WASHINGTON — Nelson Mandela’s greatest legacy to South Africa was his belief in forgiveness and reconciliation among the racially divided population. But has South Africa truly reconciled?
I first learned about race in 1970, the year North Carolina de-segregated its schools. My first grade teacher interpreted this to mean that she should put the black children - including me - on one side of the class, and the white children on the other. My mother was outraged. She complained and demanded change. On the very next day, the issue was resolved and for the first time in my life I was sitting next to white students. Just a few years later on the other side of the world, South African children who looked like me were being shot dead by police as they protested an unfair education system.
In 1993, I had the honor of meeting Nelson Mandela, the man imprisoned for 27 years for fighting South Africa's racist regime and who emerged triumphantly to overturn the system. Visiting Washington, I asked Mandela about the South African government setting a date in 1994 for the country's first election in which citizens of all races were allowed to take part.
"That is a good thing for the forces of peace in our country because that is what we have been demanding all along," he said.
Less than nine months after that interview, I watched along with the rest of the world as South Africa was transformed, seemingly overnight, by those long lines of black voters, casting their ballots for the first time and electing a man who believed not in revenge and division, but in love and forgiveness.
I have spent the last few decades examining race in the United States as a reporter for the Voice of America. Our shameful racial history is not that far in the past, and in my work I've found that deep racial divisions still remain in American society.
And so, I was curious upon my first visit to South Africa earlier this year to see how far this country has come with regard to race relations.
I was confronted with race the very moment I landed. Local news stations were covering a small group of white South Africans who were protesting. They claimed they were being discriminated against and were under threat of a "white genocide." They cited figures that some 3,000 whites have been killed in the last decade. Last year alone, South African police counted more than 16,000 murders countrywide.
Then I was off to Marikana, the dusty mining town where South African police shot dead 34 striking miners in 2012. A militant new political party led by firebrand Julius Malema was holding a rally. Malema believes that Mandela and his successors did not do enough to address economic inequality and raise the living standards for black South Africans. It is a message, and an angry one, that resonates with many young blacks. Here is what one of his supporters told me:
"We are calling on black people to wake up and realize that the economy of this country is still in the hands of the minority," he said.
In Cape Town, I met 40-year-old Tony Whittaker. He is what South Africans call “colored” - meaning he is of mixed race.
“Deep down I am still very angry at the injustices they did to us and they got away with it. Apartheid has been buried on paper, but in real life nothing has changed," he said. "We can vote, we can go to the beach, we don't have to stand at the back of the line to make room for white people anymore. But in present day South Africa the colored people are still ostracized."
I began to see that this is far from a black and white issue. If anything, it has become associated with a widening economic gap that is still aligned with race.
A recent study by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation found that class is now more important to many South Africans than race. However, researchers also found that South Africans at the very bottom of that scale are nearly all black. A chilling illustration of this is found in the most recent census: the average white household earns six times what the average black household does.
During my time here (in October 2013), I found myself worried by these trends. What hope can we have for a country like this, I wondered ? And then, seemingly overnight, something changed. Nelson Mandela died at the age of 95 and sent the nation into celebration, mourning and reflection. The many colors of the Rainbow Nation again beamed around the world. I watched on television as tens of thousands of South Africans - black, white and in between - gathered to mourn him and to pay their respects beside his coffin. The emotions of reverence, sadness and pure love looked the same on every face. It made me hopeful. It made me optimistic.
My first brush with racism was solved overnight. I, along with the rest of the world, wished the same for South Africa so many years ago, and I see now that was never possible. But today I have great hopes, and great love, for this Rainbow Nation.