by Nadia Bilchik
(CNN) — I was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1964, the year Martin Luther King Jr. was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the Civil Rights Act was passed in the United States, and Nelson Mandela was sentenced to life in prison.
Mine was a relatively idyllic childhood in the affluent and segregated northern suburbs of Johannesburg. Like many White South Africans, I lived in an ignorant cocoon of privilege, with no idea that having two live-in maids, a full-time gardener and a driver was unusual. It was perfectly normal for my African nannies, Rosina and Phina, to live with us rather than with their own children, and there was no need to learn their language or even their last names.
It was only as a teenager that I began to realize something was horribly wrong. Phina and I were walking along the road of our pristine “Whites only” neighborhood when we saw a police van stop. Two armed White police officers got out and began interrogating the Black passers by. They roughly shoved several of them into their van, screaming obscenities all the time.
I was terrified and asked Phina what was going on. She explained that the police were on a “pass” raid, and any Black person in a White suburb without an identity book stamped with official permission to live and work in Johannesburg was a criminal and liable to arrest.
From that day on I was no longer innocent to the evils of apartheid.
A teacher in my segregated public elementary believed in schooling her privileged White students in the injustices happening all around them. Suddenly Phina and Rosina became real people to me, and I learned for the first time about Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress.
Songs like “Free Nelson Mandela” became part of our consciousness, but Mandela himself was still a mythical figure: the blanket of South African government censorship, which made it a crime to publish the words of prohibited leaders and organizations, or to write about the South African Security Forces or prison conditions, kept us in relative ignorance.
The Soweto riots happened on June 16, 1976. Police shot into huge crowds of schoolchildren of all ages protesting a directive they could not be taught in their own language. Hundreds of people were killed; the cruelty and brutality of the government’s reaction was met with rioting that spread to other townships. It was the beginning of the end of colonial, racist South Africa. The shooting death of 13-year-old Hector Peterson galvanized the world. Yet we knew little about it, even though Soweto was less than 20 miles away.
In high school, history teacher Mr. Lowry, who had been arrested several times for anti-apartheid activism, insisted we wear Black armbands every June 16th. We complied. But it was only in February 1994, in my late 20s and standing for hours in a long line of Black and White South Africans to vote in the country’s first democratic election, that I came close to truly understanding the unforgivable nature of apartheid.
Next to me was a dignified 75-year-old man who had taken two buses and walked 10 miles to the voting station to vote for the first time in his life. On my other side was Salaminah, the lady who was helping raise my children, and who had become an integral part of our lives. Only now, at the age of 55, was she considered a real citizen in the place where she and her ancestors had lived for hundreds of years.
We whites had lived in a place that denied people their basic human rights. Why had it taken so long to change this inhumane system? How had we allowed it? I stood in that line experiencing a mixture of jubilation and guilt. Had I really lived for 29 years in a country that had denied the majority of its people the right to vote?
It was also a time to truly appreciate the enormous sacrifice and achievement of Nelson Mandela and his comrades.
Mandela’s release from prison in February 1990 had been both a highly anticipated and enormously feared event. Many members of the White South African minority were terrified of the kind of displacement and retribution that has historically followed revolutions and major changes in government. So you can imagine everyone’s relief when, rather than calling for a revolution, Mandela instead preached reconciliation, and spoke of a Rainbow Nation and the importance of Ubuntu — we are human through the humanity of others. It was then that the brilliance of Mandela as a peacemaker, a politician and a statesman emerged.
To really understand the psyche of Mandela is to grasp his profound lack of bitterness, a quality that is almost inhuman for a man who spent 27 years as a prisoner of the South African government. It seems Mandela consciously cultivated that quality. He wrote: “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”
As chronicled in the Clint Eastwood movie “Invictus,” this is a man who donned a green rugby jersey during the Rugby World Cup in 1995 to send a message to racist White South African rugby players and fans that everyone in the “Rainbow Nation” of the new South Africa would be rooting for their victory. This is a man who in 1995 visited Betsie Verwoed, the 94-year-old widow of one of the prime architects of apartheid, and a man who invited his white jailor as a VIP guest to his inauguration as the country’s first Black president.