Sunday, July 27, 2008


It is Nelson Mandela’s 90th birthday on the 18th of this month. And over here it is like an extended public holiday with no days off. It’s a celebratory month. It’s like Black History Month except it’s more embraced by a greater population than BHM in the States. You probably know that Mandela is a huge figure, celebrated internationally, but it’s difficult to articulate and illuminate his stature within the country to South Africans. It would be as if – this is not a good example – George Washington were still alive or something and you are continually thanking him for leading the country to liberation. It’s not a good analogy though Washing had “high morals” (questionable to some due to slavery). Mandela’s work is probably much bigger, more imaginative because of its nonviolent aspect, its anthrophilic aspect (yes I made the word up but you can use your etymological senses), and its more unifying commitment.

Anyway, there are TV commercials, store sales in his names, school programs, events around town (like choirs singing at the waterfront), etc. He himself has had about 10 days worth of celebrating and big names in South Africa come out to his events. I was able to watch a bit of the culminating personal event for his birthday, a 500-attendee birthday party in his hometown, Queen in the Eastern Cape. His family and grandchildren were there (they helped him blow out the candles), and a play of his life was commissioned for the event. There were dancers and warriors in traditional garb at his event, making presentations, singing, and dancing. The women are topless and because of that culture here it is not uncommon to see topless women in a traditional setting or program on TV. It’s not the same as topless people in a Western movie which many times can be done to arouse, allure, sensationalize, etc. But here (in the Black South African (and southern African) cultures outside of the cities), it is natural, normal, beautiful, and regular. So there were topless people in traditional dress at his event. It’s a huge affair.

He even had the 6th installment of an annual lectures series—the annual Nelson Mandela Lecture Series. Bill Clinton was the first year’s speaker. Kofi Annan has spoken before and so has Wangari Maathai (2005 Peace Prize winner from Kenya), and guests like Bono and Oprah Winfrey are the types of people that might come. This year I was especially excited because they had President Ellen Johnson-Serleaf speak. She is the president of Liberia.

Her presidency is historic because she is the first democratically-elected female president in the history of the continent of Africa. So that’s huge. And she had to take over a country that is suffering from its civil war in the 1990’s and the legacy of Charles Taylor who is being prosecuted for war crimes during the Liberian and Sierra Leonean civil wars in the 1990’s. And she has taken the reigns after this. A Harvard-trained economist, she is a mother and also a grandmother and she brings that perspective into her government. I love watching her on a typical day in her government because she switches her language and talk (diction and accent) to match that of the speaker. This one particular day there was a riot and people seemed on the verge of revolt. So she asked for the leader and brought him in. He spoke in a type of broken English, and so did she. It was cool. I liked and appreciated that. She, her chief of police, the minister of finance, and the minister of commerce are all women. And thus we have the documentary called “Iron Ladies of Liberia.” This film documents the first year in the presidency of President Johnson-Sirleaf. And they face huge odds.

One of the problems is money. As many of you know, it is difficult to get money from the IMF, World Bank, etc. And there was a time in the first year (depicted in the movie) when they had to look at other options because it seemed like the money would not come through. So they welcomed the president of China for a visit. President Johnson-Sirleaf made it known to her group that though China represents huge investment potential, the buck still stops with the US. In other words, the US is still the major player who can help them out of their debt and financial problems (the US by the way is the de facto controlling member in institutions like the UN, World Bank, etc., though it is not meant to be that way). So she worked hard and she met with Bush and she engaged in talks with the US. And do you know what? She was able to get the US (or you could frame as something the US did, as well) to forgive around $4 billion. She and her group reorganize the police force, seek new international partners (like China), clear that US debt, change the local market, negotiate pensions for ex-soldiers, and appease those still loyal to Charles Taylor. Whew!

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