Guest Column: Thank you, Nelson Mandela. Thank you, South Africa.

By Eric Howanietz

Ten years ago, I met two people. One was a pale-faced woman with long red hair and ginger freckles. The other was a tall dark-skinned man with black curly hair. They greeted me warmly and said, “We are South African.” There was neither hesitation in their voices nor nervous nods of affirmation. They were absolute in this statement, and the beauty of that moment still takes my breath away.

Nelson Mandela had made a South Africa where a white person and a black person stood together equally. To Mandela’s eternal credit, he had brought South Africa out of apartheid, not through retribution and vengeance, but with reconciliation and peace.

I met these people in 2003 — two among many hundreds of international activists in Palestine working for peace. Palestine was, in many ways, a divided land like South Africa had been. It was in the midst of a rebellion against Israeli military occupation known as the Second Intifada. Activists from around the world worked closely with Palestinians to organize non-violent direct actions that protested occupation. Of all the friends and fond memories of that time in my life, the camaraderie of South African activists still holds a special place within me.

Hardly 10 years out of apartheid, and here they came ready to lend a hand in a different struggle against injustice. Thoughtful, fearless and experienced, these were the South Africans I remember. These were the children of Nelson Mandela’s fight against apartheid.

The influence of South Africans among the international activist community was strongly felt, and soon, direct actions across Palestine began to take on an anti-apartheid character. The reaction by the Israeli military to these non-violent protests was crushing, and all too often resulted in injuries and deaths. But protest occurred more persistently, and the idea grew. When Israel finally decided to make the ultimate dividing line between two people, a 10-meter high concrete wall surrounding Palestine, we already had a name for it. We called it “The Apartheid Wall,” and the name stuck. South Africans knew what an act of segregation looked like when they saw one, and they called it out for what it was.

South Africa was a divided land, but it came together and found itself through peace. We may all do well to learn from its lessons. The spirit of Nelson Mandela will flow far past the borders of South Africa; it will root itself in the consciousness of humanity for generations to come. We may just have begun to glimpse a time far off in the future when people know more peaceful reconciliations than violent conquests in the history of our world.

Eric Howanietz is a local activist and Rockford resident.

From the Dec. 11-17, 2013, issue

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