kids in front are clearly having a ball.  Just another day in the park, right?


This is the day Nelson Mandela is being buried, and what strikes me as really significant, on this day of all days, is that the people in the car in front of me are black.

I've been visiting Kruger since 1995, the year after Nelson Mandela became South Africa's first truly democratically elected president.  One of the things that struck me on that first visit was that I saw no black African tourists in the country's national parks.

For much of the apartheid period black visitors were banned from the parks.  As things started to change they were given limited access to parks such as Kruger and although there was clearly no segregation under law in 1995, when I arrived, culturally this was simply not something African people did.

As the years went on and I continued to visit South Africa I noticed African people were coming to the parks, mostly as day visitors.  These tended to be bus loads of school kids, or sometimes a church or community group coming en masse, for an outing.  Kruger's camp grounds and chalets continued to be the preserve of white South African family visitors and growing numbers of foreign tourists.

I clearly remember the day I saw my first black African family - again, mum, dad and two kids - setting up a campsite.  It was in 2009, just after I bought my new (second hand) Land Rover Defender.  I went over the dad and said Howzit, as you do, and we chatted a while and compared vehicles (he had a lovely new Land Rover discovery).

This may not sound like a turning point in history, but for me it kind of was.  It was a little like the time in early 2010 when my white English-speaking South African friends in Durban proudly took me on a tour of the city's brand new soccer stadium that had been built for the impending football world cup.

Sport, like tourism, was very much aligned to the colour bar in South Africa in the bad old days.  Black people played soccer (football), and white people played rugby.

Yet here were my white friends telling me which world cup soccer games they had bought tickets for.  Last Sunday, there I was behind a car proudly displaying a supporters' sticker for what had, in my lifetime, once been an all-white team in a white man's game.

There was much reflection here in South Africa on Mandela and his legacy in the time between his death and burial (and way too many journalists and public speakers saying 'his long walk has come to an end').

Two things from that time, however, will stay with me: the first is an Afrikaner DJ on Pretoria's FM station breaking down in tears while reading the poem, Invictus, and the second is my wife crying as we listened to an interview with former Springboks Rugby Captain Francois Pienaar talking about the day  his team won the 1995 Rugby World Cup.  Pienaar's one regret of the moment when Nelson Mandela walked out on the field and shook hands with him was that he didn't hug Madiba - he didn't think it would be 'right'.

I am not South African, though I do love this country.  I did not witness the momentous days of Mandela's release and the rocky road to democracy, save for a some half recalled images on a television in Australia.  But I have watched the new South Africa closely over the last 18-odd years.

Things are far from perfect in this country and I could write volumes about the state of contemporary politics how the government has fared post-Mandela, but I will not.

I can, however, tell you now that it is not usual in this country that black families go game viewing in the Kruger park and camp there, nor that my Afrikaner friends' young son is a whizz at soccer, nor that the car in front of me was sporting a Blue Bulls sticker.

People, regardless of colour or creed, enjoying sport - any sport - and revelling in the majesty of their country's natural beautify should be part of a normal, everyday, ordinary country.  And now it is in South Africa.

That, to me, is a good part Mr Nelson Mandela's legacy.

How about you?  What, if anything, did he mean to you?  Do you think Francois should have hugged Madiba (I do)?

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