When news of former South African President Nelson Mandela’s death shook the world, Stettler resident Willem Gazendam’s thoughts drifted to his inner circle still living back home.
“My first thoughts were of my family,” said the gregarious 40-something white Afrikaner, who left his homeland a little more than five years ago.
“There are some politicians back in South Africa who weren’t against (Mandela), but they said after he is gone, there is going to be revenge on …” paused Gazendam as he hesitated, struggling to find the right words. Then, with the open palm of his right hand, he patted the skin on his other arm, showing he is white.
“It makes you wonder, because your siblings and mom and dad, and everyone, are still there.”
Within minutes of current South African President Jacob Zuma revealing Mandela’s passing Dec. 5, death threats against the European-descended Afrikaners peppered online activity.
Some experts are so concerned with the European-descent Afrikaners’ safety that they have urged them to flee the country. In fact, Dr. Gregory Stanton, a Harvard and Yale-educated former law professor — who fought against apartheid himself — leads Genocide Watch and sounded the alarm bell of an impending genocide.
Mandela the man
Mandela, who died at the age of 95, became an international icon in his fight to end apartheid.
Mandela, after being released from prison where he spent 27 years, was the first black democratically elected president in 1994.
Throughout his life, Mandela received 250 honours, including the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 and the Soviet Order of Lenin.
But yet, right up to his death, he refused to denounce violence and condemn the human rights violations of dictators such as Fidel Castro and Muammar Gaddafi.
Just as there are two sides to every story, there are many dimensions to every person.
Mandela studied law and went on to become a revolutionary influenced in the 1950s by Karl Marx and Lenin, and inspired by Fidel Castro’s 26th of July Movement in the Cuban Revolution.
Mandela denied joining the South African Communist Party (SACP), but after his death, both the SACP and the ruling African National Congress (ANC) confirmed Mandela’s membership and involvement with the SACP.
Mandela staunchly opposed capitalism and land ownership.
When Mandela first became active in anti-colonial politics, influenced by Ghandi, he was committed to non-violent forms of protest.
But without the desired results, he soon co-founded the militant Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), learned guerilla warfare, and embarked down a road of revolution.
Even though former U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher called for Mandela’s release from prison, in 1987 she called his group, the ANC, a “typical terrorist organization,” and former U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney, in 1986 when he was a congressman, called Mandela a terrorist. Mandela was on the U.S. terrorist watch list until 2008.
That is the Mandela that Johan van der Bank sees.
Fleeing a homeland
Van der Bank, who now lives in Stettler, grew up in Johannesburg and lived in Cape Town.
When it comes to politics, although van der Bank doesn’t have any political allegiances, he researched issues and stayed on top of what was happening politically.
In 1994, he didn’t vote for Mandela, but supported the transition to a majority rule government in the hopes of positive change.
And things gradually began to change for the whites in the years to come, but not in the way van der Bank expected.
“I felt unwelcome in my own country,” he said. “I felt disenfranchised in my own country.
“It became clear to me things were changing. I didn’t feel comfortable with it and I thought, ‘It’s going to get worse, and worse, to the point where our children will not have opportunities.’”
So van der Bank and his wife, Anne Lisa, left their homeland, the homeland their ancestors lived in as far back as the 1600s.
“It didn’t feel like my country anymore,” he said.
Gazendam also saw a change after the 1994 election.
“It was just different than when I grew up — how can I explain to you,” he said. “It’s really difficult to explain it to you in a non-political way. It’s just difficult.”
Unlike van der Bank, Gazendam wasn’t involved in politics back home in South Africa.
“We didn’t speak politics at home, at all,” he said.
Now, Gazendam and his wife, Mara-Lee, still steer clear of the topic of politics with their two children here in Canada.
Instead, Gazendam tells Megan, 4, that life as he knew it in South Africa wasn’t as bitterly cold as are Alberta winters.
“Life is not supposed to be like this,” said Gazendam, adding that is what he will tell his children about South Africa, as he pointed to the massive mounds of snow outside.
Gazendam said, personally, he believes that Mandela “was a good guy,” and he never saw Mandela as a threat of any kind.
“He comes forward as if he is harmless,” Gazendam said of Mandela, still in the present tense, then added, “He was loved worldwide.”
And, no matter what, Gazendam’s heart will always be in South Africa.
“I know that is where I’m from,” he said. “I was born there. I will always be South African.”
About one million white Afrikaners have left the country in the past two decades and the views of Mandela are diverse among white Afrikaners.
Van der Bank misses his homeland, but will tell his and Anne Lisa’s three children something different about South Africa, their homeland, and Mandela.
“I have a file that thick for my kids,” he said with a strong accent, rolling his “r’s” and stretching his fingers to illustrate about half-a-foot thick file.
“I’m going to tell them what I know.”
He nodded his head slowly, and looked off into the distance.
“I’m just glad I’m not there.”