July 18th 2018 is Nelson Mandela’s 100th birthday. I happened to be in Johannesburg on July 4th during what is called Nelson Mandela Month in South Africa. The month, like his birthday, is a memorial to his colossal battle for freedom and human dignity. It is hard to be here and not reflect on the fact that Apartheid ended in 1994. African freedom in South Africa is only 24 years old. When Black South African freedom was born, I was 22 years old and Black American freedom was 29.
Freedom is a delicate state of being.
It is a human yearning. For people that have existed without it, once achieved, it is a cherished part of their identity. They remember what it was like not to have it and what it took to win it. Freedom requires protection and nurturing. More importantly it requires vigilance to recognize when it is under threat.
I was born in 1972, during the Second American Reconstruction Era. Being born Black in South Africa in 1972 would have been akin to being born Black in the American South in the 1940’s at the beginning of the Civil Rights uprising. It was a time when freedom was an objective and tyranny a reality. White Afrikaners brutalized Black people with impunity. They built a legal policy structure to justify their barbarism – and they did it one small step at a time. Johannesburg is an interesting place to be to reflect on small steps and big milestones.
While here, I learned that the President of the United States issued another commandment to force U.S. colleges and universities not to consider race in any aspect of admissions. The argument, as usual, is that the consideration of race discriminates against White students. That argument has always overlooked the discrimination students of color and poor students of all kinds face in the sub-standard education they receive leading up to the university gate. Behind the veil, the message to universities – it doesn’t matter whether students of color have access to selective higher education. Feel free to discriminate if you want to.
That is on the heels of the justice department’s declaration of zero tolerance on immigration policy. The government of the United States is forcibly separating South and Central American children from their parents and locking them up. It is reminiscent of White Australian’s stealing aboriginal children from their parents or earlier White American’s theft of Native American children. The argument, as usual, is that they are breaking the law by sneaking into the country in pursuit of safety and a better life. In the eyes of the President and his advocates, the fact that they broke the law justifies the punitive response, however inhumane and cruel it may be. Behind the veil, the message to ICE, border patrol agents and the country generally – these are criminals, not people. The logic is clear. Criminalizing their identity justifies barbarism by policy. Feel free to brutalize them if you want to.
That is on the heels of the Attorney General restoring the harshest sentencing guidelines for low level drug offenses. In the 80’s and 90’s those brutal guidelines sent hundreds of thousands of Black and Brown young people to jail for years – decimating a significant percentage of a generation of young Black men along the way. The argument, as usual, was to enforce the most severe punishment for minor offenses that highly correlate with poverty and concentrations of Black people. Along the way the path was cleared for for-profit private prisons. The message behind the veil was simple. Feel free to lock up Black young people with impunity.
That is on the heels of the Supreme Court rescinding the central part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. States that have had a history of discriminatory voting practices are no longer required to check with federal regulators before making changes to their voter registration rules. The argument to the states – especially southern states – is that despite your long history of discrimination, and complying only when under legal threat, we trust you now. Feel free to make it more difficult for people of color to vote if you want to.
This is what step by step dismantling of freedom looks like. These steps are evidence of a particular attitude of scorn and animus – the offspring of racist beliefs. We have seen them before. Their modern suits and spurious arguments are poor camouflage.
Expanding the freedom of those inclined to barbarism and abuse is a threat to real freedom. It is a threat to the expansion of human decency and the ability of wounded societies to heal. My vigilance tells me that freedom is under threat.
If measured by the end of Apartheid and the passage of the Civil Rights Act respectively, Black freedom in South Africa is 24 and Black freedom in the United States is 54. Neither of them is old. Neither has generational inertia and established institutional infrastructure to protect them by default. Despite myriad historical differences, that basic fact is true. They are related.
Black freedom in both places has no modern ancestors. They were born out of the immaculate crucible of Black suffering. They rose out of absolute struggle, bloodshed and the conviction that freedom is the only natural state of being.
Jo’burg in July provides clarity of sight. It clarifies the responsibility we have to freedom itself.
Happy Birthday Madiba!