Just four months after he was released from Robben Island, Nelson Mandela came to Boston – the first stop in his nine-city US tour. It was probably his way of thanking Boston for being the first US city take a stand against apartheid, which it and the state of Massachusetts had earlier done, against the prevailing wind of American politics then.
I was in Boston at the end of a speaking tour put together by my friend the scholar Warren Smith (author of Tibetan Nation and other insightful tomes on the Tibet issue). Just a year earlier, in June 1989, the Tienanmen Massacre had shaken the world and Warren felt it was an opportune moment to educate the American public on the Tibetan issue. But the “Tibet Movement” though at the peak of it popularity, power and influence had become somewhat discombobulated following His Holiness’s “Strasbourg” address giving up Tibetan independence. Nonetheless, the few small Tibetan communities in North America and inji friends welcomed Lhasang Tsering la and myself when we rolled into their town or university in Warren’s old Chrysler station wagon (one cylinder malfunctioning).
But to get to back to my main story. Mandela spoke at the Esplanade by the Boston River where a reported 250,000 people had gathered. Edward Kennedy, Governor William Weld and other eminent Bostonians were on the stage besides him. Oddly enough, I don’t recall what Mandala said but I clearly remember his infectious smile and the unusual tonal quality and cadence of his accent. But more than anything I’ve never forgotten the extraordinary, even profound collective emotion that took hold of us in the crowd that day. I thought “So this is how its going to be when Tibet becomes free and His Holiness returns home. This is how its going to feel” I have mentioned this memorable experience in a few of my public talks. Nobody’s laughed at me yet.
I know most Tibetans aren’t exactly feeling that sort of euphoria right now. But they should be reminded how depressing it must have been for Mandela and others in the ANC when leading Western nations, especially during the Cold War period, did not support their cause. Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher argued that economic sanctions against the white apartheid regime would only hurt the economic interests of poor black South Africans. Mandela himself was condemned for being a Communist and a terrorist. Dick Cheney insists to this day that Mandela was a terrorist. Though the anti-apartheid cause had many supporters throughout the world, it took a long time to change public opinion in the nations of the West (and Japan) that did business with South Africa and regarded it as a bulwark against Communist infiltration into Africa. When change eventually came, after 27 years in prison for Mandela, it was arguably in large part a result of his personal courage and uncompromising stick-to-it-ness that forced the white South African government to release him and subsequently abolish apartheid and hold multiracial elections.
In a previous post I had theorized that the cry of Tibetan self-immolators in Tibet for the “Dalai Lama to return to Tibet” was symbolically on the lines of the anti-apartheid rallying-call “Free Nelson Mandela”. Both slogans are of course a classic example of the use of symbolic language in politics. Clearly no one from the ANC was saying that if Nelson Mandela were released from prison then the South African issue would be resolved. The rallying-call from Tibet is also nothing less than a demand for an end to Chinese rule and the return of Tibet’s sovereign ruler to his independent homeland. Sycophantic politicians in the exile Tibetan world have tried to make this issue entirely about the Dalai Lama, in spite of the fact that many of the self-immolators had made outright demands for “Rangzen” along with their appeal for the “Dalai Lama to Return to Tibet.”
The “monarch-in-exile” or the “monarch-in-captivity” is a powerful archetypal symbol of “the lost freedom” of a people or a nation. You had Richard I in captivity in Austria represented (somewhat inaccurately) in popular English history as “the good king who would one day return and put things right.” Jacobites in Scotland had their “King across the Water” (James II) romanticized in the historical novels of Walter Scott. In fantasy fiction you have the The Return of the King, the concluding volume of J.R.R. Tolkien’s great fantasy trilogy The Lord of the Rings, where Aragon the exiled “heir of Isuldur” regains his throne and frees the people of the Middle Earth.
The message “Free Nelson Mandela” was in the eighties effectively spread world-wide not only in protest chants and posters but also in the songs of African singers and songwriters as Johnny Clegg, Hugh Masekela, Brenda Fassie and Majek Fashek. The English musician Jerry Dammers wrote “Free Nelson Mandela” in 1984 which performed by his band “The Specials” reached the top ten of the UK charts and became very popular in Africa. Amy Winehouse sang it at Mandela’s 90th birthday celebrations.
The other day listening to NPR in my car I heard this catchy tune “Bring Him Back Home” by South African jazz trumpeter, composer and singer, Hugh Masekela. It seemed to me that the song echoed the pleas from Tibet for the Dalai Lama to return home.
Bring back Nelson Mandela.
Bring him back home, to Soweto.
I want to see him walking
down the streets in South Africa – Tomorrow.