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Editor's note: Nelson Mandela remains in critical condition in a South African hospital, battling a lung infection.
While Nelson Mandela is familiar to many, regrettably his name might not have the same relevance it once had. After all, his famous struggle is decades behind us and it all happened so far away in some place called South Africa.
In the 1980s, Steven Van Zandt of the E Street Band founded the group Artists United Against Apartheid and wrote the song “Sun City”; he got a lot of famous musicians to contribute to it, much like “We Are the World.” It received a response of measured enthusiasm from radio.
Because of their opposition to apartheid, many well-known artists refused to play Sun City, a South African resort, where bands were paid quite well.
Van Zandt's great work cannot be overstated. He brought quite a bit of heat and light to the reality of apartheid and the plight of millions of South Africans.
Apartheid, the word, which transliterates from Afrikaans or Dutch, depending on whom you ask, means the state of being apart, or apartness. Apartheid, the policy, is awesome in its brutality and is so cruel and awful, it is barely believable. It is segregation on steroids. It is almost impossible to imagine that such a minority would and could do such harm to an overwhelming majority and (a) expect it to work and (b) not think things could go catastrophically wrong.
When Mandela was released, after 27 years of incarceration for being an anti-apartheid fighter, his name became synonymous with freedom all over the world.
Years ago, in an effort to wrap my head around what had happened in South Africa, I did a fair amount of reading. This system of governing people was bad enough, but what made it worse was that so many people in the country went along with it and, for the most part, the rest of the world just watched.
I used to think about Nelson Mandela, what he was doing at that very moment. If he was sitting in his cell and what it looked like. He and his situation seemed unreal to me.
Nelson Mandela will always be the face of South Africa. The traveler passing through the country will see Mandela's face almost everywhere he looks. Truly, the man is omnipresent. It's almost as if his image is posted to thwart apartheid from coming back and to help eradicate the stain, which is fading but not completely gone. As a South African journalist once said to me, they are still emerging from the hangover of apartheid.
In my many trips to South Africa, I have met and spoken to a lot of people there, and they all seem to find apartheid as repellent as you would. I have had some incredibly inspiring moments there that have ended up being very influential on my worldview.
In 2008, I went to Robben Island, off the coast of Cape Town, where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated for about 18 years. The place is basically empty now and open for tours through the dull, utilitarian hallways and outdoor enclosures. Things were brought into focus when my guide took me down a narrow hallway of cells and pointed to one — the cell Mandela had lived in. There it was, a small enclosure with a mattress on the floor, a table with a plate and bowl and what looked like a small trash can.
I was allowed to go inside. I stood at the window and looked out into the yard. I remembered a photo I had seen of Mandela, years after his release, looking out the window, and I realized I was basically standing right where he had been. I don't know if I was wanting some great epiphany to occur. None did. But what occurred to me was that Mandela had earned the right to stand in the cell and I had not. So I should remove myself and look at it from the outside.
That night, back in my hotel room, I thought long and hard about Nelson Mandela. Twenty-seven years is a long time to pay for standing up for the rights of all people. Ultimately, that's really what he did.
Two years later, I was back in South Africa. I was informed that, in recognition of a documentary I had done that addressed HIV/AIDS in that country, the Mandela Foundation was awarding me the Mandela Bangle, a silver bracelet. There would be a press conference, photos, etc.
Afterward, I was invited to visit the foundation's building. I figured this was not to be missed, so I went. One of the staff members took me on a tour. I was shown the archive room and was allowed to look through Mandela's postincarceration passport, which had visas from all over the world. I could barely believe what was in my hands. I also was allowed to read from Mandela's prison journals. Incredible.
I was taken to his office and allowed to look around. I noticed that behind his desk, he had two small photos in frames: one of him with President Clinton and one with President Obama.
On a lighter note, I was shown the mail room, where things come in for Mandela on a daily basis. I noticed a stack of books. The one at the top was the autobiography of Britain's then-prime minister Gordon Brown. I opened it up and, of course, it was dedicated and signed. A book from England's PM, personalized, in a stack with all the others, I love that. I asked if Mandela had seen this and the staffer politely shrugged. In May, it was announced that Mandela's office will be opened to visitors starting in September.
When you consider America's civil rights struggles, which we grapple with to this day, think of Mandela, Sisulu, Mbeki, Goldberg and the others in South Africa who spent decades behind bars half a world away. This is it. This is what it's all about.
Nelson Mandela will always be with us. His is a good story for a world that wants to move forward.