BLOG: Chuck Stokes bids farewell to Nelson Mandela, recounts trip to South Africa

(WXYZ) - December 5, 1955 – Rosa Parks sparks the historic Montgomery Bus Boycott by refusing to not give up her seat for a white person on a city bus. December 5, 2013 – Freedom fighter and retired South African President Nelson Mandela dies at age 95.

Believe what you want but I'm convinced that someone higher than me has a way of linking together historical dates and people.  Two of the world's greatest catalysts of desegregation now have one more footnote in common.  Like Mother Parks, Mandela was a courageous giant who through his personal endurance and moral convictions changed his country and in doing so earned respect and admiration around the world.

As a journalist, I was able to visit his South African home in 1990, talk to those who revered and despised him, and see Mandela in person when he traveled to Washington, D.C. to make a historic speech to the 101 st U.S. Congress as Deputy President of the African National Congress.  I knew then I was watching greatness.

To truly understand Nelson Mandela's challenge and impact, travel with me back in time for just a bit.  The year was 1990.  I was asked by WXYZ/Channel 7 management to fly to South Africa with Action News anchor Bill Bonds and photographer Ronnie Little to produce a documentary about apartheid.  Our aim was to get Detroit area viewers ready for Mr. Mandela's upcoming trip to the Motor City.  From conception to broadcast, we had less than a month to get it all together.  Afterwards, I wrote a piece for our station newsletter which seems more than appropriate to share with readers today.


Bonds, Stokes and Little in South Africa

By Chuck Stokes

(Reprinted from Circa 7 - 1990)

"How were you treated in South Africa?  What's Soweto really like? Did you meet Nelson Mandela?" These are just a few of the many questions I was asked upon my return to Detroit.

Simply put, June was an incredibly exciting month. That's the quickest way to describe my recent trip to South Africa with Bill Bonds and Ronnie Little. But such a brief explanation doesn't begin to describe our fascinating experiences.

Actually, it all began before we boarded our British Airways flight to Johannesburg. In a long-distance telephone conversation, Clive Derby Lewis, a member of South Africa's right wing Conservative Party said, "When Mr. (Nelson) Mandela visits the United States, I wish your government would keep him there." This remark set the tone of our journey.

It takes almost two days to travel to South Africa. Total flying time is about 30 hours. The first thing we all noticed was the incredible beauty of this country, the richest and most modern nation on the massive continent of Africa. Johannesburg resembles Los Angeles (minus the smog). On any given day, Cape Town, which sits at the southern tip of Africa, could pass for the French Rivera. The lakefront homes of Grosse Pointe cannot compare to the picturesque community of Camps Bay, Cape Town.

However, we quickly learned that there are two South Africas, one for the Whites and one for the Blacks. Our first stop was Duduza, a small, poor black township about an hour's ride northeast of Johannesburg. It's a primitive place where most teenagers have never held a job and children play in garbage filled streets with no shoes and socks. This was the most depressing part of our trip.

The irony of all this is that there is enough material wealth in South Africa for everyone. The highway leading to Duduza is lined with gold mines.

Later that afternoon we visited loyal members of South Africa's Conservative Party at the beautiful upper suburban home of Mr. and Mrs. Andrew McQueen. What I think surprised all of us was how perfectly blunt and honest these Afrikaners were about the issue of race. They are staunch supporters of apartheid and they want no part of President F.W. deKlerk's racial reform policies.

Late in the evening, we sat down with five white liberals at the suburban Johannesburg home of Mr. & Mrs. Greg Petersen. Unlike the McQueens, these South Africans denounce racial separatism and support the political concept of "one man, one vote."

Just when we thought we had met some of the most fascinating people in the world, we bumped into the Thulas while attending a black Catholic church service. They invited us to their middle-class home in Soweto. Gipson Thula was too modest to appear on camera, but Anastasia Thula said enough for both of them. Sitting on her patio next to the built-in swimming pool, she single-handedly destroyed every racial stereotype attached to black South Africans. The Thulas are wealthy, religious, political, and capitalistic but they still cannot vote or live anywhere they want.

The average American, black or white, would find it difficult, if not impossible, to accept the suffering that 30 million black South Africans have to endure every day. Bill said it best one day, "If I were born black in South Africa, I would probably be dead by now."

What's interesting is that everyone we talked with – black and white – expressed their love for South Africa. No one was ready to catch a boat.

And of course, there will always be images and experiences we will never forget. Such as:

·         * Bill playing in a dirt field with the children of Soweto

·         * The little boy with the Detroit Lions shirt.

·         * Bill getting frisked by two security guards.

·         * Willie, our driver and friendly companion.

·         * Ronnie and I climbing a mountain reservoir, dodging a brush fire, to get a shot of Soweto at sunset.

·         * Ronnie using a calculator on the plane to add up the number of hours he had worked.

·         * The black boy in Soweto who asked me to take a picture of him with his sister. He had holes in his shoes but spoke five different languages.

           * Walter Sisulu, Dr. Andries Treurnicht and Dave Steward.

·          * The unselfish help of ABC-TV/Johannesburg.

·          * Putting salt in my tea because I was too tired to realize it wasn't sugar.

·          * The three of us embracing at Detroit's Metro Airport.

   June was an incredibly exciting month!


Rest in peace, President Nelson Mandela, you have truly changed South Africa and established your legacy for peace and justice around the world!

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