Das Williams traveled to South Africa as a young man to work to get Nelson Mandela elected president in 1994. He spoke with Nick Welsh about his experiences.
As Assemblymember Das Williams tells it, he “sort of” met Nelson Mandela in the summer of 1994. Back then, the African National Congress leader, who died last Thursday at age 95, was in an election to decide South Africa’s first post-apartheid president. Williams was 19 and was headed for UC Berkeley — and already knew more than a thing or two about getting out the vote and winning elections from his Isla Vista activism — but he dropped his college plans and headed to Cape Town instead.
Mandela was revered in the Williams household on a par with George Washington, Sitting Bull, and Abraham Lincoln. A prisoner of the Pretoria government for 27 years, Mandela had been released four years earlier from Victor Verster prison, and the walls of apartheid had begun to crumble soon thereafter. Williams, a self-proclaimed “son of Isla Vista hippies,” felt compelled to go and help expedite their collapse.
Williams recalled that Mandela’s rare gift and genius was to reach out to all sides of the struggle with such conviction and sincerity that he was believed. “Mandela was always talking to his enemies,” Williams said, “reaching out to them, trying to make them into something else.” He noted with amazement how Mandela managed to so impress many of his white, racist prison guards that some wound up supporting the African National Congress (ANC). “To do that, it’s a very big thing. You are leaving your family behind. You are becoming the enemy.”
Of the racial tensions of the time, Williams said, “In his rhetoric, Mandela pulled back on people who were very much into the language of retribution. He made white people and his black rivals feel they had a stake in a new multiracial South Africa,” Williams said, “and that, probably, was the single most important thing he ever did.”
Williams spent three-and-a-half months in South Africa working to get Mandela elected. In that time, he never met Mandela face-to-face and boasts no grip-and-grin Polaroids showing the two of them together. He did, however, manage to get close enough to Mandela at a rally — attended by tens of thousands — to snag a few shots. Even so, he considers his experience in South Africa that year to have been life-changing.
At the time, said Williams, politics in the United States too often boiled down to a lesser-of-two-evils choice. Nothing could be more clear-cut than South Africa and Nelson Mandela. “He was always a hero growing up,” Williams recalled. “The anti-apartheid movement was one of the reasons for the unrest in Isla Vista.” When the Vietnam War ended, student activists around the country began agitating — throughout the 1980s — for their various boards of regents to divest their investments in companies doing business in South Africa. Apartheid, Williams thought, was one of the great moral challenges of the age. “Were we really so afraid of Communism that we were willing to support a system that was so oppressive to its people as apartheid?”
Williams scraped together what funds he had to get a ticket. It wasn’t enough. With the help of a family friend — from South Africa, it turns out — Williams gave “a little radical sermon” to the congregation of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Ojai, “and they passed the collection plate on my behalf.” After landing in South Africa and getting settled in with “a friend of a friend of a friend” in a township outside Cape Town, he searched out ANC headquarters, walked in, announced that he’d done elections in Isla Vista — specifically for former supervisor Bill Wallace — and asked to be given a job. Amazingly, they agreed to do so, making Williams volunteer coordinator for five townships — some black, some white, and some mixed. For his efforts, he was paid $20 a week, which was enough to get by on.
Of Mandela, he said, “I hope people don’t make him into a big Santa Claus. He was a very tough tactical commander in a very tough struggle. His challenge was how to win a war that you could not win on the battlefield.” In that struggle, Williams noted, many people killed, were killed, and got tortured. Mandela, he said, started out nonviolent, but he embraced violence when it became clear that government forces were quite willing to deploy a wide range of force against insurgents.
As the struggle developed, Williams said, even apartheid’s critics had fears how the civil strife would turn out. The typical trajectory of liberation movements was far from reassuring. “It would start as a liberation struggle, turn into a civil war with ethnic cleansing, and eventually all the capital and technically skilled workers would flee,” Williams recounted. “I believed something better than that would happen,” That it did, he said, is entirely because of Mandela’s magic.
That magic has been well documented in many news accounts — and pivotally included Mandela’s persuasion of the ANC that the white regime was morally and politically bankrupt and that Pretoria should be allowed to retreat with some dignity. And it wasn’t all talk. Williams said he saw the ANC strategists intentionally lose elections they could have easily won because by so doing, opposition candidates — and their supporters — would feel they were part of the new system. “It was a big lesson in ethics for me. They were trying to win way more than an election. They were trying to create a fledgling democracy.”
When Williams left for South Africa, stories of bloodcurdling violence were commonplace; people were being shot, hacked into little pieces with machetes, and burned to death with flaming tires around their necks. A young woman from Petaluma had been killed shortly before Williams left; his mother was understandably nervous. For the most part, violence was not Williams’s experience, though several people were trampled to death at a stadium he was in when political rivals began pelting ANC supporters with stones.
Williams recalled he was put in charge of battle-scarred veterans several years his senior. “I think they forgave a lot because of my enthusiasm. Also, I knew a lot about their struggle and was in awe of it.” But when he asked about war stories, he said, they shied away. They’d had their fill of blood. “They wanted to know about poetry I was studying in school or what kind of classes I was taking,” Williams said. “And they wanted to know about girls.”
The election that year was initially scheduled to last three days. But voter turnout proved so intense that it was extended by two. South Africans lined up for miles and miles — some for days on end — to cast their ballots, many despite the intimidating presence of weapons-toting militia. “Politics back home was looked on as ‘just so icky,’” Williams recalled. “But Mandela was trying to create something where everything was not so black-and-white and people could participate.” He said the experience renewed his interest in the democratic and political process. “It definitely made me want to participate in our system.”