THE BLOG
12/12/2013 08:09 am ET Updated Feb 11, 2014

Believing in Mandela, Believing in His Circle, Believing in Human Rights

A great luck befell me years ago when I got to have some time to meet Nelson Mandela in person. We ended up in the same bathroom and a camera crew asking both of us to stay in the bathroom till the shoot was over. I asked him what he would have done if there had been no apartheid. He answered simply: a boxer.

Luckily for me, with the help of Dick Gregory, John Lewis and Sam Brown I was appointed the Peace Corps Director in Lesotho, a country surrounded by South Africa (or RSA, for the Republic of South Africa). I stayed four and half years, 77 to 81 when I would become the director of Amnesty International USA. I arrived the day of the burial of Steven Biko, the great and young black consciousness leader of South Africa. He was tortured and killed by the South African police.

I set out to be a good director of the Peace Corps Lesotho as best as I could do it. My other goal and just as important was to press when and where I could to stop apartheid. A friend of mine introduced me to President Nyerere of Tanzania and I told him where and what I was going to do, Nyerere told me "be sure to give the south Africans indigestion cause Lesotho is in the belly of the beast."

Just as lucky as was my appointment was the appointments of Norman and Elsa Rush, a husband-and-wife couple, and Reg Petty to lead the respective Botswana and Swaziland Peace Corps. They too understood the need to do what we could to help bring down that regime. We all worked to shift the training program to adjust to the reality of the country on all our borders.

My first effort was to post a "boycott RSA" if you did not have a good reason to be there sign for all staff and volunteers. The volunteers of course were free to go where they want but I wanted them to be conscious of apartheid as a system against us Americans as well as the citizens of South Africa and all people of conscience. I posted on the board of the volunteers. Within 24 hours, the chief of security from Bloemfontein, the heart of the Boer farming power structure, met me on the way to the local store to pick up the newspaper. He welcomed me to South Africa after he identified himself and his job. He told me the volunteers were still welcome in RSA, even if I did not want them there.

Jimmy Carter had announced a zero based budget process for the Peace Corps. In this review of PC Lesotho, I decided we needed to let someone go to reach our goal of a diversified Peace Corps. In Lesotho, the budgeting meant a lot less teachers and more volunteers in agriculture, health and business and the person in question was just not getting the job done. The person who had a job eliminated in the process sued me in court. This gave me the opportunity to hire Khalaaki Sello, the local leader of the ANC. He found it amusing that he would be working for the US government and protecting our assets. In the legal system we also needed a barrister, so I asked Sello to hire the best lawyer he knew who was connected to the Rivonia trial. He brought up Denis Kuny who as a junior lawyer was in the Rivonia trial of Nelson Mandela. Denis was a lawyer for Winnie Mandela in Tzaneen. Through out this trial, I got to meet men like Arthur Chaskalson,later to be Chief Justice, as well as their friends. Next came Bob Machi, Phyllis Naidoo, Chris Hani, the military leader of the ANC, who lived nearby. These folks were the backbone of the ANC movement in Lesotho. Chris Hani was later executed and his loss still resonates.

Soon after arrival, a bomb went off near the rondoval of our Peace Corps nurse, Faith Merck. Father John and Phyllis Naidoo had been hit with a package bomb. The refugees in Lesotho were supported with clothes sent by the people of East Germany. It was in this package the RSA had placed a bomb to explode where and when the cord would be cut to open the package. Father John lost a testicle and Phyllis lost an eardrum and had shrapnel up her back. While in the hospital, I learned that South Africans with the ANC had to be careful because of possible raids on their homes or even in the hospital. Some of us in the Peace Corps, both volunteers and staff, took food in for the refugees who were either wounded or damaged coming out of South Africa. Phyllis Naidoo did not miss a step, in any moment of need for any South African refugee, coming in or going out, she worked night and day and risked her safety and her family's for justice.

Not long later I heard a bomb go off, so I set off to go to its possible site. I ended up at the home of Chris Hani, the military leader of the ANC army. Chris was taking care of someone who had tried to plant a bomb under his car and blew his own leg off. Knowing Chris was in the military wing of the ANC, I thought he would shoot him. "No, no" he said, "the man is paid and he got nothing. Help me get him to the hospital."

At Sello's house one night, I had some high-ranking American officials with me. It could not be an official meeting because the ANC was considered a communist terrorist group. But it was an ANC meeting that Sello held with the young recruits among the people damaged in RSA. Sello asked one of the torture victims to speak and he did. He reamed out us Americans for not helping the ANC to win this gigantic and historical struggle. He was emotional, talented and savvy to his audience. One of the people with this high-ranking American group broke under the strain and said, "I am leaving the American delegation." Sello immediately took the speaker outside and told him to apologize or he could not get back into the meeting. Sello said, "you insulted my American friend and the ANC welcomes any one who will help us with clean hands." The young American joined us without another word.

I returned from vacation to find out that my Peace Corps nurse had been fired by the embassy for being a communist, an ANC member. I checked with Sello and he said she was not even in the party. Her husband had been tortured and killed himself after suffering with PTSD. I pressed for rehiring in the embassy in Pretoria where the intelligence came from and the answer was no. I asked whose data it was. The answer was South African. My response was angry, "Really, you trust the RSA intelligence?" They said she went to Yugoslavia, a communist nation. I checked on this; the nurse had gone with Helen Joseph and anti-apartheid campaigner to gain support. I was never allowed to hire her back. But she did get a good severance that raised some eyebrows as well.

All three of us directors in southern Africa redid the training program for incoming volunteers, backed by David Levine, at Peace Corps' headquarters, and Dick Celeste, the Peace Corps' director. Letters start arriving from Senator Helms questioning all this. But here we were with at least thirty minority volunteers who had the right to travel in RSA on vacation with the rest of the volunteers. Given we were in one of the most beautiful parts of the world , this was a plus for many of the hard working and effective Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs). South Africa police did not like to see black and white together enjoying their hike, or walk down the street. If a minority volunteer entered a South African hotel, one could stay and the other could not. The Chinese were though black, the Japanese were designated white. Many darker-skinned Americans got surprised by questions of color and heritage. Our ANC hires taught the volunteers how to handle these situations with grace and style and power. What to do if any minority volunteer was seriously hurt and how to handle the black and white hospital situations. White hospitals excelled, the black ones did not. On and on with how difficult it was to handle these moments and how important it was to prepare these volunteers. We were there in the late Seventies. Freedom only came in 1991.

Denis Kuny introduced me to his fellow lawyers ANC barristers (the few that did) who defended Madiba and Winnie in Tzaneen and the likes of the Robert MacBrides (death row candidates). I met the daughter of Bram Fischer, Mandela's top defender, who himself had changed his face to work under ground to promote the anti-apartheid struggle and communism before he was captured. He eventually died only two weeks after being released from prison.

Our Episcopal Bishop of Maseru in Lesotho was the future Nobel laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu, in whose school system we placed many Peace Corps volunteers. He would later become one of the most important spines of moral authority during the struggle for freedom and while Mandela remained in prison.

Mandela did love his jailers. He also loved his left and his communist friends like Joe Slavo and Bram Fischer. He loved all the people who got tortured and died for him. He loved his military wing under Chris Hani, who was executed right after independence (to stop him from leading the nation). Sello, Naidoo, Machi, and all those young torture victims he loved deeply.

Ambassador Clingerman was a good ambassador to Lesotho. He did not like me much. We generally got along, but I am sure many a cable went to the State Department wondering about this guy he had "sort of" on his team. Sort because I would allow not intelligence discussions around me. I simply would leave the team meeting on Thursday as it is the law to keep Peace Corps put of intelligence work. But for July 4th he hired some Boers from South Africa to be the caterers for July 4th party at the embassy party. So at the weekly Thursday team meeting, I told the ambassador I was not going to that party. Why he says? I answered, "I think Basotho can handle hamburgers and hot dogs." To me, a dime or donut given to the Boers would have been wasted.

I learned about Mandela from them, all of them. I was in the land that produced Gandhi and Mandela. It is sacred land. It is the land of the left, right and center. It earned its freedom by its own blood as did Gandhi in India. You need not meet the person of Mandela to know him. I knew him through his friends, supporters, fellow prisoners and torture victims. In my pantheon of South Africa they are all there too, along with Madiba. Sacred land of vision, courage, decency and true power. Thanks from me to all of them for teaching so much for so long about so much.

When an American administration mourns the passing of Madiba, we can see progress and hope honored. But we must not forget that there were earlier administrations, notably the Reagan one, which marginalized the ANC and the anti-apartheid struggle as terrorists and communists. The USA provided weapons to RSA police and military forces to use against those fighting for freedom and human dignity against the racist hell of apartheid. How many struggles today will future generations mythologize themselves into comrades in? How much better would it be if we were to join the struggles of tomorrow today? Let us hope for and work towards a world where the measure of a government and its peoples is based on working towards an increase in universal access to human rights. Let us not rest with the knowledge that another world is possible. Let's join together to make a world of justice and dignity so probable as to be inevitable. I thank Madiba and all of his circle for setting an example that we must all still follow. Amandla ngawethu.