Watching Apartheid disappear and Nelson Mandela arrive.
Visiting South Africa at regular 2-year intervals made it more easy to see what was apartheid and how it gradually disappeared.
The passing of Nelson Mandela last night brings back many memories of South Africa: a country that, without him, might have slipped into the same brutal civil war as in other African countries.
From 1970, when my South African wife and I first went to her parents in Cape Town, we were regular visitors every two years. This meant that her parents and family could see their grandchildren grow up, whilst we could watch the momentous slow, often painful, death throes of apartheid. As with children, it is easier to evaluate changes when looking at intervals, rather than being with them all the time.
My first visit there, for Christmas 1970 with a pregnant wife but no idea about Africa, was one of the memorable events in my life. For an overnight stop somewhere in Central Africa we had to leave the aircraft and sit in a lounge without air conditioning: just a few fans lazily turning and everyone sweating profusely. Welcome to Christmas in the heat (but with Christmas cards showing snow scenes)!
Apartheid, then considered as "normal", albeit not quite as rigorous in Cape Town as in the Afrikaans dominated northern part of the country. The small local Post Office, with a short counter divided into two parts: one for whites, the other for non-whites. The train service to Simonstown and the Southern Suburbs, with two classes: first class for whites, third class for coloureds. The housing division along this railway line: "above the line" for whites, "below the line" for coloureds. The separate beaches according to one's skin, regardless of the fact that the sea washed everyone clean in the same manner.
Over the years, we found many different flying routes to Cape Town. South African Airways had to fly round the bulge of Africa, so stopped to refuel in Windhoek, Namibia (home to many German-speakers). The more direct route, from Luxembourg to Johannesburg with Luxair, whose internal decoration looked exactly like South African Airways! A memorable flight from Paris when, because of strikes, the aircraft was overbooked so we were upgraded to First Class (a different world which I have never again experienced). A direct flight to Cape Town with Lufthansa, where the pilot obligingly flew (very) low around the scenic Cape of Good Hope.
So how did Apartheid seem then, and how did it slowly change. First the petty restrictions (our son was not allowed on the top deck of the double-decker buses) and the "black" subservience (white men were always called baas, and ladies madam). Then the protests of the "Cape Coloureds" , who felt somehow superior to the "black" tribes of the north, and who demanded the right to go onto the "whites only" beaches: the relatively liberal Cape Town press tended to support them. Later, talking on a Johannesburg-Cape Town flight to a non-white South African, who was proud to say that he had a "white" job as a data entry person with a computer company. And so it went on, little by little, until things suddenly accelerated.
Nelson Mandela was quite rightly revered amongst the non-white population of his country, though feared by the Nats (Nationalist-dominated government). In the end, however, it was the economic situation which largely caused the disappearance of apartheid and which revealed, in Mandela, an extraordinary person. Who could have imagined then that, a few years later, for the final of the rugby world cup, preceded by an unannounced and unforgettable low level pass over the stadium by a 747 Jumbo of South African Airways, Mandela would put on the shirt of the South African rugby team and smilingly hand the trophy to a white Afrikaans captain.
Today we mourn his passing. We might also mourn the fact that there are today many countries headed by political or military leaders, but few of them can be considered as statesmen, and even less who would merit comparison with him.