by Danton Remoto
It was sometime in November 1989, the second month of my stay at the University of Stirling in Scotland, where I took the M.Phil. in Publishing Studies on a British Council Scholarship.
The Student Council decided to hold an African party. Purpose: to raise funds for the African National Congress whose leader, Nelson Mandela, was still languishing in the prison chambers of South Africa. It was a collaborative effort on all fronts – from the African students in my university to the British students still trying, it seems, to work out what one of them called “their white, liberal guilt.”
We would visit an ancient printing press in Edinburgh, Scotland’s capital, early the next day. But still I wanted to dance.
So that night, I wore late 1980s party gear: canary-yellow T-shirt one size smaller, faded jeans torn at the most appropriate places, and purple suede shoes. And since the party was for dear, old Mr. Mandela, I decided to wear my cow-bone necklaces, the ones with messages of freedom inscribed on the back, hand-made by political prisoners during the regime of Ferdinand Marcos and bought at one of those political meetings during the dying days of the dictatorship.
When I arrived at Robbins Hall at 11 P.M., the party was just beginning to heat up. My African friends wore the most colorful costumes. The women’s headgear looked like huge, cabbage roses. Their green satin dresses curved and shimmered, along with their beads, bangles, and bracelets done in all the colors of the rainbow. Some of the men wore short, embroidered vests that showed off their washboard tummies and tighter-than-tight jeans.
But if this were a costume party, I would give the Best Costume Award to this gentleman from North Africa. A Muslim, he came to the party in his usual, daily wear: a white fez, a robe as big as a tent, and leather sandals with braided straps. And yes, he jived and danced with the rest of us.
There were also other boys whose dreadlocked hair trailed all the way down to the floor. On the other hand, the Brits came in ratty clothes dug up from the flea market, layered them with something from the Thistle Centre Mall, and strapped on their shoes the shape of big boats.
As they would say in Britain, the party was a smash. People danced without any hint of self-consciousness, the way they would do it in Manila. They just went to the floor, whether alone, in twos or threes, and began to jive.
In the beginning, the deejay played some techno and house music. But in the middle of the party, he switched to “Free Nelson Mandela,” the South African anthem of protest. And the crowd just went wild! The song has a deep and fast thrumming rising to a refrain that urges, again and again, the white racist government in Johannesburg to free Mr. Mandela. Everybody was singing and dancing and jumping and hooting. And I knew, Tonto, that I was no longer in Manila. The volts of energy that night were enough to make Robbins Hall burst into flames.
Laughter and tears
Six months later, the white government in South Africa finally faced the fact that it had to hand over power to the black majority. The first step in healing the injustice and pain of the years was to free Nelson Mandela after 25 years of imprisonment.
I watched the event on television with my African friends – Peter Okeke, Orufemi Abodundrin, Mary Khasiani and Bookie Mwelagabe. We were on the first floor of Muirhead Hall, along with the other Africans who live in our building. Sue Joubaud, our classmate who descended from French settlers in South Africa, wasn’t with us. She was visiting her Mum in London.
The BBC covered the event live, and we all huddled together in the small TV room. When Mr. Mandela was beginning to walk out of jail, we were so very quiet. And then Bookie said, in her big, booming voice that seemed to have come from the deepest bowels of the earth: “Oh, my Lawd! My very good Lawd! They’re finally letting him free!”
And we all whooped with laughter and with cheer, our faces bright with tears.
Back in my room, I wrote a poem for my African friends and for Mr. Mandela, who was finally free after 25 years. He would later become the first president of South Africa, ruled wisely and well for six years, but did not stand for reelection. Instead, he became an icon of decency and honesty respected the world over: the leader as a statesman and gentleman of the world.
Richard Stengel, Mandela’s biographer in the book Long Walk to Freedom, wrote: “In the history of Africa, there have been only a handful of democratically elected leaders who willingly stood down from office. Mandela was determined to set a precedent for all who followed him – not only in South Africa but across the rest of the continent.... He knows that leaders lead as much by what they choose not to do as what they do.” Unlike many despots around the world, Mandela did not hold on to power, knowing that he was just its steward, and not its owner. In this way, he was truly, magnificently, free.
The poem I wrote is called “For Nelson Mandela,” and it goes this way.
“When they freed you, I was in Stirling/ with my African friends,/ their voices deep,/ swift the syllables from their lips./ Silence like a mat/ unrolled itself in the room/ when you left/ the white prison,/ your face calm,/ with no line of vengeance or bitterness./ When you raised your hands/ gratefully,/ like an offering,/ joy exploded from my friends/ -- our eyes filmed with tears --/ joy that exploded like wings rushing back/ to the veldts and woodlands,/ the mountains and plains/ of beloved Mother Africa.”