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New West native South Africans mourn Mandela

Erich Rautenbach said he was surprised when Nelson Mandela had no thirst for vengeance upon his release from prison. - NewsLeader file photo
Erich Rautenbach said he was surprised when Nelson Mandela had no thirst for vengeance upon his release from prison.
— image credit: NewsLeader file photo

When apartheid was abolished in South Africa during the early 1990s, Erich Rautenbach watched what was happening to the country he grew up in from his new home in New Westminster.

He fled his homeland during the tumultuous 1970s refusing to be conscripted into the army. And although forgiveness was a key tenet of the Christian faith he was raised in, Rautenbach was bloodthirsty. He wanted someone to pay for the state of his native land during the previous decades. Instead, Nelson Mandela, who was imprisoned by the racist regime for 27 years, preached forgiveness.

“Even me, as a kind of a peacenik draft dodger when it all kind of came I had an appetite to see a few criminals swinging from a lamppost, or war trials. It was quite the thing to see the forgiveness thing,” says the Sapperton resident, author of The Unexploded Boer, a book about his experiences fleeing the country. “That was his major contribution.”

Mandela passed away Dec. 5 at the age of 95. He served as president of South Africa from 1994 to 1999.

Rautenbach believes Mandela transcended South Africa and that’s why apartheid supporters had to accede their power.

“He was beyond their grasp. They couldn’t stop him because he was bigger than the country. He was bigger than Michael Jackson and U2 together,” said Rautenbach.

He was only about five years old when Mandela was jailed, and it was illegal to talk about his African National Congress (ANC) movement so he knew nothing about them.

“When I made my little attempt to seek some kind of justice in the country, I had never heard of the ANC and Mandela,” said Rautenbach.

But once he left that’s when he found out about all the country’s troubles such as the riots in the Soweto ghetto and he realized it was worse than he thought.

When apartheid finally fell and Mandela was released from prison the ANC president didn’t seek revenge, he just went about unifying the country.

“He’s achieved the legendary status of (former Indian freedom fighter Mahatma) Gandhi. He symbolized the politics beyond his country,” said Rautenbach, who is working on a second book.

Salinah Kaniki was raised in a South African black township almost as oblivious as Rautenbach.

“Personally, I grew up during the apartheid time and, when you grow up, to you life is normal as it is,” said the New Westminster resident and treasurer of the South African Cultural Association of B.C., which often meets at a Downtown coffee shop. “To us we were very shielded to the brutality of knowing what was going on. What we thought was our education was our education, but it was a bantu education, it was a substandard education.”

It wasn’t until high school that she first heard about Mandela being in jail for attempting to overthrow the South African government.

“He foresook living the life of luxury because he was a lawyer and he gave it up for social justice for all,” said Kaniki, a nurse at Vancouver General Hospital. “He’s just shown the whole world how we should be, how we should live, how we shouldn’t be so self-centred, that we should fight for all to be equal.”

Banishment of apartheid meant black South Africans could get travel documents so Kaniki believes she wouldn’t have been able to come to Canada without Mandela’s movement to abolish apartheid.

“I felt sad, like everybody else, but it was imminent he was sick. I was just overwhelmed with sadness,” said Kaniki of his passing.

“You saw how people [were reacting] in South Africa, singing and dancing and yet crying at the same time. He was such an icon to the world, but now the heavens have gained an angel.”

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